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QB Nathan Scheelhaase hopes he can help Illinois end season on high note

Nathan Scheelhaase

Nathan Scheelhaase

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Updated: January 30, 2012 10:35AM

SAN FRANCISCO — At some bowls, the players go to Disneyland. Here at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, they go to Alcatraz.

Illinois and UCLA enjoyed their visit to the infamous federal prison that closed in 1963. The teams shared pizza on their boat ride to the Rock and got along well. The only squawking came from seagulls hovering for scraps of crust.

Outsiders might chortle at executive director Gary Cavalli’s description of this game between the Illini and the Bruins as ‘‘a mini-Rose Bowl.’’ But beneath the distractions of this underrated bowl trip to a beautiful city, two maligned teams yearn to finish wrenching seasons on a positive note.

‘‘Our players understand that, yeah, there’s some things that didn’t go our way this season,’’ Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. ‘‘But there’s
still an opportunity. We want to prove we’re capable of winning a bowl game.’’

That’s in question because the Illini lost their last six games after a splendid 6-0 start, a swoon that cost coach Ron Zook his job.

The skid also reflected on Scheelhaase, who threw two touchdown passes in Illinois’ six losses after throwing 10 in their six victories.

‘‘Some things haven’t been fair to him,’’ interim coach Vic Koenning said. ‘‘We haven’t been able to establish a running game. The offensive line has had issues at times. It’s unfortunate that he takes a lot of the heat for it. It’s probably unfounded.’’

Scheelhaase knows that comes with the territory.

‘‘There were times when I didn’t play good enough for us to win,’’ he said. ‘‘You have to be consistent. You have to do things that get your team first downs and points on the board. I wish I’d been more consistent.’’

A dual threat who passed for 1,971 yards and ran for 514 more, Scheelhaase declined to cop any pleas. But the right shoulder he dinged Sept. 17 against Arizona State didn’t help.

‘‘That took some getting used to,’’ Scheelhaase said. ‘‘There were times it felt great, times when it was sore. That’s what happens in a season.’’

Not getting whacked by opponents since the regular-season finale Nov. 26 at Minnesota has helped his arm.

‘‘Even this week, after another four- or five-day [Christmas] break, it felt great throwing the ball,’’ Scheelhaase said.

With true freshman Reilly O’Toole lurking, it’s not clear what the future holds for Scheelhaase. O’Toole has an exceptional arm and was recruited by new Illini coach Tim Beckman when Beckman was at Toledo.

Beckman likes to point out the Rockets used a two-quarterback system this fall and had the
No. 1- and No. 3-rated quarterbacks in the Mid-American Conference.

If it’s about being an all-around winner, though, Scheelhaase will continue to take a big chunk of the snaps.

‘‘I’ve always had an affection for who he is as a person,’’ Koenning said. ‘‘I pray almost every day for my chldren to be safe and the good Lord to keep angels around them. I probably should pray for them to grow up to be like Nathan Scheelhaase. Football aside, what you want is a person to be as good a person as Nathan. He’s awesome. That’s the best compliment I can give him.’’

NOTE: Senior linebacker Trulon Henry, who was shot in the right hand Nov. 13 while trying to rescue some teammates from an unruly party, is looking like a go for the Kraft Bowl.

‘‘It feels good,’’ Henry said after having his cast sawed off.

If he plays, look for Henry, who won’t be making any interceptions ‘‘unless they’re one-handed,’’ to contribute more on special teams than on defense.

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