CHAMPAIGN -- Who is Illinois? The schools new slogan is, "Our State. Our Team," but is this a team that even knows its identity?
The Illini are struggling to stay healthy in coach Tim Beckmans first year, which has led to many young players, including true freshmen, playing significant minutes. The biggest health issue, however, is at quarterback.
Junior signal-caller Nathan Scheelhaase returned to the starting lineup on Saturday for the first time since Illinois' win over Western Michigan on Sept. 1. His time behind center was brief, however. After a pair of turnovers, Beckman pulled the starter in favor of sophomore Reilly OToole.
After the game Beckman refused to be drawn into commenting about the quarterback controversy. He toed the party line, insisting that the starting position will be won over the next few days.
"We will evaluate the film and practice next week and make a decision against Penn State. We will make sure we have the one who performs best throughout the week at quarterback," Beckman said.
Likewise, the players played down any notion of a controversy at quarterback. OToole even praised his counterpart in advance.
"Scheelhaase just didnt have his burst tonight. He's close; hes getting better every day and next week, hell be great," the sophomore said.
As far as team identity goes, however, the players were not concerned that their non-conference season would define them. Likewise, the lack of clarity at the quarterback season was not going to distract the Illini from their goal of reaching a Big 10 championship.
"The only thing that affects the team is how many points we put on the board. Thats the only thing that matters at the end of the day," Scheelhaase said. "Everyones confident in what were doing at the quarterback position and we just have to go out as quarterbacks and execute."
Receiver Ryan Lankford echoed that sentiment, citing personal improvement as the key rather than consistency behind center.
"We have to do our job, we cant be worrying about who is starting. Youre one-eleventh of the team, youre just the position you play," he said.
The Illinois players indicated an eagerness to view the start of the conference season as a fresh start for the team. Each player mentioned 12112, the date of the Big 10 championship game in Indianapolis, as their primary goal and the only thing they want to focus on in the coming weeks.
Its still early, we have a lot of football left and we havent played our best yet, OToole said.
To get to their best football Lankford says the team should look to each other for support.
"Were a new team, this is a new era. We have to do things better, we have to come together. Were all weve got, so we have to band together," he said.