CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If any part of the Illinois football team has a right to enjoy the 2-0 start, it’s the offense.
As 2012 dragged on and losses piled up, the offense’s futility grew. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase watched his yardage, passing and running, drop sharply. He wound up with just four touchdown passes — all season.
In Saturday’s win over Cincinnati, Illinois got the ball to 11 receivers and seven people ran the ball. The result was an offensive explosion — 522 yards and 27 first downs — in which no ball carrier had more than Donovonn Young’s 64 yards and no receiver more than Martize Barr’s 72.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been around (anything like that),” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “That’s a lot of different guys. It’s not like some guy’s catching 14.”
Most important of all was the result: a 45-17 win over the Bearcats. Illinois faces a potentially stiffer test Saturday, taking on No. 19 Washington at Soldier Field in Chicago.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Cubit, the architect of the offensive turnaround now in the works at Illinois, would admit to a little wonder at his creation so far. Cubit was hired in the offseason to improve that faltering offense and beef up head coach Tim Beckman’s staff.
While gloom and blame became part of the culture of last season’s 2-10 Illinois team, the upbeat Cubit says his players are having fun so far this season, and should be.
“I think they need to enjoy this stuff — this game is so hard,” he said.
He points to two pieces of his offense as keys to the success Illinois has had so far — Scheelhaase and his receivers, those 11 guys he threw to Saturday who mostly made due with a catch or two apiece. Scheelhaase already has six touchdown passes this season against just one interception.
“He’s so intelligent. For me, it’s just a pleasure to watch him go out there and have fun,” Cubit said. “For a guy who’s been a little bit maligned around here, you know, right now I think he’s leading the Big Ten in passing.”
It’s early, but he’s right. Scheelhaase’s 364 yards a game and 74 percent completion percentage are both best in the conference so far. And it’s clear the quarterback is enjoying their partnership.