Don't Hate Nate

Looking to cast blame? Don't start with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

CHAMPAIGN - Let's be clear: Illinois lost to Wisconsin on defense. The Badgers went up and down the field with precision and arguably the best running back tandem in the Big Ten. The Illini missed tackles all over the field, and let an already-potent offense roll up eight touchdowns in their stadium.

Often, there are few bright spots in a blowout, and Saturday night's game at Memorial Stadium was no exception.

There is the obvious headline of freshman Aaron Bailey scoring his first passing touchdown before halftime. Illinois also tallied close to 400 yards of total offense on a fairly stingy Badger defense, but they had to do that to even stay within three scores.

The Illini scored 32 points while only scoring in two quarters, and they didn't give up after going down 21-0 in the first frame. That's a positive any way you look at it.

"This team at least fights," Illini coach Tim Beckman said after the game. "They'll fight to the end."

Plus…there was a post-game fireworks show. At this point, you have to take what you can get.

For me, the main takeaway from this game was the play of Nathan Scheelhaase. He scored one TD, but he contributed greatly on every scoring drive except the Illini's final one. The senior quarterback completed 20 of 27 passes for 249 yards and led the team in rushing with 49 yards.

"Our receivers made plays," Scheelhaase said. "I think they've been doing that all year. (Wisconsin) came with a stout defense, but we have receivers that can make plays on anyone and it was good to see them step up."

Going into the Wisconsin game, Scheelhaase had some of the best stats of any Big Ten quarterback, and that's despite the shaky play of a young offensive line and a running game that's near the bottom of the league.

You can say that he may take a little too long to make his reads. You can say that he doesn't use his athleticism enough. But you also have to say that he'll end his career as one of the better quarterbacks the school has ever had.

With his play Saturday night, Scheelhaase moved into third place on U of I's career total offense list with 8,697, and that's while he's playing for his fourth offensive coordinator since he came to Chambana. It's hard to be consistent when your coaches keep changing around you.

Scheelhaase's case is similar to that of former Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell. Campbell had a different offensive coordinator every year he played for the Tigers and couldn't find success until his senior season (when he played his way into the first round of the NFL draft).

When it comes down to it, nobody cares how many coaches you have. People judge the performance on the field. Though Scheelhaase completed some long passes against Wisconsin, he knows he'll be judged for the plays he didn't make as well. That's part of the job.

"We've got to understand that nobody's going to feel sorry for us," he said. "Nobody's going to care what team we lost to or how inexperienced we are. Halfway through the season, you're no longer an inexperienced team. All that matters is the next game. We've just got to step up to the challenge."

There's a long list of things wrong with this Illinois team, but Nathan Scheelhaase has to be really low on that list.


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