Let's start off with the obvious: the 2012 Illinois Fighting Illini football season sucked. It was awful and unpleasant and generally lacking in almost all redeeming qualities. When your only victories were over Western Michigan and an FCS squad, you should probably do your best to forget that season ever happened. And other than maybe Tim Beckman, I'm hard-pressed to think of someone who had a worse year than Nathan Scheelhaase.
As a freshman, Scheelhaase showed worlds of potential. He had 1,825 passing yards, 17 touchdowns to just eight interceptions, with 688 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns to go with it as well as a win over Baylor in a bowl game. Things were looking up after the Juice Williams era ended so disappointingly. The next season showed slight improvement in all areas except passing touchdowns, but there weren't really any red flags. And then the junior year hit. Injuries, ineffectiveness, lack of weapons, and a terrible offensive line all combined to result in a season that could kill most careers: 1,361 passing yards, 5.5 yards per attempt, four touchdowns, eight interceptions, and only 303 rushing yards. His career was going in the complete wrong direction and the prize jewel of the new recruiting class was a quarterback. He could be excused for mistaking the Altgeld bells chiming as the death knell for his time as a starter.
A funny thing happened on the way to the graveyard though. Under pressure to save his job, Beckman made some changes to his coaching staff, getting rid of both offensive coordinators that proved to be poor choices. In came Bill Cubit, freshly fired from his longtime gig at Western Michigan. Cubit had earned a reputation as a bit of an offensive guru, turning lesser talents into high-octane offenses in the MAC. And after just two games, it's starting to look like he might be pulling the same trick off with an Illini squad pretty much bereft of weapons in the passing game.
Yes, it's early. And yes, it's only been two games one of which was against Southern Illinois. But that Cincinnati squad he handled yesterday? That's a defense that only gave up 243.5 passing yards per game last season. You know what other team gave up that many passing yards per game last season? Ohio State. And Scheelhaase came out and put up 312 yards on them. They allowed only 11 passing touchdowns last year. He hung four on them. That's not just padding stats against bad opponents. That's a legitimately great performance against a team with a pretty solid pass defense.
So far this season, Nate has thrown for 728 yards and six touchdowns. That's already two more touchdowns than last season and over half the passing yards. In 20% of the games. He's averaging a first down per passing attempt. Last season? He only managed 5.5. I'm not saying he's going to keep these Heisman candidate numbers up as the season goes on, especially against a Washington squad that allowed the 16th fewest passing yards in the NCAA last year. But the improvement is real. And it's a big reason why this team will continue to surprise people through December. And if things keep up? Maybe January.
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