“I can’t say enough about what Nathan Scheelhaase has done,’’ Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “It’s not just about throwing touchdown passes, it’s about coming in on Mondays and over-studying so that he can have the best opportunity to be successful.
“Nathan has been buying into the system. He grasps it and he loves doing it.’’
Scheelhaase, who has thrown for 1,162 yards already this season to go along with 12 touchdowns, quickly deflects any praise on him to his offensive teammates.
“The guys out wide are really giving me confidence in what they are able to do, being in the right position and make plays when they have a chance,’’ he said. “That makes you comfortable in the pocket that those guys are going to make plays.’’
But on Saturday it wasn’t the wide receivers making the majority of the plays in the Illinois passing game.
Instead, it was the tight ends.
The trio of Matt LaCosse, Jon Davis and Evan Wilson caught six passes for 82 yards, but four of those receptions were touchdown grabs. A year ago, the Illini tight ends had just three touchdown receptions for the entire season. LaCosse finished with a career-high 68 receiving yards and his first two career touchdown catches.
“I felt like those guys were getting open,’’ Scheelhaase said. “We’ve known their depth all year. They are not just guys that can run 5-yard routes to can only catch dump passes. They are guys that can make plays downfield, they can move around.
“When you got guys like that, we need to get them involved.’’
The other key component in the Illinois offense on Saturday was the running back duo of Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. They combined for 151 rushing yards and Ferguson, the FBS leader in receiving yards for a running back, had five receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown.