Best Interests in Mind

COLUMN - Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase far too important in the grand scheme to risk for one win.

TEMPE, Ariz. - Illinois' struggles at quarterback Saturday night proved the coaching staff made the right call to sit Nathan Scheelhaase against Arizona State.

Wait… How is that possible? If backups Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei played like they both weren't ready for the big time just yet, how could not playing Scheelhaase have been a good thing?

Because the reduced versatility in playcalling coupled with the lack of pass production showed how vital Scheelhaase is to this offense.

Sure, it would have been nice to use the junior's dual threat abilities, even if that swelled ankle of his were at, say, 85 percent, to keep the Illini in the game with a defense that couldn't string together back-to-back stops. But the risk of losing Scheelhaase for multiple games or worse was too great.

Put simply, the coaching staff took one, hard hit to the chin to avoid the potential for a long, slow string of solid punches to the body.

"He wasn't ready so we aren't going to put anything that is detrimental to him or the football team on the line," coach Tim Beckman said.

Smart move, Coach.

The feel-good story of the tough-as-nails quarterback gutting it out and playing through pain made for a nice smoke screen leading up all the way to Illinois' first drive, three minutes into the game.

But the decision to hold Scheelhaase out was actually made Thursday. O'Toole and Osei both prepared as the starter all week, focusing on a scripted first drive and the promise that the eventual No. 1 would play the first two series of the game. O'Toole, a sophomore, received word Saturday morning he had won out.

But he was unable to move the chains. His fault or not, the offense managed only 25 yards on nine plays during those possessions.

Enter Osei, who briefly breathed life into the unit near the end of the first quarter. He engineered an 11 play, 75-yard touchdown drive, both with his legs and arm.

But Osei could not sustain. The next two drives each ended swiftly, both forfeited by way of interception. O'Toole would later throw a pick of his own to start to the second half.

"You can't win too many ball games with that," he said.

O'Toole seems suited for a passing-based attack. And Osei is plenty athletic enough to mix things up here and there with his legs. Both players are green (O'Toole in age, Osei in reps) and still learning, still discovering what it feels like to enter the huddle in a hostile environment in a meaningful game amid significant situations.

Combine O'Toole and Osei and subtract their collective inexperience and what would you have?

Something similar to Scheelhaase, who has started 27 games and is perfectly suited to run what offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales are trying to set up.

Following the game, Beatty admitted the game plan was somewhat limited by Scheelhaase's absence.

"That's why we tried to have less quarterback runs and more things for the backs," he said. "I think that stuff was effective. We've got to be able to throw the ball a little bit, get people off of us a little bit."

Don't mistake my high praise of Scheelhaase for a complete trashing of the other two. O'Toole finished 10-of-14 -- plenty efficient enough. And Osei ran for 42 yards, including a crucial 22-yard tote to convert on a long third-down when the game was still in reach.

Their effort is noted, but as Beckman put it: "It wasn't near good enough for this opponent."

Perhaps Scheelhaase, and the game plan he allows the offensive staff to fully employ, would have been. We'll never know. But he'll be better off long-term for not playing Saturday.

"We were hoping maybe he could be back for this one, and Thursday we realized he wouldn't be able to make it," Beatty said. "So we'll see how it goes on Tuesday and go back out and kind of go from there."

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