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updated: 8/28/2011 2:55 AM

Illinois shoots for back-to-back bowl berths

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  • Coach Ron Zook celebrates with tight end Evan Wilson after Illinois beat Purdue 44-10 last season. Wilson is back this fall.

      Coach Ron Zook celebrates with tight end Evan Wilson after Illinois beat Purdue 44-10 last season. Wilson is back this fall.
    Associated Press

  • Redshirt sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be trying to lead Illinois to back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history.

      Redshirt sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be trying to lead Illinois to back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history.
    Associated Press

 

The record book suggests continued success resides just beyond Illinois' grasp.

Until last season's Texas Bowl rout of Baylor, the Illini hadn't won a bowl game since 1999. That rousing win allowed Illinois to finish with a 7-6 record, but the program hasn't posted back-to-back winning seasons since 1989-90.

And if you're searching for the last time Illinois capped back-to-back seasons with bowl victories, don't waste time. It has yet to happen.

"Hopefully we're going to have an opportunity to do that," said seventh-year Illini coach Ron Zook. "It is a goal. It's important."

When sorting through the prouder seasons in Illinois annals, one common trait stands out: A mutual admiration society between quarterback and playcaller.

Kurt Kittner and Ron Turner. Jeff George and John Mackovic (OK, maybe they liked themselves best, but they won 16 games over two seasons). Jack Trudeau and Mike White.

Now add redshirt sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and second-year offensive coordinator Paul Petrino to this pantheon.

Petrino, who adored Scheelhaase's work ethic from the start of their partnership, devoted thousands of words this fall to his on-field improvement.

"You can really see how much he has advanced," Petrino said. "He understands the offense. Getting into the right run checks. Just kind of commands a respect and a leadership and that's usually where everything starts with a quarterback."

Can the 20-year-old Scheelhaase one-up his mentor?

"In my mind, Coach Petrino is the best offensive coordinator in the country," Scheelhaase said. "Not just from a strategy standpoint, but from a motivational standpoint and willing to do whatever it takes to get our team better. It's been amazing to work with him."

As Scheelhaase developed last fall, Illinois' offense went from adequate to unprecedented. The team averaged 42.1 points over the final seven games as Scheelhaase amassed 16 touchdowns with just 2 turnovers.

When he bootlegged 55 yards for a touchdown with 41 seconds left against Baylor, the Illini set the school's single-season scoring record (32.5 ppg).

While that last-minute sprint might not have been sporting, it served to reinforce the mindset Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brought upon arrival after the dismal 2009 season.

"The thing (Petrino and I) talk about from a leadership standpoint: what it takes on a team is a core group of leaders to change the way a team approaches games, approaches seasons," Scheelhaase said. "We've got that core group. I think (Petrino) and Coach Vic on the defense kind of inspire guys to have that leadership from within. That's going to be the thing to take our team to the top."

It's easy to look at Petrino's half of the team and project another record-breaking season on offense.

The team's top four offensive linemen are back. Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford join all-Big Ten-caliber wideout A.J. Jenkins to give Scheelhaase plenty of targets.

As long as senior Jason Ford (fifth among active Big Ten running backs with 1,362 career yards) stays healthy -- and freshman runners Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are as good as Petrino advertises -- Illinois could retain its title as the Big Ten's most prolific rushing team.

Then there's Koenning's side of the ball. More often than not over the last fortnight, Koenning walked off the practice field disappointed his defense couldn't match up with the Illini offense.

His job has been complicated not just by the early NFL entries of defensive tackle Corey Liuget (San Diego) and MLB Martez Wilson (New Orleans), but training-camp injuries to defensive tackle Akeem Spence and MLB Ian Thomas (they're OK for the Sept. 3 opener).

Only when Koenning takes a step back and measures the August 2011 defense to his August 2010 unit does he retain some optimism.

Emphasis on some.

"In the secondary, we're probably ahead," Koenning said. "We don't have any questions about that. I think schematically, the linebackers having a grasp of what's going on might be at least even. Probably ahead.

"I think upfront has been a point of emphasis just because we have really inexperienced guys. You look at our whole defense: The experience factor is not very great. That's part of the reason it's been a battle against the offense because they're experienced at every position."

• You can follow Lindsey's college football reports via Twitter @WillhiteHerald, and check out his Joe Sports blog at dailyherald.com.

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