After Saturday, there will be something very different, very unusual about the Fighting Illini: Nathan Scheelhaase will no longer be the starting quarterback.
The season-closing contest vs. Northwestern in Champaign will be Scheelhaase's final game in an Illini uniform and complete four years as the Illinois signal caller. Though his teams hardly piled up the wins, Scheelhaase has accomplished much over his career in orange and blue.
"I think it's hard to wrap it up in a word or a sentence or even an essay at times. My career here, there has been ups and downs, good times and bad, but it's just been so much fun," Scheelhaase said Monday. "I think that's the thing that overwhelms me in all of it. There have been so many fun moments and so many things that have truly been a dream come true, something I've dreamed about since I was a little kid and got to live out for these last four years. It's just a crazy feeling that it's coming to an end. I've been saying it all year long that time is ticking. The clock is about to strike midnight on my career and the rest of the seniors' careers here at Illinois. It's just a surreal feeling."
Though there's still a game's worth of stats to accumulate on Saturday afternoon, the numbers Scheelhaase has posted over four years are impressive, near the top of many all-time Illinois statistical categories.
No Illinois quarterback has started more games than Scheelhaase, who will finish his career with 48 starts under center. He's third on Illinois all-time passing list with 8,261 yards, though a huge 464-yard passing day Saturday would vault him up to No. 1. He ranks 16th in career rushing yards with 2,011, second by a quarterback. He's second in all-purpose yardage with 10,272 yards, and 322 total yards vs. Northwestern would put him atop the list.
He's just the second player in Illinois history to reach 10,000 total yards, after his predecessor at QB, Juice Williams, another four-year starter.
"When you start playing, you're not really sure how those numbers are going to sort themselves out, where you're going to end up on certain record lists and things like that. But obviously when you get to the end of your career and you start passing names on lists and you start and getting past big milestones — reaching the 10,000-yard mark — it means a lot," Scheelhaase said. "Obviously, as a quarterback, you're not doing a whole lot of that yourself. You've got guys blocking for you, players catching passes, and there's been so many people through the years that have done that for me, it's really a tribute to all the great players that I've played with and all they've been able to do to help me reach a mark like that. But it is cool. It's something I'll for sure be excited to look back on and tell my kids someday. I'm sure they'll think it's a whole lot of yards and wonder when I'm not as athletic at that point how the heck I even did it."
Of course, the kind of guy Scheelhaase is, he'd be more than willing to trade several thousand of those yards if it meant a few more winning seasons in Champaign. But Scheelhaase has helmed the Illini to two of the only five bowl appearances the team has made since the mid-90s, and he's the only Illini QB ever to record a pair of postseason victories: the 2010 Texas Bowl and the 2011 Fight Hunger Bowl.
And this season, though a second straight struggle for the team under head coach Tim Beckman, has been a pretty strong one for Scheelhaase, who has flourished at times under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. This season alone, he's passed for 2,965 yards (and is likely to finish with more than 3,000) and 19 touchdowns. He leads the Big Ten in total offense and passing yardage per game. Only Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has thrown more touchdown passes. It's been a great year.
But even though the bowl trips stopped when Beckman took over for Ron Zook, Scheelhaase's dedication did not. And Beckman noticed. Everybody noticed.
"Everybody in this community and around this university knows who Nathan Scheelhaase is, not just how he plays the game of football, not just how he throws the football, how he runs the football, but how he leads and how much the University of Illinois means to Nathan," Beckman said at his weekly press conference Monday. "I think that anyone that knows or has been around him realizes that we're going to miss not just a great player, but a great person, too."
Scheelhaase's time as the Illinois quarterback is running out quick. Even back on Monday, when he had five days before his last in an orange and blue uniform, he knew he had to take in everything that he would be doing for the final time.
"Just this week in general, I think I look at it in kind of a different lens," he said. "This is the last of all these opportunities that I've had over the years. Whether it's studying film, going to practice, talking with the media, it's the last go-round for all of these things. I'm just going to try and soak it all up with my fellow seniors, with the rest of the team and just try to enjoy every moment for what it's worth."
While some might have not fully appreciated and might still not appreciate what it is Scheelhaase has done at Illinois over the course of a four-year career, the ones around him on a daily basis have certainly fully grasped it. And whether or not another quarterback comes along and surpasses all his numbers, there will always be four years in which Scheelhaase was the face of Illinois football. And a pretty good one.
"I've been around football my whole life and there aren't many Nathan Scheelhaases out there," Beckman said. "I was blessed enough to coach on a national championship team that had a Heisman winner. There aren't many Nathan Scheelhaases out there."