CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Nathan Scheelhaase thought a little bit about what might have been had Terrelle Pryor stayed at Ohio State and been behind center for Saturday's matchup with No. 16 Illinois.
"In retrospect, that would have been cool," said Scheelhaase, the sophomore quarterback who has led the Illini to a perfect 6-0 start (2-0 Big Ten). Then he came back to reality.
"We're just focusing on who they've got," he said.
While Illinois is hoping to stay on top of the Big Ten Leaders Division, the Buckeyes (3-3, 0-2) are trying to save their season.
"It's a tough spot to be in," tight end Jake Stoneburner said. "We can't be thinking, 'Oh, we're three and three right now. The season's over.' We've still got six games left. We have a lot to play for."
Instead of Pryor, now in the NFL, Scheelhaase's counterpart will be Braxton Miller, a true freshman who looked a lot like the real thing last week at Nebraska before his fumble gave the struggling Cornhuskers life they turned into a win.
Miller left that game with a sprained ankle but he's expected to be fine by Saturday's kickoff.
Where Miller now stands — a freshman finding his way — Scheelhaase was a year ago.
Unlike Miller, Scheelhaase had a redshirt year before he took over as a starter last season, but in any given week he was anything from amazing to awful. At Ohio State last October, he ran for 12 yards and threw for 109 in a 24-13 loss. A week later, he led the Illini to a 33-13 shocker at Penn State.
This year, Scheelhaase has run for a steady 347 yards on 94 carries, but it is his passing game that has come a long way. Scheelhaase is 80 of 120 with just three interceptions against 10 touchdowns. He is averaging 206 yards a game, fourth among Big Ten passers.
"It's easy to tell if a quarterback's matured, if they can go to their first read and then they can go to their second, third, check down. That's what he can do," Ohio State linebacker Andrew Sweat said. "Some guys they just throw it one way and lock into one person. But he's maturing and he's learning the schematic aspect."
Scheelhaase's favorite target this season, wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, leads the country in receiving yards with 815 on 77 catches, including seven touchdowns. Has last two performances have been downright gaudy — 182 yards and two touchdowns last week at Indiana and 268 yards and three TDs two Saturdays ago against Northwestern.
Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby isn't all that impressed. He said Jenkins' success is a product of Illinois' scheme and Scheelhaase's ability to find him.
"That's really why he catches so many passes, because they move him around, they try to get (favorable) matchups for him against linebackers and stuff like that," Roby said. "What I've seen so far, he's a decent receiver. But he's nothing special."
Miller, in three starts and five total games, has 273 yards rushing and 386 yards in the air on 25-of-47 passing for the Buckeyes. He's thrown for four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Against the Cornhuskers, Miller had 91 yards rushing and 95 more along with a touchdown before leaving the game.
"He was more comfortable out there," interim Buckeyes coach Luke Fickell said. "We made some plays so that obviously gave him an opportunity to be more comfortable, and he's continuing to grow."
While much of the focus will be on the quarterbacks, one of Ohio State's best weapons of a year ago will slip back into the lineup this Saturday, too.
Daniel Herron was the Buckeyes' leading rusher in 2010 with 1,196 yards, and scored the fourth quarter touchdown that put the Illini away in Columbus.
He hasn't played this season, serving a five-game suspension for his role in the improper benefits scandal that cost Jim Tressel his job, then sitting out last week for receiving too much pay at a summer job offered by a booster.
Herron will play, and while Fickell isn't sure how much, it's clear he's been missed.
"Dan is a big part of who we are," Fickell said. "Not just what we've missed from him on the field, but in the locker room, off the field, in the huddle, just that his personality, his passion, his confidence level. That's something that we are going to try and ride, and in order to do that he's going to have to have a hand in it and have a part of it, and he will."
Illinois coach Ron Zook said he wouldn't be surprised if Illinois saw a lot of Herron.
"It's going to probably be the first series," Zook said. "He's been practicing, he just hasn't played. He's probably champing at the bit to get going."
The last time Illinois was ranked higher than the Buckeyes when the teams played was in 2001, when the No. 12 Illini beat No. 25 Ohio State 34-22. And the last time the Illini faced an unranked Buckeyes team, most of this year's team wasn't born — 1989, when the 18th-ranked Illini breezed by Ohio State, 34-14.