Scheelhaase’s running abilities key to Illinois offense

Last Saturday’s first half wasn’t a particularly great one for the 24th-ranked Illini, who entered halftime trailing 13-10 to a team that had never before beaten a ranked opponent.

But before recovering for a 23-20 victory over Western Michigan, the first-half struggles taught offensive coordinator Paul Petrino an important lesson: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to be involved in the running game.

After the sophomore injured his shoulder against Arizona State the previous week, it seemed the logical choice would be to limit his rushing attempts to keep him healthy, especially with the conference schedule fast approaching. Petrino soon realized, though, that Illinois’ offense couldn’t thrive without making full use of all its quarterback’s talents.

“I maybe did a little bit too much of it in the first half,” Petrino said of trying to protect Scheelhaase. “In the second half we went to doing what we had to do to win the game, and that’s what we need to do. We probably stayed away from the option too much in the first half.”

Since taking over as the starting quarterback before last season, Scheelhaase has rushed for 1,092 yards in 17 games, including 868 yards last year, an Illinois record for quarterbacks and for freshmen. This season, Scheelhaase is second on the team in both rushing attempts and yards.

“It’s real important,” said Petrino of Scheelhaase’s role in the running game. “That’s a big part of it. It really helps us.”

Nearly as important as his actual rushing gains are the effects that threat has on opposing defenses, especially in Illinois’ option rushing attack. With Scheelhaase running the option, defenses must stop him first before committing to the running back, opening up more big plays for the offense. And while this play design can lead to more hits on the quarterback, Scheelhaase said he doesn’t mind.

“That’s what football is all about,” Scheelhaase said. “That’s why I played the sport since I was a little kid. I played defense all the way growing up until I got to college, so I’m used to contact. It’s nothing I like to shy away from. I love being out there Saturdays, getting hit and hitting people.”

While that fearless mentality is undoubtedly part of what makes Scheelhaase so successful as a runner, it also is one that makes for some tense moments for head coach Ron Zook.

“Football is a violent game now,” Zook said. “I had a bunch of buddies that I played ball with here this week, and I told them it’s a different game. Kids are bigger, faster, stronger. They hit harder, probably run faster.”

But as much as Zook worries, he said he knows that’s part of who Scheelhaase is. And as for the quarterback himself, he said he doesn’t plan on changing anytime soon, injuries or not.

“I feel like that’s just my game, that’s how I always have played,” Scheelhaase said. “I’ll never take that piece away from my game. If I’m hurt and can’t play then that will be an issue. But until that day, I’ll still be running around.”