CHAMPAIGN — Nathan Scheelhaase is not a football coach.
He’s the University of Illinois quarterback and an honest assessment of his skills would award him high marks for leadership, toughness and willingness to absorb a beating but much more modest marks for natural passing ability.
He’s tough as a two-dollar steak. But in a sport where strong-armed, pin-point passers are drooled over like U.S. Prime porterhouse, Scheelhaase would make a nice hamburger.
That said, he understands the game and therefore has a pretty fair notion of what it might feel like to be Illinois’ offensive play-caller.
I’m not sure any of us can appreciate what issues hamstring the play calling of Illini coach Chris Beatty. We know that Illinois is last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, last in rushing offense and last in total offense.
We also know that it’s a weak offensive line that has now allowed 37 sacks, by far the most given up in the Big Ten. We know there are no track athletes playing wide receiver and the running backs are a sophomore and a redshirt freshman.
But every fan who has been brave enough to sit in Memorial Stadium also knows that it takes a special kind of fortitude to endure three hours watching the
Illini offense inch its way around the carpet like a wooly worm.
There is not one ounce of exaggeration in saying the Illini offense is difficult to watch. They’ve converted the expression “three yards and a cloud of dust” into an apt description of their passing attack.
In the second half Saturday, Scheelhaase completed a 22-yard pass to Darius Millines and the way the crowd leaped to its feet, you’d have thought Illinois uncorked a 96-yard touchdown play.
That’s because Illinois has turned the two-yard pass completion into an art form. And Scheelhaase knows how tough it must be for Beatty to operate within such a limited framework, praying there are no miscues in a multi-play drive that shuffles only a few yards at a time.
While generating two second-half touchdowns Saturday, Illinois drove 69 yards in 10 plays and 95 yards in 13 plays.
No big strikes. No fireworks. Just dink and dunk and hope there’s no penalties or turnovers.
“The margin for error is small and that’s something we have to get better at,” Scheelhaase said. “Not only for shots downfield, but we have to make those big plays every once in a while.
“Those two possessions were long possessions. But running that many plays, you have to be perfect. You can’t have mental mistakes or dropped balls or missed throws because you are relying on a 5-yard gain and a 4-yard gain to stay in front of the chains.
“At some point you want to have a drive that’s three plays, 75 yards. We have to make guys miss in the open field and make big plays. Me, too.
“I’m not a coach, but it would mean a lot more pressure if you have just one bad play and it put you behind where you needed to be.”
To his credit, Beatty has been a standup guy, appearing in front of the media without fail to explain why his offense moves like a Model-T in the Indy 500. On Saturday, he admitted the inconsistent pass blocking and lack of speed at receiver has been a killer.
“When you try to figure out what you can do, you have to consider pass protection,” he said. “And right now, we don’t have the one guy who can stretch the field.
“It’s hard to call plays…when you don’t have a chance to get those chunk plays. That’s been our issue all year.”
I don’t know if Beatty will be back next season. Beckman will return, but it seems that he has to change the makeup of his staff.
There were 41,974 tickets sold for Saturday’s game and much less than that showed up. Those who did get high praise for loyalty because watching the 2012 Illini offense has been a painful challenge.
In his most honest moments, even Scheelhaase would understand that.