Stealing a great weekly feature from our friend Bob Condotta here, let’s reintroduce “five questions, five answers” this week with Illinois beat writer Mark Tupper of the Herald & Review in Decatur, Ill.
1. Illinois was 2-10 in 2012 and lost nine straight to end the season. How surprising is this 2-0 start and how significant was the victory over Cincinnati?
The 2-0 start is very surprising and the surprise is based entirely in how Illinois played against Cincinnati. The week before Cincinnati had defeated Purdue 42-7. Illinois’ defense is very young. People were not surprised that Illinois was able to score points, but they were surprised that the defense held up. And they looked prepared and well-coached. That wasn’t always the case in 2012. It may have been the first time during the Tim Beckman coaching era that fans left the stadium feeling proud of the team and hopeful for the future. It’s just one game, but it was an unexpected outcome.
2. Senior QB Nathan Scheelhaase has been stellar in the first two games of the season. He had four touchdowns against Cincinnati to match his total in all of 2012. What have been the most noticeable differences with him?
First and foremost, Nathan Scheelhaase is healthy. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he led Illinois to bowl victories in his first two seasons (over Baylor and Robert Griffin III in the Texas Bowl and over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl). Then in 2012 he got injured in the opener and was never 100 percent. Plus the entire offense sputtered as they tried to deal with co-coordinators (both since departed). Enter new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, and he and Scheelhaase have been a wonderful match. They like and respect each other. Cubit says Scheelhaase is one of the greatest kids he’s ever coached, and he’s a 59-year-old football lifer. Scheelhaase got married this summer and says his whole life is grounded. He’s a happy kid, exceptionally popular on this team, and being 2-0 doesn’t hurt.
3. Similarly, what have been some of the most notable changes under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit?
This offense is different in that it’s being run by a competent, experienced play-caller who has always been an offensive guy. Cubit has been offensive coordinator at Stanford and Missouri. He was quarterbacks coach at Florida. He was head coach at Western Michigan and rang up some big numbers there. But he was fired after the 2012 season after eight seasons as head coach, mainly because Western Michigan was sub-par defensively. His offense is quarterback-friendly and if he thinks he has a smart QB, he gives that person license to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Scheelhaase did that on the first touchdown against Cincinnati, a 48-yard pass to tailback Josh Ferguson. Cubit believes in distributing the ball (Scheelhaase completed 26 passes to 11 different receivers vs. Cincinnati) and he would like balance between the run and pass. In the long run, I’m not sure if they run it will enough to do that, but thanks to a run-heavy load late in the game, Illinois finished with 39 rushes and 37 passes against the Bearcats. Cubit likes to go at a fairly quick pace, but he backs off if he thinks that young defense needs to be assured of a decent break on the sideline. And he uses a variety of formations. Against Cincinnati he used a formation with three tight ends, another with five wideouts and he ran four end around plays. Most people don’t think of Scheelhaase as a big downfield passing threat, but in two games Illinois has had 17 plays of 20-plus yards, fifth-most in the nation.
4. Besides Scheelhaase, who have been the most notable players for the Illini so far, on either side of the ball?
Despite a very young defense, there are a few standouts on that side of the ball. One is weakside linebacker Jonathan Brown, who leads the Big Ten and is 14th nationally in tackles (11.5 per game). He had 14 stops against Cincinnati and is looking for a big senior season after an injury-plagued junior year. As a sophomore he was named second-team all-Big Ten while ranking sixth in the nation in tackles for loss (1.63 per game). Then last year he missed the final three games of the season with a shoulder injury and the coaching staff protected him somewhat during training camp. Now, he looks healthy and at full strength. Safety Earnest Thomas III may be the most physically gifted player on the defense. He’s 6-2, 212 and he was right in the middle of the fourth-down stop from the one-yard line that stymied Cincinnati in the third quarter at a time when the Bearcats were trying to mount a comeback. He’s third on the team in tackles. Middle linebacker Mason Monheim led all Big Ten freshman in tackles last season and ranks No. 2 on the team in tackles this year. Offensively, Ryan Lankford is the biggest deep threat as a receiver, although Cubit likes to look for Josh Ferguson out of the backfield. The Illini coaches describe Ferguson as a “poor man’s Reggie Bush,” which may be a reach. But Ferguson is one of the team’s few home run threats and he comes into the Washington game averaging 5.3 yards per carry and 26.3 yards per reception with a pair of touchdowns.
5. This is just Illinois’ second game at Soldier Field. What’s the benefit of having this game in Chicago for Illinois, and what kind of turnout is expected there?
There’s a benefit of playing this game at Soldier Field only if Illinois performs well. The last time Illinois tried it was in 1994 and it backfired when Illinois lost a boring game to Washington State, 10-9. Illinois desperately wants to raise its profile and recruiting stature in Chicago, where it competes for players with just about every other school in the Big Ten and many schools nationally. So in athletic director Mike Thomas’ mind, it’s worth the gamble. Ticket sales had been sluggish, although the victory over Cincinnati is expected to push some fans who were taking a “wait and see” attitude over the edge. Illinois officials are only saying that attendance will be “in the 40’s,” meaning 40,000 plus. I think they’d be very pleased if it was on the high side of 45,000.