CHAMPAIGN — Nathan Scheelhaase is taking opinion out of the debate.
The fifth-year Illini quarterback is letting numbers state the case that despite a 2012 season he’d just as soon forget, he’s still capable of being an effective leader for the Illini offense.
After having a second straight outstanding game in Illinois’ 45-17 upset of Cincinnati Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Scheelhaase and first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit are proving to be a formidable team.
Cubit has brought creative formations and clever play-calling and he has empowered Scheelhaase to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
Saturday, it helped Scheelhaase put himself in contention for his second straight Big Ten Conference offensive player of the week honor.
No one is suggesting that Scheelhaase should be added to the Heisman Trophy “watch” list, but his numbers through the 2-0 start sparkle.
Against Cincinnati he completed 26 of 37 passes for 312 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Add that to last week’s performance and he’s 54-of-73 (74 percent) for 728 yards, six touchdowns and one interception.
He had four touchdown passes in all of 2012.
Plus he’s thrown to a dozen different receivers and five of his six touchdowns have gone for 22 yards or longer.
“Nathan has done a fabulous job,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “Right now he’s phenomenal.”
Scheelhaase said a return to health after an injury-plagued 2012 season has been part of his resurgence. And his pairing with Cubit has renewed his confidence.
“It’s just great to walk into games 100 percent healthy,” Scheelhaase said. “We had plays we liked today and when we ran them, they worked. That’s a great feeling.
“Coach Cubit has enough confidence in me to let me make some calls at the line of scrimmage and I don’t think he would do that if I was messing them up.”
Cubit heard all kinds of opinions about Scheelhaase when he first arrived, but he’s learned to draw his own conclusions.
“I’m around one of the greatest kids I’ve ever coached,” Cubit said. “The kid cares. Just to see him throw the ball when a lot of people said he can’t throw it. I mean, he’s doing a pretty good job. He’s having a lot of fun out there.”
Cubit said Scheelhaase’s experience and smarts make up for whatever he may lack in arm strength.
“To be honest, I think most great quarterbacks do not have the strongest arms. They are smart, they understand where to go with the ball and they understand timing and anticipation.
“Give me those quarterbacks every day of the week. Those big-armed guys, they want to throw it through the eye of a needle and here, our kids don’t do it. You’d better throw the ball on time.”
TACKLE KINGS: It was a good day for the Illini linebackers.
Jonathan Brown led the team with 14 tackles while fellow linebacker Mason Monheim had 10. Safety Earnest Thomas III had eight tackles and redshirt freshman safety Taylor Barton had seven tackles and an interception.
HEADING NORTH: It doesn’t get any easier for the Illini.
Up next is its “Chicago Homecoming” game at Soldier Field. Illinois faces the Washington Huskies at 5 p.m., Saturday in a game that will be televised on the Big Ten Network.
It’s Illinois’ first game in Chicago since it defeated Northwestern 48-27 at Wrigley Field on Nov. 10, 2010.