The Illinois football team scored 65 points in a triple overtime thriller at Michigan last week. While that production was in a losing effort, it confirmed the emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino says Scheelhaase has begun to hit his stride.
"He has. The last three games it's just been a matter of playing games, understanding the offense better and believing what he sees. I think he's really starting to go through his checks, reading his progressions, and more than anything doing what he's taught and believing what he's seen. Making plays.
"You come out here every day in practice and see it happen, and then when it clicks in you can believe that what happens in practice will happen in the games. You start playing real well.
"He's played awfully well these last few games. He's got to continue to improve. The guys around him are feeling comfortable about him, and it helps to know what everyone else is doing too."
Scheelhaase says he now has moments when he feels completely tuned in to what is happening.
"We know as an offense that we've made improvements. Personally I can feel it, that when I'm out on the field things are coming more natural. Things are easier to see.
"You can start feeling during the weeks what you're gonna feel in the games, what they're gonna try to show you. It's exciting when you get in that flow, get that rhythm going.
"They talk about getting in the zone. You can kind of feel when you're getting in that zone, getting in that rhythm in a game where things are just clicking. It has felt like that at times the last two weeks, like I was in a zone.
"I think any team whose quarterback is in a zone, their offense has a chance of doing some good things. It's not something that just happens on Saturday, it's in the week preparing for the game. If I can make the improvements I need to make from week to week, it's gonna help our offense succeed and put points on the board."
The quarterback is the leader of the offense, and Scheelhaase has already proven to be an excellent leader. The more confidence the team has in it's quarterback, the better it will play.
I think it's big for our offense when I'm playing well, making good decisions, helping get us in good situations. It does wonders for our offense. When we're staying ahead of the chains the way we have been the last couple weeks, we can put a lot of points on the board."
Center Graham Pocic has a unique view of his quarterback. He has seen Scheelhaase evolving as the season has progressed.
"I think it was in practice where he really started to click running the ball, every time sprinting down the field, he was trying to make every play perfect. The way he commanded it, the leadership of it. He keeps getting better every week. He's a lot more confident, he's comfortable. It's fun to be out there protecting for him, he's in such a groove right now with the wide receivers."
Pocic reminds how hard it is to play quarterback, especially in places like Michigan's Big House when so many people are trying to disrupt your game.
"Nate played a heck of a game Saturday. It's ridiculously hard for a redshirt freshman to go out there, command the huddle, face fourth and one at the goal line with 109,000 people yelling at the top of their lungs. To get the cadence down so we don't have offsides is pretty incredible."
As well as he played against UM, he still laments the miss on the last two point try. Like always, he says he will use the game as a learning tool.
"I've never been in a game like that. It's been awhile since I've even seen a game like that. There's definitely a lot that goes into that game. It's just one of those crazy games you want to find a way to end up on top. It's something I think we can all learn from and make improvements on if we ever get in a situation like that again."
The Illinois team has great respect for Scheelhaase, not only for his ability and leadership, but also for his physicality in a physical sport.
"He's a tough guy," Pocic brags. "He never misses a practice, he's taken some shots running the ball. We've tried to get him stopped jumping up over people. He stopped that. He's running the ball hard, he's finishing his runs. You can't ask for anything more than that."
What does the future hold for the youngster?
"The sky is the limit," Petrino states with a glint in his eye. "You just keep working and keep improving. Who knows? He's just a freshman and has a lot of time to improve. He can be real good."
Petrino doesn't believe Scheelhaase's success will deter top quarterbacks from joining the team in future years. He knows top players are eager for competition as it makes them better.
"What gets to be real special, you bring in good players each year and you keep competing there."
While the offense is not a perfect machine as yet, it is getting there. The players are gaining confidence, not only in Scheelhaase but themselves and the team as a whole according to Petrino.
"You look at just the conference games, and we have scored more points than anyone else has. That's something we've got to keep working on. We tell them when it starts clicking, that's what they need to expect every week. We want it to be for here on out, forever.
"Confidence is earned. You prepare hard enough and practice hard enough, you earn the confidence to go out and do it in the games."
With Scheelhaase performing beyond his years, perhaps the sky is indeed the limit.