Illinois entered the season as a team filled with question marks and one certainty: a clearer offensive identity with coordinator Bill Cubit.
After finishing near the bottom of the FBS in most major offensive statistics in 2012, the Illini hit the field Saturday with a better idea of who they would be on offense. Cubit's presence and vision represented a welcome change for senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who had played in two different systems in his first three seasons.
Scheelhaase looked loads more comfortable in Saturday's opener and shredded Southern Illinois' defense in a 42-34 victory at Memorial Stadium. The fourth-year starter racked up 340 first-half passing yards, completing 22 of 28 pass attempts, and finished with a career-high 416 pass yards and two touchdowns.
Yes, it's important to take the competition into account. Illinois' schedule gets exponentially tougher the next two weeks with Cincinnati and Washington, but after doing next to nothing right on offense last year, Scheelhaase and the Illini needed a confidence boost.
Illinois spread the ball around as eight players recorded multiple receptions. Senior Ryan Lankford had a big day (six catches, 115 yards) and Scheelhaase stretched the field with Steve Hull and junior college transfer Martize Barr. Speedster running back Josh Ferguson (104 receiving yards, 49 rushing yards) also showed he can be a factor in the pass game, taking a perfectly executed screen 53 yards to the end zone.
The Illini still need a lot of work before Cincinnati visits Champaign next week. They committed two turnovers, their offensive line is inconsistent and their special teams remain very shaky, despite V'Angelo Bentley's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Illinois' defense also is prone to breakdowns, as SIU scored 27 second-half points.
Things got way too interesting in the fourth quarter, as Southern Illinois had a chance to tie the game and reached the Illinois 3-yard line.
We'll learn a lot more about Illinois the next two weeks. But so far, so good for Scheelhaase.