Illini Prove They Can be a Balanced Offense
Sept. 22, 2011
This article appeared in the Sept. 17 gameday program.
By Vanessa Voltaggio, Illinois Sports Information
The Fighting Illini football team, known for having one of the best running offenses in the conference, has started to throw the ball. The offense that spent much of the 2010 season handing - or pitching - the ball to running back Mikel Leshoure, has started to develop its aerial attack as well. The quarterback that carried the ball for 868 yards during the 2010 season has started to show the nation that the Illini's passing game can be just as threatening as its running game.
In the past four games, dating back to December 29, 2010, when the Illini faced Baylor in the Texas Bowl, the Orange and Blue have shown that they are no longer a team that just runs the ball. In the Texas Bowl, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase set a career high for passing yards with 242. During that game, Scheelhaase also completed a career-best 18-of-23 passes, including his first 13 passes of the game for the longest completion streak to start a game and the third-longest streak in school history.
"If you go back to last year, our passing development during the season grew quite a bit, especially through the last half of the season," Scheelhaase said. "The extra practice for the Texas Bowl allowed us to work on the passing game and it showed in the bowl game."
To start the 2011 season against Arkansas State, Scheelhaase completed 16-of-23 passes and set a new career high in passing yards with 267. Scheelhaase also completed the longest pass of his career for 72 yards, surpassing his previous best of 54 yards.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino believes that having a year of football under his belt is a contributing factor to Scheelhaase's passing development.
"I think Nathan's experience has really helped him, but he's gradually gotten better," Petrino said. "He's throwing the ball a lot better and his release and all of his mechanics have improved."
Scheelhaase, despite his personal passing success recently, sees the passing game improvement as a team effort.
"There are a lot of things that we've been working on as far as myself, the receivers and the offensive line," he said. "When you have big passing days like we did (against Arkansas State), it's everybody. It's not just the quarterback or just the receivers, it's everybody."
Petrino also believes the team's passing improvement results from a combination of factors.
"We've been working really hard since the Texas Bowl practice on the passing game," the second-year coordinator said. "We really started showing improvement then and we've gradually gotten better and better. It's all 11 guys. It's the offensive line getting their protection down, it's the receivers running their routes at the exact right depth and timing, and Nathan [Scheelhaase] has just improved with his accuracy and his arm strength. Overall, we've improved along the way and now we have to make sure that we come out here and continue to improve."
Despite the role that he has played in the recent success of the passing game, Scheelhaase is quick to pass off the credit to the talented receivers on this year's squad.
"The passing game will be key this year," Scheelhaase said. "We've got a different team every year and we think we're really talented at receiving this year, so we have to get the ball in those guys' hands. The receivers are playmakers out there. Not only do they catch the ball well, but they know how to run with the ball after they catch it and try to get the ball in the end zone any way they can. When you have receivers working as hard as they did against Arkansas State, you try to get the ball in their hands."
The receivers lived up to those statements against Arkansas State. The Illini had two receivers with more than 100 receiving yards each for the first time since 2008, as senior A.J. Jenkins broke career records in receiving yards (148), number of receptions (11), and longest catch (72 yards), while sophomore Darius Millines also set career highs in receiving yards (119) and number of catches (five).
Despite breaking three career bests against Arkansas State, Jenkins is not ready to take all the credit for the team's passing game success.
"The whole offense has made a difference in our passing game," Jenkins said. "They have been going out and working on things in practice. Darius Millines had a really good game against Arkansas State, so it's not just me. It's the whole package the offense brings."
If the team's passing game continues to improve, it could mean more than just impressive individual statistics for Scheelhaase and the receivers. Petrino sees the passing game as a way to strengthen the Illini offense and the team's chances of success.
"The passing game will be really key this year," Petrino said. "Arkansas State knew we want to run the ball first, so they packed everybody in there. When all 11 guys are around the ball, you have to be able to throw it. If you can do that, it makes them have to defend both (the running and passing games) and it makes your team harder to defend."
According to Jenkins, continuing to improve the offense's passing game takes more work than just going to practice every day.
"Nathan, Miles Osei, Reilly (O'Toole) and the other receivers and I come out here on weekends and we came out during the summertime to work on things," Jenkins said. "When you show up on Saturday and you've worked hard, good things happen."
Scheelhaase has a similar mindset and believes that continued improvement will require mental strength in addition to more hard work.
"We've still been working on the passing game, and that showed against Arkansas State," the second-year starter said. "Everybody has been working on it. That's what it takes. It takes constant work. You can't ever think you've made it and you can't ever think you're good enough. You have to constantly work at it, and that's what we've been doing. We were happy with what we did against Arkansas State, but we know we can do even better."
The Illini will continue to work on both its running and passing games, but Scheelhaase feels that continued emphasis on the passing game will lead the team to the successful season it's looking for.
"We've been putting in the work all summer long. Even going back to the practices in the spring, we were getting a lot done. We knew we were going to have to make a lot of improvements in the passing game for us to be the offense that we think we can be. To see that all come together and to show up like we did against Arkansas State was nice. It gave us a lot of confidence in the games moving forward and we should get better and better in the passing game."