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Illinois’ next game is a work in progress

Illinois is hoping QB Nathan Scheelhaase’s ankle will be healthy enough for him play few series against CharlestSouthern. | Seth

Illinois is hoping QB Nathan Scheelhaase’s ankle will be healthy enough for him to play a few series against Charleston Southern. | Seth Perlman~AP

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:40AM

It’s fashionable these days — and fitting because college football, after all, is an arm of higher education — to run Monday morning columns about ‘‘What We Learned’’ the previous Saturday.

These conclusions are fun and enlightening because college football is so fluid, and every game is fraught with forward motion or backward staggering.

Except that when it comes to Illinois, it should be ‘‘What We Un-learned.’’

A defense that looked pretty good against Western Michigan backpedaled in the wrong direction at Arizona State. It wasn’t all about the opponent, either. The Broncos, who have a talented senior quarterback, are expected to be a solid Mid-American team. And the Sun Devils will have to prove they can continue to harness their speed.

And for all the enthusiasm about understudies Reilly O’Toole and Miles Osei, they did nothing to change the notion that Illinois will sink or swim with Nathan Scheelhaase. The quarterbacks might get equal reps in practice, but they still might not be all that equal.

What will we learn this week with FCS little-guy Charleston Southern in town? How to make Low Country shrimp and grits?

That might sound more appetizing than the mismatch on the field. And it certainly would look good on the menu for one of new coach Tim Beckman’s victory feasts.

But, no, what we’re going to learn are some things about Beckman and his staff, who are off to an encouraging start.

As dismal as that 48-14 stumble at Arizona State looked, it was one game that shaped up as tough to win. And without Scheelhaase, who might have kept the score from getting so lopsided, we learned more about ASU than the Illini.

But Illinois has an important three-game homestand in which Louisiana Tech and Penn State will come to Champaign. If it protects home turf, Illinois could have a lot to play for in the Leaders Division.

That said, Illinois will have its hands full. Louisiana Tech is the high-octane favorite in the WAC. And two heartbreaking losses are only going to thicken the hide of Penn State.

That’s why it’s so important that Beckman and his assistants use the Charleston Southern game well.

The first question is at quarterback. Ideally, Scheelhaase’s ankle will be healthy enough for him to play a few early series, build a lead, then hand the reins to O’Toole and Osei, who could use the work.

With or without Scheelhaase, it’s probably best to pay special attention to Osei, whose mobility gives him a leg up on O’Toole.

On defense, the Illini need to eliminate the communication mistakes and restore confidence. Illinois’ defense also needs to do a better job of masking its weaknesses and emphasizing the strength of its line.

But we won’t really know what we’ve learned from the Charleston Southern game until after the Louisiana Tech and Penn State games.

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