Location: Champaign, Ill.
Coach: Tim Beckman
Record: 3-1 (0-0 Big Ten)
Series with Nebraska: Nebraska leads 7-2-1.
Last game: Defeated Miami (Ohio) 50-14
Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase believes he’s one of the few Illini players who knows what to expect Saturday in Lincoln. A native of Kansas City, Mo., Scheelhaase was recruited by Nebraska – first by former coach Bill Callahan, then by Bo Pelini – and said he visited Nebraska more than any other school, other than Illinois. He attended a sold-out Red-White Spring Game, as well as Nebraska’s 2007 loss to top-ranked USC at Memorial Stadium. “I’m obviously excited for the next visit,” Scheelhaase said this week. “It’s one of the top venues you could ever be in. There’s not much that will have to be said in the locker room or said on the field before to get everybody going. There will be enough electricity in that stadium to get everybody ready to go.”
This offense is nothing like the unit that sputtered last season, and that’s thanks in large part to new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and a healthy Nathan Scheelhaase. Under Cubit, the former Western Michigan head coach, Illinois has jumped at least 80 spots in the national rankings, from last season to this season, in long scrimmage plays, scoring offense, passing efficiency, total offense and turnovers lost. Second-year coach Tim Beckman said Scheelhaase was injured in last year’s first game and was never healthy the rest of the season. “Now you see Nathan Scheelhaase 100 percent,” Beckman said. “The credit is due also to the offense that Coach Cubit has brought in here. He’s done a great job of making it player-friendly and enabling Nathan to be successful with the things we’re doing.”
New divisional foe
This will be the first of two straight visits to Lincoln by Illinois, which next season joins Nebraska in the West Division when the Big Ten Conference restructures its divisions with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland. Illinois will also open conference play in Lincoln next season, on Sept. 28. It’s the first time a conference foe will have made trips to Lincoln in consecutive years since Missouri in 1995 and 1996 (the final year of the Big Eight and the first year of the Big 12). Nebraska will open the 2015 Big Ten season at Illinois on Oct. 3.
Illini on offense
The biggest change in quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in his final season at Illinois is that he’s become primarily a passing quarterback. Note: That doesn’t mean he can’t run; it just means that new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has designed his offense around the arm of Scheelhaase, and with amazing results.
Scheelhaase leads the Big Ten in passing yardage (290.5 yards per game) and passing efficiency (131.3). He’s completing 67.2 percent of his passes, including 76.3 percent on first down. He’s completed passes to 14 different receivers, and three tight ends caught a touchdown pass last weekend.
Scheelhaase has only rushed 31 times for 31 yards, but for his career has rushed for more than 1,800 yards. Could coaches still turn him loose? If not, they’ve got freshman Aaron Bailey, who last week ran for 56 yards on six carries as a backup to Scheelhaase.
Running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson have split carries and combined for 404 rushing yards, as Illinois is still looking to improve its running attack. Ferguson is a receiving threat, too.
All five starters on the offensive line weigh at least 300 pounds – Simon Cvijanovic (310), Michael Heitz (305), Alex Hill (310), Ted Karras (300) and Corey Lewis (315).
Offensive averages / national rank
40.2 / 26
478.5 / 35
171.0 / 65
307.5 / 19
Illini on defense
Senior linebacker Jonathan Brown, a Butkus Award semifinalist last season, and sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim, a freshman All-American last season, are the main keys to the Illinois defense.
They’re the Illini’s top two tacklers, as Brown is averaging a Big Ten-best 11.8 tackles per game, while Monheim, a middle linebacker who last season became the first true freshman to lead the Illini in tackles, is second in the Big Ten with 9.5 tackles per game.
Illinois, like Nebraska, is very young on defense, with 12 freshmen on the depth chart, which goes three deep at six positions.
Brown and defensive lineman Tim Kynard are the only seniors on the entire defensive three-deep, and Illinois coach Tim Beckman said Brown is the leader of the defense.
“He is the spokesman,” Beckman said. “He is the guy that is in front of this group during practice, during meetings, during games. He’s very, very important.”
Illinois ranks one spot above Nebraska among Big Ten teams in rushing defense (ninth, 160.5 yards per game), and pass defense (10th, 271.5 yards).
The Illini run a 3-4 look.
“They do a lot of weird things we haven’t seen before,” Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah said. “We just have to be prepared for anything.”
Defensive averages / national rank
24.8 / 62
432.0 / 92
160.5 / 85
271.5 / 97
Illini on special teams
Illinois had a couple of special teams notables from its victory against Miami (Ohio). For one, Illinois didn’t punt, the first time in 11 years the Illini didn’t punt in a game. Also, Illinois recovered an onside kick in the second quarter, the first time it’s done that since 2010. Kicker Taylor Zalewski popped up the kick, Miles Osei tapped it backward and Matt LaCrosse caught the ball in the air.
Punter Justin DuVernois is a Ray Guy Award candidate. He’s averaging 42.1 yards per punt, and against Washington had a career-high three punts of more than 50 yards. He pinned the Huskies inside the 20-yard line three times, and inside the 10 twice.
V’Angelo Bentley, on the strength of his 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Illinois, leads the nation in kick-return yardage, with 37.5 yards per return. He’s returned six kicks for 225 yards.
Players to watch
Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, sr., 6-3, 205 pounds
He’s throw for 12 touchdowns, the most in the first four games of a season by an Illinois quarterback in school history. Of those, nine have come in the first half. That’s fourth-most in the nation.
Josh Ferguson, RB, so., 5-10, 195 pounds
His 114.5 all-purpose yards per game lead Illinois, and his 262 receiving yards rank him No. 1 in the nation among running backs. He’s averaging 21.8 yards per reception, 10th nationally.
Jonathan Brown, LB, sr., 6-1, 230 pounds
The Butkus Award candidate leads the Big Ten and is sixth nationally in tackles per game, with 11.8. Over the last two-plus seasons, he has 214 total tackles, 31 1/2 for loss and 10 sacks.