CHAMPAIGN — While Illinois will celebrate the next time it draws 50,000 people to a home football game, it’s worth pausing to consider the history and tradition of this week’s opponent, the University of Nebraska.
Xx The Huskers, who joined the Big Ten in time for the 2011 football season, are preparing Saturday for their 330th consecutive home sellout. Memorial Stadium attendance at each of four home games so far this season has topped 90,000.
Xx Nebraska has won five national championships (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, 1997) and has 49 all-time bowl appearances, third most in the country.
Xx Since 1970, Nebraska has won 425 games, 25 more than any other school.
There’s more, of course, but to understand it you’d need to attend a game in Lincoln, Neb. And when Illini head coach Tim Beckman asked for a show of hands from anyone who had ever been to Lincoln, only a couple poked into the air.
One of them belonged to Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
He understands the storied history of the Nebraska football program. He has stood on the sideline when Nebraska was going cleat-to-cleat with a Southern California team ranked No.1 in the country. He knows what it sounds like and feels like to be on the field and gaze up into the stands for a sellout spring football game. He even knows what it’s like to sit in the office of head coach Bo Pelini and enjoy a nice chat.
Scheelhaase, you see, gave Nebraska strong consideration before finally committing to Illinois in the summer of 2008.
“I visited Nebraska a few times, probably as much as any other school besides Illinois,” Scheelhaase said this week. “They are about three hours from (his home in) Kansas City. They originally recruited me under coach (Bill) Callahan and still recruited me under coach Pelini.
“I’ve been around the stadium a couple of times, and I’m excited for this next visit.”
Scheelhaase and the Illini make their Big Ten season debut Saturday against the 3-1 Huskers and Scheelhaase said it won’t take long for his teammates to understand they are playing in a very special place.
“It’s one of the top venues you could ever play in,” said Scheelhaase, who comes into the game leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency. “There is not much that will have to be said in the locker room or on the field before the game to get everyone going. There will be enough electricity in that stadium.
“I’ve been telling the players and talking about it because I’m one of the few who has been there. I told them to just take it all in for a moment, then strap it up and be ready to go. It’s going to be a heck of a 60-minute football game.”
Scheelhaase’s career closely mirrors that of his quarterbacking counterpart, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez.
Born less than two months apart, they arrived on their respective campuses in the summer of 2009. Each redshirted as a freshman, Scheelhaase when Juice Williams was finishing his career and Martinez when Zac Lee was wrapping up his.
They each became starters as a redshirt freshman and in the four seasons since, each has had some ups and downs.
Martinez, without question, has been surrounded by more elite football teammates and Nebraska’s record during the past four seasons (32-13) reflects the difference. Illinois is 19-23 in the same stretch.
Each quarterback has endured criticism of his passing and each quarterback has shown improvement.
Most of all, each has held the starting job until his fifth and final season and while Martinez has battled some recent injury issues (a turf toe caused him to miss the Sept. 21 game vs. South Dakota State), Scheelhaase comes to Lincoln riding the best stretch of play in his career.
Pelini remembers recruiting the Illini quarterback.
“We thought he was going to be a really good player when we recruited him and it has turned out to be that way,” he said. “He can run, he’s smart, he makes good decisions. I haven’t seen him much over the past couple years, but I know right now he’s playing really good football.”
Scheelhaase has fond memories of Pelini.
“He’s a good guy,” he said. “I remember that summer, a couple of weeks before I committed to Illinois, I got a chance to sit with him in his office and hung out for about 30 minutes. He’s more of a defensive guy, but just talking to him, I have a whole lot of respect for him and the staff over there.
“Their running backs coach, Ron Brown, I heard him speak at some (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) events and talked to him, and I just have a lot of respect for their staff.”
While playing a Nebraska team that is averaging 43.2 points per game, Illinois is trying to end a 14-game Big Ten losing streak. The last time the Illini won in conference play was Oct. 8, 2011, at Indiana.
“Honestly, that hasn’t been mentioned,” Scheelhaase said this week. “We heard about it a lot last year, but we’ve put what we have done or haven’t done behind us. All we know is we’re a 3-1 football team right now getting ready to play a team that won their side of the division last year. That’s all the motivation you need.”