Season and legacy on the line at Indiana

He stood there in the same spot from where he released the fateful pass. He looked at the crowd, watched the replay, saw the hooplah, beheld the glory that wasn’t his — that he gave away.

Nathan Scheelhaase must have had a hundred thoughts pulsating through his head after his game-losing interception against Penn State.

That wasn’t my fault.

Why couldn’t it have fallen incomplete?

This is a stupid way to structure an overtime.

This hurts.

This is the last time I’ll stand on this field.

I just lost again, against this team for the last time.

It’s really cold out here, I can’t wait to go inside.

No one knows what he was really thinking besides Scheelhaase himself. By the time an obviously emotional Scheelhaase spoke to the media afterward, he had collected his thoughts more and swallowed the loss. By the time he took to Twitter, it was any other game, “very emotional game!” As if with an air of excitement. Maybe it is exciting in the end. But at the time, it was devastating.

A win at Penn State would have meant a lot, but that chance has come and gone.

Indiana, Ohio State, Purdue, Northwestern. Those are the final four lines in the script of Nathan Scheelhaase’s Illinois football career. It’s a farewell tour, as it is for many Illini athletes. But only the great ones get true farewell tours. If not always in the win column or on the stat sheet, you could always just tell Scheelhaase was a great dude. Never the stem of controversy, never one to complain about being in a crappy system or unsuccessful program, never anything less than a leader.

One thought he might have had on that field after that interception: “I’m running out of chances.”

But the opportunity is still there to seize. The glory is still at stake. The best-case scenario is still in play.

As impossible as it is for Illinois to win a conference game, as unlikely it is that things go right for once, as insurmountable as the obstacles before the Illini may seem, it all starts with a win at Indiana.

A bowl game, a chance to go out a winner. It’s in the pot for the first time this week. A loss and you have three essentially meaningless games. A win and you have hope.

Ohio State is probably going to beat Illinois. But after that game are two winnable games against a hapless Purdue team and a Northwestern squad that’s been in a tailspin since conference play began. Illinois could be facing two opponents who are winless in the Big Ten in its final two games. If Illinois has a win at Indiana under its belt, there’s a bowl game in reach. If Illinois loses to Indiana, Ohio State will be its last stand for bowl eligibility — and we all have a pretty good feeling how that would turn out.

So as basketball season begins, providing more incentive for Illini fans to move on from the football team, Scheelhaase is still standing, staring at his future and contemplating his past. Not everyone can be John Elway. Not everyone can end their career on top of the world. But anyone can go out on top of something.

For Scheelhaase, it’s a last chance. But he’s just one variable in the equation.

The defense faces a powerful Indiana offense, that has put up lots of points against lots of teams. Jonathan Brown’s unit has spent the whole season being young and ill-prepared. Tim Kynard’s defensive line has been putrid. Tim Banks is likely getting to the end of his rope, and finishing the season with four more losses wouldn’t help.

Tim Beckman has already ensured himself a better season than last year, but still hasn’t beaten a Big Ten opponent in his career here.

Bill Cubit was the darling of the program four games into the year, but he’s been questioned more and more in every loss since.

Steve Hull and Miles Osei are going out this season, too. Ryan Lankford’s already gone.

It’s coming down to it. And Illinois, as much as it has lost already, still has a lot to lose. Saturday’s game decides the rest of the season. After everything Scheelhaase and others have put into the program since being recruited, does this senior class have a shot at redemption?

Staring into the distance contemplating isn’t going to help anyone find the answers. The answers lie on the football field.

This is why they play the games.

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.