Though Illinois' loss to Wisconsin was a blowout — the second such loss in the last two games for the Illini — there was a bright side.
The Illinois offense that looked so great through the team's first four games was rendered ineffective against Nebraska, but it showed some signs of life Saturday against the Badgers, one of the Big Ten's best defenses.
The Illini scored 32 points on 391 yards of offense, including 319 passing yards. It was a game that was determined early — it was 21-0 in favor of Wisconsin after the first quarter — but there were some flashes of that offense that looked so good in the season's early going.
"I think we have a very high confidence in what we're able to do on the field, but I think there's still room to grow," quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said during Illinois' weekly media availability on Monday. "There's still room to shift that mentality into a more attacking style, a style that says we want to put it on us. No matter what's going on in the game, we want to say that we can walk out there and put points on the board. That's just the mentality that we have to adopt. It's something a lot of us on offense haven't necessarily been used to. We've been used to struggling at times and not being able to score at times. I think what we have to get used to is being able to walk out there and say, 'It doesn't matter who we're up against, we're going to find a way to put the ball in the end zone.'"
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Scheelhaase was part of the offense last season that was quite literally one of the worst in the country. Enter new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who turned the offense into one of the conference's finest through four games. But the team struggled against Nebraska, raising questions as to whether it was a weaker set of opponents that produced those big numbers. But a solid performance — at least in the passing game — was a definite silver lining against a defense as good as Wisconsin's.
"Our kids, I think they see it when I explained to them yesterday, 'I don't care who we're playing, the expectations are that we're going to move the football.' And I think they feel good about it, I really do," Cubit said Monday. "I think we're really close. I don't think we're exactly where we need to be, but we're getting a lot better."
For the Illini, the tests won't get easier. After going up against Wisconsin and its imposing defense, Scheelhaase and Co. are faced with scoring some points against Michigan State, the top defense in the country. That'll be quite difficult considering the Spartans are allowing just 13.6 points per game.
"I explained to them the other day, Cincinnati's eighth, Wisconsin's sixth. I said, 'You know what the great thing is, now we're going to go in to play No. 1. If you don't like challenges just stay in the locker room, don't even bother coming out,'" Cubit said. "These guys are good, they're really good. That's what college football's all about, and I told them the same thing. I know I'm excited about it. It's not something that you get to do every single weekend. And for them, it's a big challenge, and we've got to meet that challenge because those guys on the other side, they want to stay No. 1. They don't want to drop down."