Passing game gives Illini path to perfection
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Illinois' path to a 5-0 start was threatened Saturday by a Northwestern team betting the Illini needed to run to win.
Northwestern played Saturday to stop the Illini ground game - which had been churning out 241 yards a game - and late in the third quarter the strategy was paying off.
The Illini had less than 50 yards rushing and the Wildcats were up 28-10 as the heart of their team, quarterback Dan Persa, took his first snaps since 2010 and rapidly shook off the rust.
But the Illini did the unexpected and turned things around by going to the air, rallying for a 38-35 victory that moved them up five spots to No. 19 in the AP Top 25 on Sunday.
"That's the main thing that we kept saying during halftime in the locker room,'' sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "Believe in the coaching we had all week, believe in the preparation, believe that what we're going to do out there on the field will work. That's what happened.''
The sophomore quarterback got off to a rough start but finished with the best day of his career, completing 21-32 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns - all to A.J. Jenkins - and an interception.
Jenkins, a senior who came close to leaving the school before the 2010 season, set Illinois' single-game receiving yardage record with 268 yards on 12 catches. He's now the No. 2 receiver in the country with 633 yards on 40 catches. He's averaging 126.6 yards a game, sixth best in the country.
Spencer Harris added six receptions for 63 yards, including a handful of big catches that moved the chains as Scheelhaase drove the Illini back in the second half.
"We definitely threw caution to the wind,'' Scheelhaase said. "We were able to throw the ball downfield and execute some long plays.''
Those passes included touchdown strikes of 50 and 33 yards to Jenkins, plus another 24-yarder to Jenkins that moved the Illini off their own 5 on a late drive.
"There were some things that we talked about (Friday) night that we felt like could be there if we did the right things,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "The offensive coaches did a great job of putting the plays together and getting AJ open.''
The game-winning drive, which started with 1:15 left, ended with Scheelhaase twisting and pushing his way into the end zone on a sneak from inside the 1. Scheelhaase looked stopped at first, but then he twisted forward and then left before barely muscling over the goal line.
Illinois had taken a late 31-28 lead only to cough the ball up at its 36 after Jason Ford's fumble. The Wildcats went back in front on Jacob Schmidt's touchdown.
Zook said a comeback win over Arizona State two weeks ago gave his team the confidence that they could score again against the Wildcats.
"If you look at our guys, you look in their eyes, there's no panic,'' he said. "They believe in themselves.''
And at 5-0, having made the most of a schedule that hasn't yet involved a road game, why not?
Next up is that first road trip, to Indiana on Saturday, followed by a return home to face Ohio State. Now those opponents will have to think about the pass before they decide to stack the line and gamble that Illinois, if it can't run, can't win.
Defensive pass-rush specialist Michael Buchanan, who finished with a sack and 10 tackles Saturday, said he got a kick out of seeing Scheelhaase and Jenkins light up the Wildcats, pulling off the improbable comeback.
"I think we will grow from (the game),'' he said. "Just coming out of it knowing we didn't play our best at all, and we still got the win.''