Talk about a turnaround that gives hope to a fanbase: After ranking dead last in total offense among B1G teams last year, Illinois currently ranks fifth in the conference and 34th in the nation, with 493 yards per contest after the season's first two games.
Of course, that's an extremely small sample size, and includes a game against a middling FCS opponent in Southern Illinois. On the other hand, the Illini are coming off a surprise 45-17 blowout win against Cincinnati, in which Vegas favored the Bearcats by 7.5 points. The question before us, then, is clear: Does Illinois continue its surprisingly potent offensive efforts against a Washington defense that is likely to be vastly superior to Cincinnati's, or do the Illini revert back to their anemic offensive efforts from a year ago?
If the answer to that question is the former, it will be due in no small part to the play of fifth-year senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who completed 54 of his 73 pass attempts (74 percent) in the first two games of the season, along with six touchdowns to just one interception. (To put that into perspective, Scheelhaase tallied four touchdowns against eight interceptions in the entirety of the 2012 season). Scheelhaase is about as prototypical of a pro-style signal caller as you're likely to find, standing at 6-3 and 205 lbs. without posing much of a threat with his legs—he's shown an ability to scramble outside of the pocket when need be, but he's not a Marcus Mariota-type who will tuck the ball and pick up 25 yards on a broken play.* Evan Hudson and Hau'oli Kikaha showed a great ability to seal Joe Southwick in the pocket in Washington's game against Boise State; assuming they do so again, there's little reason to think that Scheelhaase will escape Saturday's game with a clean jersey.
Donovonn Young's performance in the early going of this season has got to worry Illinois fans, frankly. After a solid sophomore campaign in 2012, in which he rushed for an average of 4.36 yards per play on 131 carries, Young is picking up just 3.18 yards per carry in 2013, and as The Champaign Room's Tom Fornelli noted yesterday, 40 of his 64 yards against Cincinnati came in garbage time. Though it's too early to say anything definitive, it seems that the most vulnerable part of Washington's defense is its ability to dig into the trenches to stop the run. Without a credible running threat, Illinois will be hard pressed to create an effective passing game against Washington's linebacking and secondary crews.
Interestingly, Illinois' biggest ground threat is also its biggest receiving threat, at least in terms of judging by yardage production. In two games, Josh Ferguson has recorded 96 yards on the ground in 18 attempts (5.33 yards per carry), as well as 158 yards on six receptions for two scores. He's shown a knack for the big play, as well, with his receiving touchdowns coming off of catches of 53 and 48 yards.
Scheelhaase's No. 1 target at wide receiver from 2012, Ryan Lankford, returns for his senior year, but he's hardly a world-beater prospect. Last year, he led the team with 37 receptions for 469 yards and five touchdowns, and though he had a big game against Southern Illinois (six catches for 115 yards), he recorded just one grab for 10 yards against the Bearcats, and has yet to sniff the end zone in 2013. At 6-0, 175 lbs., he provides a nice matchup target for any of UW's starting four in the secondary.
Illinois' offensive line is another unit that will see its first real test on Saturday. After allowing 39 sacks last year, this group seems to be up to its old tricks in already surrendering five sacks in the team's first two games (although strangely, all five came in the contest against FCS Southern Illinois). One storyline to follow Saturday is whether or not the Illini front five can build off of their contest against Cincinnati in which they kept Scheelhaase upright for a full 60 minutes.
*Update: Our friends at The Husky Haul have pointed out that Scheelhaase picked up 868 rushing yards his freshman year, compared to Mariota's 752 as a first-year player. With the obvious caveat that I'm not a close follower of the Illini football team, I'll say that it seems to me that as his career has progressed, Scheelhaase has made a clear progression in toning down his running game in order to become a better pocket passer. (His rushing yards from 2010, 2011 and 2012 are 859 yards, 624 yards and 303 yards, respectively.) Regardless of what he did his freshman year, it seems unlikely that UW will face a true dual-threat quarterback in Scheelhaase on Saturday the way that they will October 12 when the Huskies take on the Ducks.
As always, thanks to College Football Statistics, ESPN and USA Today's College Football Injury Report for the relevant data that went into this article. You can follow me on Twitter by clicking below.
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