Scheelhaase given Big Ten honor after throwing 416 passing yards in Saturday’s victory

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Everyone on the Illinois sideline knew it was coming. It was talked about all week. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit had the first 25 plays scripted against Southern Illinois on Saturday, but it was the first one that everyone was anticipating.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase took the snap from center Alex Hill and lofted a pass deep down the right sideline — the one closest to his teammates — that was tracked down by receiver Ryan Lankford for a 52-yard gain.

It was a sign of things to come, at least on the offensive side of the ball.

The play was eerily similar to Scheelhaase’s first completed pass last season (a 64-yard touchdown to Lankford against Western Michigan, again down the right sideline), as was the victory (a one-touchdown victory over a team that is supposed to be inferior to the Illini).

No one wants to see the similarities between this season and last season continue, least of all Scheelhaase. This isn’t his first rodeo. It’s his last. It’s the fourth quarter of his college football career. The NFL Films bells are tolling.

He came in as a kid from the Kansas City area, redshirting his first year and watching the downward spiral of Juice Williams’ college career from the sidelines.

He’s not that kid anymore. He’s a senior — a graduate student, technically — a husband and the unequivocal leader of this Illinois football team.

His 416 passing yards against Southern earned him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, something he hasn’t won since he was a freshman leading the Illini to their first bowl victory in 11 years.

He won’t take the credit because a good leader — and a good teammate — doesn’t do that.

“I think Nathan will be the first one to tell you that it’s not a ‘Nathan award.’ It’s a ‘team award,’” head coach Tim Beckman said.

When asked to express his thoughts about Illinois almost blowing the game against SIU, Scheelhaase said, “Our strength, coach said it best: We’re not the kid on the street with the shiny shoes, the big house and a nice car. We’re the kid with snot in the nose. We’re going to go out and grind.

“That’s what was great about (SIU). I’d rather have a dogfight that was a fourth quarter battle than a game that’s over before the second half starts.”

Whether he actually believes that is another question.

But it’s always been about the team for Scheelhaase. That first season, which ended in a bowl victory over a pre-Heisman Robert Griffin III and Baylor, was a promising first step. And then the Illini opened 2011 with six straight wins.

They’ve beaten one FBS opponent since.

That’s why this season needs to be different. And offensive coordinator Cubit is trying to make sure it is.

There was a noticeable difference in the offense Saturday, and there’s no question who the mastermind behind it was. Illini fans saw Scheelhaase standing in the pocket, even when the protection collapsed around him.

On one first quarter pass to receiver Martize Barr, an SIU lineman pummeled Scheelhaase just after he released the ball. But the senior stood in there and completed the pass.

“The guy was coming down on him pretty hard,” Cubit said. “Last year he probably would have tried to get away.”

In the past, when Scheelhaase needed to run the ball, he ran the ball. But don’t think because he’s not using his feet as much that he isn’t capable of it.

“I’m as fast as I used to be,” he said. “I’ve got to be able to utilize that when it’s necessary.”

Though he deflected any praise of his 400-yard performance, Scheelhaase was positive in postgame interviews Saturday. But there was a considerable lack of smiles from the quarterback. Neither he nor Beckman will ever admit it, but an 8-point win over a middle-of-the-pack FCS team is nothing to brag about.

“A ‘W’ is a ‘W,’” Beckman kept repeating.

And he’s not wrong about that. But despite the numbers and the awards, Scheelhaase has more to prove in 2013. He has more to prove in his college career.

He doesn’t want to see it end the same way Williams’ did, with back-to-back losing seasons after showing so much promise as an underclassman.

He’s hoping that first pass really was a sign of things to come.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.