This week, it's time for the Illini to prove they're for real.
Illinois heads to Nebraska on Saturday for the conference-opener, a game that just over a month ago would have been predicted as a Cornhusker clobbering. But no one forecasted the Illini's complete offensive 180, few forecasted the Huskers' multiple defensive meltdowns, and you could likely count on one hand the folks who thought the Illini had a real shot.
But, as they say, that's why they play the games.
The planets could be aligning for the Illini as they seek their first Big Ten win under coach Tim Beckman. Nebraska could be the perfect matchup for a true statement game to open conference play. The Illini have been outstanding on the offensive side of the ball, with Nathan Scheelhaase unexpectedly ranking as the Big Ten's No. 1 passer. The senior quarterback is averaging more than 290 yards through the air per game and has thrown 12 touchdown passes.
It's quite a transformation for Scheelhaase. In last week's 50-14 win over Miami (Ohio), he threw five touchdown passes in the first half, one more than he threw in all of last season. He's become a different player under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, and the path his college career has traveled is not lost on him.
"I think it's one of those things where your perspective on how things are going to all work out definitely changed," Scheelhaase said Monday. "I can remember being recruited and initially being recruited just as an athlete and then moving into a dual-threat quarterback that would kind of be expected to really do a lot of running. And I kind of did that in my first few years here. And to see that change again, obviously it's worked out well for our offense. I think it's just exciting to see that development, to take a step back and see how things have changed over the years."
And, as great as the Illinois offense has been, the real reason this game has the potential it does for the Illini has less to do with them. Nebraska's defense has simply been atrocious. Yeah, the Huskers are 3-1, but at nearly every turn, they've given up a bunch of points and a bunch of yards to usually inferior opponents. Their one loss came to a quality UCLA team, sure, but it came in a most embarrassing fashion, with the Huskers jumping out to a 21-3 lead only to have their defense collapse and allow 38 unanswered points.
No Big Ten team has allowed more total yards per game (463.8), only one has allowed more passing yards per game (284.2) and only two have allowed more points per game (27). Meanwhile, Illinois is putting up an average of 40.2 points per game.
But Cubit is still on the lookout, still concerned with a program that has traditionally been a defensive power.
"It's Nebraska," Cubit said. "They've got guys that look the part. They're strong, they're fast, they do a lot of things. I think (coach) Bo (Pelini), scheme-wise, they do some things that you're really going to have to prepare for. ... So we're going to have to be on top of our game. I think Nate's going to have to be really sharp with the protections and stuff like that. Our wideouts have got to go win. That's what's going to have to happen."
And speaking of tradition, there's one other advantage Nebraska could have: the stadium. The Illini will be playing in their first true road game this weekend, with their only games so far played in the home comforts of Champaign or the de facto home stadium of Soldier Field. Noise is a concern, as is the intimidation of a legendary venue, as is the fact that this team has yet to meet a crowd it didn't like.
"This is a great place to play a football game," Beckman said. "I asked the players last night, before we went out to practice, how many had been in Lincoln and there was maybe two or three kids that stood up. So there haven't been too many. ... Great atmosphere for football, and I think it will be a great opportunity for our football team to get better and experience playing on the road at a good place."
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"It's on of the top venues you could ever be in," said Scheelhaase, who was recruited by the Huskers and made a couple visits there. "There's not much left to be said in the locker room or on the field before the game to get everybody going. There will be enough electricity in that stadium that everyone will be ready to go. I've been telling all the players that have kind of been talking about it — because I think I'm one of only a few guys that have been there — just to take in a moment like this, take in the opportunity to play at a great venue like this and then strap it up and get ready to go because it's going to be a heck of a 60-minute football game."
The task is tough for Illinois, certainly, and if the Illini do grab a win, it would still likely qualify as an upset. But things are going well for this team right now. If the Illini keep having success through the air, if the Huskers keep letting down on defense, then Beckman could be walking out of Lincoln the owner of his first Big Ten win.