Scheelhaase leads surging Illinois offense

Nathan Scheelhaase might have come to Illinois to play for a different offensive coordinator, but it is clear he fits in perfectly with Paul Petrino's plan.

Scheelhaase has thrived in his freshman season, passing for 1,522 yards and 16 touchdowns and adding 684 yards and three more touchdowns on the ground. The redshirt freshman has improved as the season has gone on, passing for 12 touchdowns and only one interception and adding 396 rush yards and a touchdown in his past five games.

"For a thinking quarterback, a quarterback who likes to think and likes to make checks and do different things like that, this offense is perfect," Scheelhaase said. "It puts some pressure on the quarterback, but that's something I like. It's an advantage for us when I know what the defense is in, know their looks and I know what our plays are for.

"That's when we're playing better as an offense."

Illinois has been playing much better as an offense since a 26-6 loss to Michigan State on Oct. 16.

In the past five games, Illinois is averaging 46.8 points and 442 yards per game. The Illini averaged only 21.3 points and 320 yards in their first five games.

Illinois has cut down its turnovers (only five since Oct. 16) and maintained its effectiveness in the red zone (43 scores in 46 trips, No. 3 nationally).

"We've known from Day 1 what coach Petrino brought to the table and the successes he's had," Scheelhaase said. "You're as familiar as you can be when you're going through spring practice or fall camp, but it's a whole different thing when you get in the games. As the year has gone on, we get more of a game feel for [Petrino], he gets more of a game feel for us. That's the biggest thing."

The run has been the focal point for Petrino's offense, and Illinois has kicked things into high gear during Big Ten play.

Junior Mikel Leshoure established himself as the Big Ten's top running back, leading the league in rushing yards during conference play with 121.6 yards per game, edging Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (119.4 ypg). Leshoure, who came on strong toward the end of 2009, is once again finishing with a flourish. He has racked up 664 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns in his past three games and rushed for a team-record 330 yards Nov. 20 at Wrigley Field against Northwestern.

Leshoure needs 311 yards in his final two games to break the single-season team rushing record held by the last man to wear the No. 5 jersey for Illinois, 2007 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall.

"It really fires you up watching him take on two or three guys at a time, falling forward every time," Illini center Graham Pocic said of Leshoure. "When you see him out there pushing guys, we're going to go out there pushing. He's the type of back you want to block for."

Illinois' offensive line imposed its will against Northwestern, blowing Wildcats defenders off of the line of scrimmage. Rather than assigning linemen to one side or the other, Petrino flips the line to create a strong side and a weak side, looking to exploit better matchups for the run game.

It seems to be working. Illinois had 519 rush yards at Wrigley.

"Running for 500 yards is a pretty cool deal," Pocic said.

The line's effort isn't lost on Leshoure. Rather than take the linemen out to dinner, Leshoure, a Champaign native, invites them to his home.

"His mom has had us over for dinner," Pocic said. "Great cook. Catfish sandwiches and ribs, macaroni and cheese, everything you could ask for in a dinner."

Illinois' final course before the bowl season comes Friday at Fresno State.

Last year, the teams played one of the wildest games of the season. Fresno State prevailed 53-52 after one of its offensive linemen, Devan Cunningham, caught a deflected pass on a two-point conversion attempt and rumbled into the end zone.

"It was one of the craziest college football games I had seen," said Scheelhaase, who watched from the sideline as a redshirt. "But we're a whole different team from what we were last year.

"I feel confident walking into this game. We all do."