Illinois made progress both offensively and defensively against Southern Illinois. Offensively, redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase relaxed and displayed the accuracy common in workouts. It is something to build on according to quarterback coach Jeff Brohm.
"Nathan stepped his game up this last game. It's a continuation of a process that's gonna last all year. He's got to keep finding ways of getting better, keep learning from his mistakes and try to find ways to lead us in for touchdowns.
"I think he has all the intangibles. He's a great leader, great work ethic, he commands the respect of all his teammates. He's athletic, he can make plays on the move.
"I think the one thing to work on is overall accuracy and his ability to stay in the pocket and deliver. This past game, he stood in there and took some shots, was much more accurate throwing the ball. That's something he's got to continue to work on. We've got to get him as many reps as we can in practice, and hopefully it carries over each and every week."
Scheelhaase noticed the improvement as well, and he credits his coaches for their assistance.
"There's always a lot of improvement from week one to week two. I got a chance to learn a lot from that first game, both from the good and the bad. Coach Brohm and Coach (Paul) Petrino were able to tweak some of the things that happened in game one to focus on and practice on.
"We did a great job all week of repping those things, making sure we were making those corrections. It really showed up in the second game. There's still more that I can improve."
The Missouri game gave SIU hope the Illini would be limited to a short passing attack to go with a strong running game. The Salukis loaded the box as expected. Fortunately, Illini coaches knew that would happen and worked hard all week on the intermediate and long passing game according to Brohm.
"We did. We worked on it all week. I even told Coach Petrino it was the best thing we did all last week. We kept throwing the ball up the field, up the field, up the field over and over again. Sometimes it wasn't pretty, but they got better at it, they worked hard at it. They paid their dues, and we did much better in the game because of the practice they put in."
Loosening up the defense aids the running game as well.
"Without question. Teams are gonna stack the box. We can run the ball, quarterback can run. So when they do that, we've got to take advantage of it."
Scheelhaase burned the Salukis repeatedly with longer passes. It gives him confidence going forward, and it makes opposing defenses worry about more things.
"I think it's something that's really important. We have a great running attack, so (opponents) are gonna put a lot of people in the box, which will free up our receivers. We're still gonna run the ball, but when you get man to man opportunities downfield, you've got to connect. We did a great job Saturday, and we've got to continue to do a great job."
A.J. Jenkins was on the receiving end of five passes, including a 54 yarder that set the tone for the game. His face lights up when he sees 8 in the box because it means man coverage on the receivers.
"I definitely do. Coach P (Petrino) prepares a lot and does his homework, so when he sees certain coverages, he throws the ball downfield. That's how we got the touchdown."
Jenkins considered transferring after a dismal 2009 season. He's glad he didn't, and he's trying to make up for lost time.
"It doesn't surprise me. I knew I had the skills, and Coach P brings it out of me. I needed to bounce back from the real bad year last year."
As much as Jenkins enjoys receiving passes, he is a team-first player. He accepts responsibility for being a primary receiving option, but he knows the team needs a balanced attack with everyone contributing.
"I love being an option definitely, but we need to keep on building the chemistry that we have throughout the season."
Scheelhaase agrees. He utilized seven receivers against SIU, and he hopes to involve others as well.
"A.J. had the most passes, but we did do a good job of spreading the ball around. A lot of receivers, tight ends and running backs were able to get their hands on the ball. It's always important to have that comfort level with all your receivers because you never know when someone will start double-teaming somebody."
Head coach Ron Zook continues to sing Scheelhaase's praises.
"I was excited about the fact that Nathan made the progress that he needed to make, not only Nathan but also the whole offense in general. I said to (Nathan) `Do you think you can make the same amount of progress this week as you did last week?' And he said, `Absolutely.' He didn't have to think about it. You can't buy experience, you have to play. I think that is the one thing he is going to go out there and do."
:Zook was also happy with the defense. They were swarming to the ball and making big hits on ball carriers.
"I think looking back at this past game we made progress. Obviously we have a long way to go, but I think we are going in the right direction. I was really excited about the way the defense played. The defense played hard."
Much of the credit for the improved aggressiveness and discipline of the defense goes to new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Although he is reluctant to praise his players publicly, he agrees some progress is being made.
"We graded out a lot better than we did against Missouri. The effort was a lot better, thanks probably to our crowd, our fans. I think the guys are starting to understand a little bit better, but it's a credit to our fans getting us up for the game. I know our guys don't want to let our fan base down."
As the players begin to relax into the new system and trust themselves, they can begin to flash more speed and quickness. Thus, they can get to the ball quicker. Koenning admits the Illini displayed more speed against SIU.
"Yes sir. I don't want to throw them a bone too much, but it is what it is. We've got to continue to get better. We've talked a lot about, if you want to run 100 meters, you don't practice by jogging around. You practice by sprinting. Football is a game of sprints, and we have to practice sprinting."
Outside linebacker Nathan Bussey shares his thoughts on Koenning.
"Coach Koenning is a perfectionist. He wants everything done the right way. Once we execute, we're all on the same page and the defense looks pretty good. Everybody's role is important. It's important that everybody play their roles and keep a positive atmosphere."
Safety Tavon Wilson was asked to compare Koenning to previous Illini defensive coordinators.
"He's more of an enforcer. If the leaders aren't taking charge, he will. He's not gonna sit around and let practice go mediocre. He's gonna make sure everyone is running to the football every play. That's probably the biggest difference from the coaches in the past.
"They wouldn't let it slide, but they weren't enforcing it as much as Vic is. He doesn't take a play off, so he doesn't expect you to take a play off."
Wilson gave examples of Koenning's coaching style.
"Just the way he approaches meetings. He wants everybody to sit up and pay attention. He doesn't let you slouch down in your seat. Sometimes in practice people would roll their shorts up. But Coach Vic doesn't allow it.
"He's not a screamer in meetings. He's real calm in meetings. He's more of a screamer on the field. He'd rather not scream, he'd rather everybody do what they're supposed to do so he can just sit back and focus on the game plan."
Bussey has been one of the team leaders. He is vocal on the field and sidelines. He also leads by example. He has offered up some of the hardest hits of the first two games. The rest of the defense seems to be catching on.
"Once you make a big hit like that, a lot of people tend to follow and keep coming up with more plays," Bussey explains. "If that happens people start getting intimidated, and our defense can be very good in the long run."
Bussey admits it was hard walking on campus last fall. The Illini weren't winning, and the defense was giving up a lot of points. But he says that is all behind them, and fans are beginning to notice.
"It was embarrassing to give up a lot of points, but you can't just live in the past. Right now we're living in the present and getting ready for the future. The future for this Illini team is we're gonna be better this year than last year.
"We have to go out there and do everything the coaches ask us to do. So far for the last two games, we have done it. People have been commenting on it, and so far so good."
Wilson said last year everyone kept telling the players how to change things. This year, there's definitely a different tone so far.
"Most people think we have a chance of being pretty good. The last couple years people were concerned about things. Now it's more of a positive attitude instead of saying, 'You guys have got to do this and that.' Now they're not coaches."
If the players play to their potential, the coaches do their job and the fans become just fans again, perhaps the 2010 season will be the beginning of good things at Illinois.