Nathan Scheelhaase improved in most of his statistical categories in 2011. The Illinois sophomore quarterback ended with a 63.6% completion percentage, completing 166 of 261 passes for 1,971 yards and seven touchdowns. His average increased by 24 yards per game, and his pass efficiency improved by 2.84 points. His rushing totals diminished by 354 yards compared with 2011, to 514, but he scored one more touchdown.
Those are quality statistics for any quarterback, but Scheelhaase isn't satisfied. It is a quarterback's job to produce wins, and he wanted far more than the six he earned.
"I thought there was times I played better than I've played in my career, and times where I didn't play good enough for us to win. You have to be as consistent as possible and keep doing the things that get your team first downs and points on the board. I wish I had been more consistent at times."
The numerous hits he took influenced his game as well. He didn't miss any games, but he slowed down as the season went along. He was definitely quicker during bowl practices.
"Obviously, during the year you have to deal with things where you take some shots. It's nice to get some rest. I'm getting to where I can lift a little more during bowl preparation, put on some weight, get some of my strength back. I feel a lot better."
Bowl practices gave him a head start on making improvements for next season.
"There's a lot to work on. With A.J. leaving, I feel it's important for those other receivers to step up and get as good a timing as I have with A.J. I think that's gonna be big for us as an offense. I think the biggest thing is for me to get as comfortable with a whole bunch of other guys as I did with him. That will make us a much better team next year, a team that can do a lot more things if I have that time with all those guys."
New coach Tim Beckman wants to run a spread offense. That means he must spread the ball around.
"Exactly, I plan on doing that next year."
As a leader, Scheelhaase must help keep his teammates thinking positive thoughts. But he admits Coach Ron Zook's firing had an impact on some Illinois players.
"I think there probably are some guys that wish he were here. We all loved Coach Zook and what he brought to the table. He was the guy that brought us all in. So as far as getting us to the bowl game, yeah the players on the field did that. But he's the one that's responsible. He should get some of the credit for why we are here.
"So from that aspect, guys wish he were here to share it with us and share this experience with us. But that's college football; things don't always go your way. You have to deal with changes and move on. That's the life you get into when you choose to play college football."
He and his teammates plan to embrace the time they have left with Zook's assistants.
"With all our coaches, we know it won't be the same after the bowl game. In a sense, we're savoring what we have with these guys. We have a lot of respect for and like the coaches that we have now. We're enjoying these final practices with them. We want to send them out on the right note.
"They've done a lot. I know for me personally in my development, they got me to the point where I am today. That speaks for the whole team. So that is a little bit different dynamic. But we're just glad to have the opportunity to go there and finish the season on a good note."
Scheelhaase won't have all his weapons with him against UCLA Saturday. Starting running back Jason Ford is not eligible. Perhaps more importantly, bruising fullback Jay Prosch is recovering from a nasty illness and won't play. Scheelhaase feels there are players who can fill in on offense. Replacing Prosch on special teams is more problematic.
"We put Eddie Viliunas back there. Ralph Cooper has been going both ways, doing some fullback stuff. We've got guys who are able to shoulder what Jay was doing. But the biggest thing Coach Vic (Koenning) talked to us about is filling in for him on special teams. He was on all of our special teams.
"I know J.B. (Jonathan Brown) had to fill in at different spots for him. You try to get guys with similar bodies who can do the same things. That was probably a tougher role, filling in for him there."
Scheelhaase says UCLA has quality athletes on defense. The Illini will need to be at the top of their game to win.
"They're a sound defense. Pac-12 teams are coached well, they're sound teams. I think it's important to get after them early. Set our tempo and send a message to them early how the game is going to be played. We plan to just keep grinding. When you play tough teams with sound defenses, they might make a play here and there, but you have to keep your nose down and keep grinding.
"They don't blitz any crazy amount, but they do blitz. They do some overload blitzing that you might compare to Wisconsin. For the most part, they like to play an off coverage and don't like to get beat deep. They play a cover 8, quarters coverage for the most part. So it's nothing we haven't seen. They're a sound team, so we've got to come ready to go."
Despite six straight losses and a struggling offense, Scheelhaase plans to do everything in his power to bring home a victory.