Saturday, October 1, 2011
Scheelhaase, Jenkins spark wild Illini win
By Adam Rittenberg
I don't know if we'll see a wilder Big Ten game all season than the one that just took place in Champaign.
Pick a story line -- Dan Persa's return for Northwestern, Illinois' struggles in the red zone, Northwestern's defensive woes, Nathan Scheelhaase's guts, A.J. Jenkins' brilliance -- and this game had it.
Ultimately, Scheelhaase and Jenkins prevailed with an incredible second-half performance as Illinois outlasted Northwestern 35-31 at Memorial Stadium. Jenkins had a record-setting day with 12 catches, 268 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He found enormous gaps in Northwestern's secondary, which had no answer for the Illini star all afternoon.
Scheelhaase rebounded from a shaky first half to finish with 391 pass yards and three touchdowns, and he added the game-winning rushing touchdown with 13 seconds remaining. The sophomore showed tremendous poise in rallying Illinois from deficits of 28-10 and 35-31.
Illinois definitely needs to clean things up, as two turnovers led to Northwestern touchdowns, including an inexcusable fumble by Jason Ford in the final minutes. The penalties also are a problem, but Ron Zook's squad is finding ways to win games.
Moving on to Persa. You have to feel for the Northwestern quarterback, who threw a career-high four touchdown passes and completed 11 of 15 attempts in his return, but then left the game. He appeared to aggravate his right Achilles'/ankle, which kept him out the first four games. We'll have to see about the extent of his injury. Northwestern looked like a different team with No. 7 on the field. The Wildcats also lost top running back Mike Trumpy to what looked like a serious knee injury.
But quarterback isn't the biggest issue for Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald has to completely reassess his defense: the players, the scheme and the coaching. After being shredded by Army's run game, Northwestern had no answer for Jenkins and the Illinois passing attack. Illinois' second-half scoring drives were far two easy, as Northwestern put no pressure on Scheelhaase and seemed to sit back on its heels.
Illinois would have piled up more points if not for some first-half miscues in the red zone.
Fitzgerald has done a lot of good things in his tenure at Northwestern, but as a former All-America linebacker, he can't have a team that plays defense like this. And he can't have teams that consistently blow huge leads, as Northwestern has for the past year and a half.
For Illinois, the good times continue. The Illini are 5-0. While there's a lot to fix, Illinois is finding ways to win.