- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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The schedule hasn’t really even hit the midway point thanks to a pair of bye weeks loading up the front half of the slate.
But Illinois has already played enough games to improve its record from a year ago, and it has plenty of time to build on a productive start and get back into the postseason thanks to a high-flying offense.
The Illini missed out on a chance to put themselves in early position to contend in the Leaders Division after struggling in a lopsided loss at Nebraska with the offense being held to a season-low 19 points. But if new coordinator Bill Cubit and dynamic quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can rediscover the magic that had Illinois racking up touchdowns in wins against Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio) and Southern Illinois, it might not be too late to make some noise in the conference.
The race is still in the early stages in the Leaders Division, and Illinois has only played once so far in league play. However, it could be a grind to go seven straight weeks in the Big Ten without a breather -- and the matchups might not be all that favorable with Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State and Northwestern remaining.
But Scheelhaase has appeared much more comfortable leading the offense this season, completing more than 64 percent of his passes, throwing for 12 touchdowns and also complementing Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young in a rushing attack that has collectively topped 1,000 yards already this season. And if the Illini can get a bit more help from a defense that gave up at least 34 points in both losses, it could be a tough out down the stretch.
Either way, Illinois has already shown improvement coming off a brutal 2-10 season, and it still has time to take a few more steps forward.
Offensive MVP: QB Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini can spread touches around and get a variety of different rushers and receivers involved offensively, but everything funnels through Scheelhaase and his ability to make decisions with the football. The senior is completing nearly 20 passes per game and averaging almost 260 yards through the air, and while his rushing numbers aren’t all that impressive thanks to 104 yards in losses, his ability to put pressure on a defense in different ways has been instrumental in the Illini's early success.
Defensive MVP: LB Jonathan Brown. The senior isn’t hard to find when the defense is on the field because he’s almost always by the football. Brown leads the Big Ten in total tackles with 60, a number that’s even more impressive because he’s racked them up in one fewer game than the rest of the leaders at this point of the season. He’s also been able to disrupt offenses in the backfield, making 6.5 of those tackles behind the line of scrimmage.