Chicago Colleges: A.J. Jenkins
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In the batter's box: Illinois
Who needs to step it up: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase
Aside from Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez, no Big Ten quarterback boasts more starting experience than Scheelhaase, who has held the top job for the past two seasons. New Illinois coach Tim Beckman has said Scheelhaase is his No. 1 guy right now, although backup Reilly O'Toole also is expected to take some snaps. After the struggles Scheelhaase and the entire offense had in the second half of the 2011 season, it's important for Scheelhaase to re-establish himself as the undisputed leader of the offense. He's learning a new system, which always brings challenges, but his skill set as a dual-threat quarterback with the ability to make throws on the move should help him in the spread. He doesn't have many proven weapons around him, and we saw what happened last season when defenses started focusing on star wideout A.J. Jenkins. But Scheelhaase can make those around him better, and it starts with accuracy on the short to intermediate routes, which spur the spread offense. Scheelhaase raised some concerns in the spring game by completing just 11-of-26 pass attempts in wet and blustery conditions. Some question his arm strength, and others wonder how he'll fare without Jenkins on the field. As veteran columnist Loren Tate put it in April, "To be good, Illinois needs Scheelhaase to step up." A strong summer from the junior could go a long way to getting Illinois' offense back on track.
Illinois senior offensive lineman Jeff Allen and senior safety Tavon Wilson became the third and fourth Illini players taken in the draft on Friday. Allen was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round as the No. 44 overall pick. Wilson was taken by the New England Patriots in the second round as the No. 48 pick.
In the first round on Thursday, defensive end Whitney Mercilus went to the Houston Texas as the No. 26 pick and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th pick.
Illinois hadn’t previously had more than two players selected in the first two rounds.
“It means a lot,” Allen said of the four draft picks. “We’ve always had talent. We’ve had great players taken in the draft. To have four players in the first two rounds is unbelievable. It’s something you can’t describe. I’m just so happy for all my teammates right now.”
Allen, who attended King High School in Chicago, will join former Illinois teammate Jon Asamoah on the Chiefs’ offensive line. Asamoah was drafted by the Chiefs in the third round in 2010 and started 16 games for them last season.
Wilson had 81 tackles, including 51 solo, and one interception last season for Illinois.
The Illini had four players taken in the draft last year. Three of those picks came in the first three rounds.
Illinois junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus and senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins were selected in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday.
Mercilus was drafted by the Houston Texas as the No. 26 pick. Jenkins was taken by the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th pick.
Mercilus entered the draft following a breakout junior season during which he led the nation with 16 sacks, 1.23 sacks per game and nine forced fumbles. He also had 57 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries, one pass break-up and one fumble recovery. He was given the Ted Hendricks Award for the best defensive end in the country.
Jenkins caught 90 passes for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He led the Big Ten and was 16th in the nation with 6.9 receptions per game. He had 12 receptions for 268 yards in a win over Northwestern last season. He finished his Illini career ranked third in receptions (167), receiving yards (2,432) and receiving touchdowns (19).
“My agent told me I was going to be pretty much in late first, early second round,” Jenkins said by teleconference. “It just caught me off guard because I was in the bathroom. My cousin ran to the door with the phone in his hand. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was just crazy.”
Mercilus and Jenkins are the fourth and fifth Illinois players to be drafted in the first round in the last five years. They join defensive tackle Corey Liuget (San Diego Chargers, 2011), cornerback Vontae Davis (Miami Dolphins, 2009) and Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2008) as recent first-round picks.
Illinois had three players drafted in the first three rounds last year.
Kiper has Jenkins going to Jacksonville at No. 38 in his latest mock draft.
"I've been on a world tour, man," Jenkins said in a phone interview with ESPNChicago.com. "I traveled to Baltimore, Jacksonville, Kansas City and San Francisco all in the span of a week, and I've got future visits coming up with the Titans, Panthers and Rams."
When he hasn't been on the road, Jenkins can be found training in Champaign where he continues to work toward his degree. A native of Jacksonville, Fla., Jenkins led the Illini with 90 catches for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns, including a monster performance versus Northwestern when he hauled in 12 passes for 228 yards and three scores.
It sounded like a fun exercise. And for a little while, it was.
Pocic and Allen took great joy in reviewing the first six games from the past year. Illinois was winning and scoring points. Life was good.
Then Week 7 arrived. Cracks began to form as Illinois lost 17-7 to an Ohio State team that completed only one pass.
Pocic's and Allen's review session soon made them want to avert their eyes.
"It was really depressing," Pocic said. "All the great opportunities we had, especially after starting 6-0. Mostly I was trying to figure out what went wrong with the offensive line, with the running game, why we couldn't run the ball like we did with Mikel [Leshoure] the year before.
"It was hard to find a reason why certain things happened."
Illinois dropped six consecutive games after its record 6-0 start, and the offense bore the brunt of the struggles. After scoring 33 points or more in four of the first six games, including a combined 79 points in the first two weeks of Big Ten play, Illinois failed to tally more than 17 points during its six-game slide and finished three games with just seven points.
Even when Illinois ended its slide in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA, it was hardly an offensive explosion (20 points).
The Illini finished the season ranked in the top 15 nationally in several major defensive categories, including points allowed and yards allowed. While the team had other problems, namely special teams, its evaporating offense was most disheartening.
"You get beat down a little bit when you struggle at the end of the year," Beatty said. "So you want to get some kind of swagger back. The only way to do that is to lay a good foundation as far as making some plays, getting a good knowledge base. Confidence comes with some success and knowing what you're doing.
"Those things, we're trying to build up because obviously, the last six games, there were some struggles."
When Beatty reviewed the final six regular-season games, he saw some issues along the offensive line and with the running game, and few consistent skill players aside from receiver A.J. Jenkins. But he also saw a group that lacked confidence.
"It's hard to have a swagger," quarterback Reilly O'Toole said, "with no points on the board."
The offense won't be able to light up the scoreboard until September, but spring practice has provided the platform to rebuild morale. Players like O'Toole and Pocic are excited about the multiple spread offense being installed.
Pocic said he's never been in such a complex offense. O'Toole said that while other Big Ten teams run spread offenses, Illinois' system will be unique in its flexibility and the number of angles from which the offense can attack.
"Unpredictable," wide receiver Darius Millines said of the new offense.
"We may run a play, and someone may think we're coming back with the same play, like a running play to the left. And we may play-action with it and throw deep over your head," he continued. "The defense has to be on their P's and Q's at all times."
And while the installation process is gradual and Illinois must build depth at running back, receiver and along the offensive line, there are mini-breakthroughs, like the one at Monday night's practice.
"We made some good plays and the offense was getting hyped, and we actually got rolling for a little bit," Millines said. "We actually felt how we felt in the beginning of last year. We got into a little rhythm, and our whole offense, we took that into consideration, that, 'OK, if we keep making plays, we can't be stopped.'"
"You see them running it and doing a good job with it and you hope you can do the same one day," he said.
The Illinois quarterback is getting his chance now. The Illini are switching to a spread offense under new head coach Tim Beckman, and that transformation is in full bloom this spring. As with any spread attack, much depends on the triggerman, so Scheelhaase's adaptation and grasp of the new system is paramount.
"We've made a whole lot of progress and there have been a whole lot of positives," he said. "The coaches have even told us on various occasions how pleased and surprised they are at how we've been picking up and moving through with things."
How different is this offense from the one the Illini ran under Paul Petrino the last two years? There's all new terminology, of course. Scheelhaase said the passing concepts aren't that dissimilar from the past. The biggest change, he said, is in the running game.
"This offense likes to get people in space," he said. "Get fast guys the ball with space and a chance to make guys miss one on one. We're stretching the field a whole lot more."
There's also the no-huddle aspect. Scheelhaase said Illinois ran its high-tempo offense full bore for the first time in practice No. 5.
"It was really eye-opening, for both sides," he said. "You could feel the defense getting tired even in practice. We got seven plays deep in that drive, and then the pass rush wasn't as strong. They revealed their coverages a lot quicker than usual. Picking up the pace helped a lot, based on one series and one practice. I think it will be a big help to us to keep that going."
This isn't the first time Scheelhaase has been exposed to this kind of offense. He was a redshirt freshman under former offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, who engineered a spread just like Mike Locksley had done before him.
But Scheelhaase started the past two years under Petrino, who favored a more multiple attack based around a power run game. Beckman's teams at Toledo used the spread offense, though Scheelhaase said the Illini won't merely be mirror images of those Rockets. Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty have added their own wrinkles.
"We're doing stuff that coach Beatty did at West Virginia and stuff that coach Gonzales did when he was at Florida with Tim Tebow," Scheelhaase said. "That's what makes this offense so cool, because it's not just one person's offense. It seems like it's almost three or four minds working together to kind of make this offense go, which makes it pretty tough for a defense to get a hold on what we like to do."
Scheelhaase will have to hold off a charge from Reilly O'Toole this spring to keep his starting job. He no longer has his favorite target from last season, wideout A.J. Jenkins, and the Illini are perilously thin at receiver and running back for this kind of offense.
So there are some reasons for concern as Illinois makes the switch. But so far, Scheelhaase is enjoying the process.
"I like learning new things all the time," he said. "It's cool because when I was growing up I watched Pat White and things like that. You see things working and you don't really know how it works until you get into the thick of it. It's neat getting that perspective."
ESPN recently caught up with Beckman. Here are his thoughts.
Tim Beckman: I want our players competing. I want them playing with outstanding effort in everything they do in spring ball. That competitive nature will be in every drill we do. These players will be evaluated in everything that they do. They're going to get feedback from the coaches on what we feel is championship-caliber and what we feel is not championship-caliber.
How much have you looked at tape from last season?
TB: Definitely. I've watched and evaluated tape, and been involved with what they did last year. But that's in the past. As I told the players when I met individually with each one of them, this is the future, this is a new era and we're building this thing forward, not building from the back.
How would you describe your quarterback situation entering the spring? Will it be a full competition?
TB: Oh, it's great. That's what life's all about. We've got the capabilities of being good at that position with four guys. Competition just makes you better. We've got one that has played [Scheelhaase] and played quite a bit and proven that he can win football games, won seven this year and won a bowl game. But we also have some backups with Reilly [O'Toole] and Miles [Osei] and [Chase] Haslett, there's three backups and a starter that are capable of winning football games.
UCLA needed a special NCAA waiver just to get into a bowl game. Illinois lost its final six games and had assistants threatening to boycott this game. Is it any wonder that the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was, shall we say, a little ragged?
How the game was won: The Illinois offense disappeared over the second half of the season and didn't do a whole lot in this one, either. But the team's defense remained stout throughout the seaosn and was inspired to play hard for interim coach Vic Koenning, their former defensive coordinator. The Illini defense came up with a score, sacked UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince five times and allowed just 220 total yards. The Bruins' only points came when they got a short field in the first half and when they connected on a bomb with 29 seconds left and Illinois already starting to celebrate. Defense wins minor bowl championships.
Turning point: UCLA led 7-3 and the Illinois offense was completely stagnant late in the third quarter. That's when the Bruins provided a gift. Prince's sideline pass was picked off by cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who had nothing but open field in front of him as he ran it in for the 39-yard touchdown. Hawthorne never took his eyes off the quarterback, and Prince misread the coverage. That pick-six sapped the spirits of the Bruins and loosened things up for the Illini.
Player of the game: Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. His passing numbers weren't terribly impressive (18-for-30, 189 yards, one touchdown) and he struggled early on. But Scheelhaase took on the brunt of the running game with leading rusher Jason Ford suspended for this game, finishing with 110 yards on 22 carries. He also had a nine-yard catch, giving him more total yards than UCLA's entire offense.
Stat of the game: Thanks in large part to the sacks, Illinois outrushed UCLA 179-19.
Record performance: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus was credited with 1.5 sacks, giving him a nation's best 16 this season. That tied the school record set by Simeon Rice. He got in on his second sack despite being held on the play. Mercilus was one of the most improved players in the nation this season and will almost certainly skip his senior year to enter the NFL Draft.
Strangest stat: UCLA finishes the season with eight losses, yet the Bruins played in a bowl game. It might be a while before we see that happen again.
Unsung hero: Illinois' Ryan Lankford. He averaged 45.6 yards on five punts, with two downed inside the 20. He also had three catches for 24 yards. Now that's versatility.
Best call: Midway through the fourth quarter, UCLA came after Scheelhaase on a blitz. But Illinois had the exact right call on: a slant pass to A.J. Jenkins. The one guy the Bruins couldn't leave open caught a short strike from Scheelhaase and glided in untouched for a 60-yard touchdown. The score became crucial when UCLA tacked on that touchdown in the final minute.
What it means: Not much of anything. Both programs will wake up on New Year's Day with new head coaches -- Jim Mora Jr. for UCLA, Tim Beckman for Illinois. So both teams will mostly have a blank slate, and they'd rather forget most of the 2011 season, anyway. Beckman will drastically change the offense to a spread, and he has to be happy to see Scheelhaase turn in a confidence-building bowl performance. Beckman will need to keep the defense playing at this level without Koenning. Mora needs to improve the overall toughness of the underachieving Bruins and change the attitude around the program .
His unit had set team records for scoring (423 points) and points per game (32.5) in 2010 and returned most of its key pieces, namely quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Most of the questions about Illinois rested with a defense that had lost three players to the NFL draft, including first-round pick Corey Liuget.
Petrino looked prophetic through the first six games, as Illinois averaged 34.7 points and 447.7 yards. The Illini recorded 32 plays of 20 yards or longer. Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection, as Jenkins soared to the top of the national receiving chart with 815 yards and seven touchdowns.
A surprisingly effective defense complemented the offense, and Illinois swept its first six games to get off to its best start since 1951.
But the Illini since have backslid, dropping three straight games. While the defense continues to perform well, the offense has disappeared.
Illinois has scored only 28 points during the losing streak, including none in the first half and only seven before the fourth quarter. Amazingly, the Illini had more yards and more first downs than any of its past three opponents -- Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State -- and dropped all three contests.
What's wrong with the Illini offense? It's not complicated, according to Petrino.
"Blocking, protecting, throwing and catching -- the basics," Petrino told ESPN.com. "You've got to block people. You've got to hit people when they're open. You've got to catch the ball. And then you've got to run through some tackles. Just the basic stuff we've got to do better. We've kind of hurt ourselves from that standpoint in the last three games.
"We've got to do it better."
They need to start Saturday against No. 24 Michigan at Memorial Stadium. Illinois' once-promising season could go down the drain if the offense doesn't resurface.
A potential turnaround for the Illini starts with the offensive line, considered one of the Big Ten's best before the season. Illinois boasts experience up front and continuity, as there has been only one change in the starting lineup all season.
But Illinois' front five has struggled against some of the Big Ten's best defensive linemen, allowing too many negative-yardage plays. Opposing teams have recorded 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks during Illinois' losing streak.
"A lot of times we've been getting beat up front," Petrino said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it's always the O-line. Sometimes it's the tight end or the back, [and the] quarterback a couple times needed to get the ball out of his hands quicker."
Petrino also is looking for more big plays. Jenkins and Scheelhaase provided a bunch of them early in the season, but defenses have done better at limiting Jenkins' effectiveness the past three games.
Illinois has recorded just three plays of 20 yards or longer in the past three games -- all passes from Scheelhaase to Jenkins.
"Some of the other guys have got to do it, too," Petrino said. "Darius Millines did it early in the year and he was hurt for a while, but I think he's getting back, being closer to being 100 percent, so that will help. Jon Davis, our freshman tight end, has made some plays for us. Ryan Lankford has got to start making some plays.
"And then in the running game, we've got to bust through the holes and get some long runs, also."
Senior running back Jason Ford has been a bright spot, recording 183 rush yards on 34 carries in the past two games. But Ford's longest run this season is just 18 yards.
"Bottom line, defenses are too good this day and age if you go three, four yards the whole time," Petrino said. "You've got to get some big plays."
Illinois also needs to start games better, especially against a Michigan team that has improved as games go along. The Illini averaged 17.5 points in the first half through the first six games, but they've since limped out of the gate.
"We haven't played worth a darn in the first quarter of the last three games," Petrino said. "It's something we take pride in. We script our opening plays and we work on them all week.
"So we've got to go out and play fast and definitely get going early."
Saturday would be a good time for a better start.
What looked like a pivotal game for both Purdue and Illinois could turn out to be just that.
If so, the Boilers will be a team to watch in the Leaders division during the second half of the season. The Fighting Illini, meanwhile, could be headed for very bad things after winning their first six games, their best start since 1951.
Purdue dominated Illinois for the first three quarters before holding on in the fourth to win 21-14. The 23rd-ranked Illini will depart the BCS standings and the national polls Sunday.
After scoring three quick touchdowns in the first half, Purdue turned to its defense to seal the win. Illinois didn't get in the red zone until 8:36 remained in the game and got on the scoreboard for the first time moments later. As was the case last week against Ohio State, Illinois found its offensive rhythm far too late in the game.
The Illini entered the game ranked seventh nationally in third-down conversion percentage (53.1), but Purdue prevented them from moving the chains with its pressuring defense (Illinois converted just 6 of 17 attempts). Led by defensive tackle Kawann Short, who had a monster game, the Boilers recorded five sacks and made life miserable for Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
Purdue also found its quarterback in junior Caleb TerBush, who fired two first-half touchdown passes and completed 16 of 25 passes. Robert Marve didn't see any action, and it seems like the Boilers will move forward with TerBush as their man under center. Although Purdue didn't do much offensively in the second half, coordinator Gary Nord had a creative game plan against a talented Illinois defense today.
After scoring 79 points in its first two Big Ten games, the Illini have managed just 21 in their past two. Scheelhaase hasn't been nearly as sharp as he was earlier in the season, and while A.J. Jenkins recorded eight catches, he didn't reach the end zone. Things only get tougher next week for Ron Zook's squad, which visits Happy Valley and faces arguably the Big Ten's best defense in Penn State.
After months of disappointment on and off the field, the Buckeyes earned the right to lift their arms in victory. Behind a suffocating defense and the triumphant return of top running back Dan Herron, Ohio State beat No. 16 Illinois 17-7 for its first Big Ten win. The Illini lost for the first time this season after living on the edge for several weeks.
Ohio State coach Luke Fickell deserves a lot of credit for keeping the team focused and united after the collapse at Nebraska. Fickell undoubtedly will be thrilled with his defense, which bounced back with an impressive performance against Nathan Scheelhaase, A.J. Jenkins and one of the Big Ten's most dangerous offenses. The win wasn't pretty to many, but Fickell, as a longtime defense coach, had to be loving it.
Behind several defensive standouts -- DT Johnathan Hankins, DL John Simon, S Tyler Moeller, CB Bradley Roby, CB Travis Howard -- Ohio State kept Illinois off the scoreboard for more than 53 minutes. The Buckeyes forced three second-half takeaways, converting the first two into touchdowns.
Quarterback Braxton Miller didn't complete a pass until the fourth quarter -- he connected for a 17-yard touchdown on his first attempt -- but Ohio State limited mistakes on offense and received a terrific performance from Herron.
Now the Buckeyes head into a much-needed bye before their showdown against Wisconsin.
I'll have much more from Memorial Stadium, so don't go anywhere ...
A few thoughts at the end of three quarters, as Ohio State leads No. 16 Illinois 10-0.
- Ohio State's defense has been absolutely brilliant today. Linemen Johnathan Hankins and John Simon are consistently beating Illinois’ veteran offensive line. The back seven also has stepped up, and freshman CB Bradley Roby provided the biggest play of the game, intercepting a Nathan Scheelhaase pass and returning the ball to the Illini 12-yard line. Ohio State scored on the next play. Coach Luke Fickell has to love what he's seeing from the defense.
- While the Buckeyes offense hasn't been pretty, Dan Herron continues to provide a huge boost in his return from suspension. The senior already has eclipsed 100 yards rushing and scored the touchdown on a 12-yard scamper. He has run with both speed and power and looks very much like a guy with fresh legs.
- Illinois started to pass the ball better in the third quarter but can't hit on the big play. Scheelhaase has looked jittery at times, fumbling several snaps, although he made a big throw to A.J. Jenkins for a third-and-15 conversion at the end of the quarter.
- Illini RB Jason Ford left the game with a left shoulder injury early in the quarter. It looked pretty bad at first but Ford trotted to the locker room for further evaluation. His return is uncertain.
Stat of the half: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller didn't attempt a pass until midway through the second quarter and finished the half 0-for-3 passing. He was sacked four times.
Best player in the half: Several defenders stood out for both teams, but Jonathan Brown was an absolute beast in his return from suspension. The Illinois linebacker recorded 11 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks. Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus (2 TFLs, 1.5 sacks) and Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins (3 tackles, 1 TFL) also were terrific.
What Ohio State needs to do in the second half: Unlike last week at Nebraska, the Buckeyes' tackling has been extremely sound, and Illinois has had a tough time stretching the field. Ohio State must continue to keep Illini star WR A.J. Jenkins in check (3 receptions, 27 yards) and force QB Nathan Scheelhaase to look elsewhere. It's clearly a defensive struggle, so Ohio State must make Illinois work for its points. On offense, running backs Dan Herron (70 rush yards) and Jordan Hall (43 rush yards) have been terrific, but Miller must provide some passing threat or Illinois will load up.
What Illinois needs to do in the second half: Make Miller beat them through the air. He has really struggled so far, and Illinois' constant pressure on the pocket is a big reason why. The Illini needs to prevent big runs by Herron and Hall and force Ohio State to mount a sustained drive. On offense, accelerating the tempo might be a good idea against a fundamentally sound Ohio State defense. Coordinator Paul Petrino tried to do so late in the half, but Illinois never got in a rhythm on offense.
Ohio State leads the series 63-30-4 and holds a 34-12 edge in Champaign.
It's a beautiful day for football, as the skies are clear and there's a slight chill in the air. The wind could be a factor as it's blowing at a decent clip to the southeast. A good atmosphere around the stadium today, as Illinois fans are understandably excited about their team, which is off to its best start since 1951.
Illinois is the undefeated team, but most of the pressure rests with Ohio State today. The Buckeyes are trying to avoid dropping below .500 this late in the year for the first time since 1988, the team's last losing season. With Wisconsin coming to Columbus on Oct. 29, Ohio State wants to avoid going 0-for-October. An offense that performed well for two and a half quarters at Nebraska regains the services of senior running back Dan Herron, who returns from suspension. It will be interesting to see how Herron is used among Ohio State's other backs (Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall).
Braxton Miller's health will be a big storyline today. The Buckeyes freshman will start at quarterback after leaving the Nebraska game with a sprained right ankle. The sprain doesn't appear too severe, but how it affects his mobility remains to be seen. Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has been effectively aggressive and creative all season. He'll look for ways to put Miller under pressure, and Ohio State will need a strong performance from its line and its backs in protection.
The Illinois offense comes in with a lot of confidence, as quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins both are playing at an All-Big Ten level. Ohio State's defense needs to rebound after being steamrolled by Nebraska in the final 23 minutes in Lincoln. It's important for Illinois to develop weapons other than Jenkins, whether it's through the run game or with the pass. Darius Millines, the team's No. 2 receiver, will be a game-time decision after missing the past two games with a foot injury.
Illinois has shown impressive resilience this season, fighting through mistakes to get wins. But the Illini need to be careful against an Ohio State team with its back against the wall.
Much more to come throughout the day, so don't go anywhere.
Record: 6-0 (2-0 Big Ten)
Some teams benefit from an advantageous schedule. Still, it's up to the team to make the most of that advantage. Illinois has definitely done that. Thanks in large part to an ultra-friendly slate that kept them at home for the first five weeks before a road game at struggling Indiana, the Illini are off to their best start since the 1951 team began 7-0. But let's give Ron Zook's team some credit beyond the schedule as well. Like it was at the end of last year, the Illinois offense is a balanced, well-oiled machine, averaging almost the same amount of rushing yards (226) as passing yards (221). Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has improved as a passer and remains a strong running threat, while senior A.J. Jenkins has blossomed into the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten. They're augmented by a deep backfield (Jason Ford, Donovonn Young and Troy Pollard) that has made up for the loss of Mikel Leshoure. Maybe more impressively, the defense absorbed the loss of NFL draft picks Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson without much problem. Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan have harassed opposing quarterbacks from their defensive end spots, and linebacker Jonathan Brown -- when he isn't kneeing players in the groin -- comes flying at ball carriers in all directions. Illinois has also showed a fighting spirit, winning three straight games by exactly three points. Of course, it helped that those all came at home. But the Illini have maximized that assistance so far this season.
Offensive MVP: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. It's hard to go against Scheelhaase, who is putting together a terrific season and who has accounted for 14 touchdowns throwing and running this year. But Jenkins has been superb as Scheelhaase's favorite target. He ranks fifth nationally in receiving yards and leads the Big Ten with 46 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior has looked unblockable at times while leading the Big Ten in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (four). Not bad for a guy who had started only two career games before this season.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
7:24 2nd Qtr 5 Missouri 17 3 Auburn 21 Halftime 25 Texas 3 9 Baylor 3 8:00 PM ET 20 Duke 1 Florida State 8:17 PM ET 2 Ohio State 10 Michigan State 7:45 PM ET 7 Stanford 11 Arizona State 10:00 PM ET Utah State 23 Fresno State Final 17 Oklahoma 33 6 Oklahoma State 24 Final 16 UCF 17 Southern Methodist 13