- Scott Powers, Reporter
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Nathan Scheelhaase knew people were waiting for Illinois to stumble.
Whether it’s a dislike for Illinois coach Ron Zook, a belief the Illini's schedule was designed for a 6-0 start (with five consecutive home games and a road contest at Indiana), an overall doubt in their talent or other reasons, the Illini haven’t had many national backers. Even before Saturday, there were critics who considered Illinois to be one of the worst teams in the Top 25.
With the Illini suffering their first defeat of the season Saturday -- a 17-7 loss to Ohio State -- those same people will have a field day.
Scheelhaase, the Illini's sophomore signal-caller, gets that.
“Doubters are going to say what they can,” Scheelhaase said. “The best thing about Big Ten play and college football is you got another chance to prove yourself next week. That’s where our mindset is at. We can’t worry about what people are saying. I’m sure people are going to say stuff, and they have the right to.”
Whether those doubters are right is another story.
It was unfair to reward Illinois too much for its 6-0 start. It is also unfair to demean it too much for Saturday's loss.
So what is fair to say about Illinois? That’s still to be too determined. With Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin remaining on the schedule, there’s still a chance for Illinois to prove itself worthy of either praise or ridicule.
The margin between those two can be as minimal as the difference in Saturday’s game, too.
What decided Saturday’s outcome was nothing more than turnovers. Illinois committed two costly turnovers in its own territory, and they led to Ohio State scores. While the Buckeyes’ offense had its own troubles Saturday, it stayed away from giving up the ball. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller didn’t throw an interception in his four pass attempts, and the Buckeyes recovered all three of their own fumbles.
Illinois senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, whose fumble led to an Ohio State touchdown, even found it hard to credit the Buckeyes’ defense too much.
“O State’s very athletic, but I don’t think they’re like any different than any team we’ve played,” said Jenkins, who had eight receptions for 80 yards. “We had three turnovers this game. I don’t think it’s more so on the defense. It’s more so on us.”
Illinois’ offense appeared out of synch throughout the game. Scheelhaase missed targets. The receivers dropped balls. Even on Illinois’ last offensive play, a 4th-and-3 attempt from Ohio State’s 17, Jenkins ran the wrong route causing Scheelhaase to throw the ball to the spot where Jenkins was supposed to be.
“I don’t understand,” Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said of the game. “I would never have expected it. We’ve been catching the ball good all year. We dropped some crucial third-down passes. You’re not going to beat a team that’s good on defense when you do that.”
Everyone took a share of the blame.
Petrino said. “If anyone had a bad day today, it’s me.”
Scheelhaase added, “I felt like on offense, me personally, I didn’t make enough plays to win the game. That was the key.”
Zook’s attention went immediately to the future. He wasn’t going to let one loss define this team.
“We can’t scrap the season,” Zook said. “We have a chance to be pretty good. We are 6-1. We go on the road for two Big Ten games, then we have two Big Ten games here. We just have to take care of business the next four games.”
Then, it will be fair to judge Illinois.
In spite of Saturday's loss, Illinois still could make 2011 a special season.