By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Two years ago, Nathan Scheelhaase was soaring.
These days, though, the guy’s just sore.
And so are University of Illinois football fans who not only are wondering what’s happened to their Fighting Illini team during this sadsack 2-7 season, but also what’s happened to their quarterback.
Back in 2010, as you might recall, Scheelhaase looked like he was a budding star during his redshirt freshman season.
But now, as a junior he just looks, well, bad.
Looks, of course, can be deceiving. And in Scheelhaase’s case – just like Juice Williams’ before him – I think they indeed were.
To be fair, this rough autumn for Illinois’ veteran signal caller hasn’t been all his fault. After all, not only has Scheelhaase seen the Illini give up a whopping 32 sacks – 10 more than any other Big Ten team – he’s also suffered the brunt of most of them (17) even though he hasn’t been on the field for part or all of four games due to injuries.
Heck, even Jay Cutler probably feels sorry for the guy.
J’Marcus Webb, too.
In large part due to Illinois’ porous offensive line – and an absence of play-making receivers – Scheelhaase has seen his passing numbers plummet in 2012. So far in the seven games he’s appeared in, the redshirt junior has thrown for only 935 yards (113.6 average) and four touchdowns while firing six interceptions. His supporting cast has indeed stunk, but Scheelhaase also hasn’t helped himself much at all, either. His game is off. Way off.
By comparison, in 2010, Scheelhaase showed great promise when he led Illinois to a surprising 7-6 record by throwing for 140.4 yards per game and racking up 17 touchdowns vs. just eight interceptions.
That was followed by 2011 when Illinois again went 7-6. Scheelhaase’s passing numbers did rise overall (164.2 yards per game) last season, but his consistency (six straight wins were followed by six straight losses), job security (he swapped time with backup Riley O’Toole) and point production (just 12 TDs against seven interceptions) all dropped markedly.
He began to transform from a rising star into a sinking stone right before our eyes. And that metamorphosis has only accelerated this year under the tutelage (or lack thereof) provided by first-year coach Tim Beckman and his staff.
Fact is, during his three years as the Illini starter, Scheelhaase has appeared to regress as a player in each one. Ironically – and sadly – the same thing happened with former Illini QB Juice Williams, who followed up a standout sophomore season with two straight disappointing ones.
So, what’s the explanation for that?
Well, I think it comes down to the simple fact that both Scheelhaase and Williams – QBs with some solid skills, but not overwhelming ability or accuracy – looked quite good when they had first-round NFL running backs sharing the backfield with them.
Without Mikel LeShoure and Rashard Mendendhall, however, both Scheelhaase and Williams had their shortcomings exposed.
Point in case: during Mendenhall’s record-setting 2007 season when he rushed for 1,681 yards and 19 touchdowns, Williams actually only completed 57.3 percent of his passes, threw for 134.1 yards per game and tallied 13 TDs vs. 12 interceptions. However, he was celebrated – mainly for playing particularly well in the Illini’s upset of No. 1 Ohio State – and looked at as an upper-echelon QB as Illinois went 9-4 and reached the Rose Bowl.
In 2008, however, with Mendenhall off to the pros, Williams ended up as the team’s leading rusher with 719 yards, nearly 1,000 less than what Rashard had recorded a year earlier. The top Illini running back, Daniel Dufrene, finished with just 663.
To compensate, Williams’ passing numbers went way up in ’09 with a 57.5 completion percentage, 3,173 yards (264.4 per game), 22 TDs and 16 interceptions. But his wins also went way down as Illinois tumbled to a 5-7 record without a reliable rushing attack.
Sans Mendenhall, Williams’ inability to complete mid-range passes and protect the ball in crucial situations became painfully apparent. In a nutshell, Juice simply wasn’t as good as Illinois fans had imagined to be.
I think the same analysis applies to Scheelhaase, who looked much better than he in truth is when Leshoure was romping for 1,697 yards and 19 TDs in 2010 and taking the pressure off the QB.
Since then, Scheelhaase hasn’t looked like the same guy. I think he still could be him – a QB capable of winning games – if he had a star playmaker in the backfield beside him.
But that player doesn’t exist in Champaign. Not this year. And, as a result, neither does the Scheelhaase we saw back in 2010.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.