Fifth-year Pollard finally ‘doing it big’ to carry Illinois to 4-0 record

For the first four years of Troy Pollard’s collegiate career, he was the other guy with the long hair. Buried on the depth chart behind Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford for the past two seasons, “bucket of hair,” as Illini head coach Ron Zook refers to him, recorded modest numbers, running for a career-high 92-yards his freshman year against Syracuse.

Saturday, the Illini had their backs against the wall. After earning their first AP Top 25 ranking in four years, they trailed Western Michigan at halftime 13-10.

Pollard recorded 38 first half rushing yards on six carries.

“They all know, usually whoever practices the best or whoever plays the best during the game, that’s who’s going to get the ball the most,” Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said.

In the second half, Pollard rushed for 98 yards on eight carries, including a 49-yard run that set up Derek Dimke’s game-winning 21-yard field goal. Pollard joked that he hoped he would be safe from getting teased by the other running backs throughout the week for getting caught from behind on the run. Saturday was Pollard’s second 100-yard game of the season and his career.

“Troy did a great job, he ran hard and broke tackles,” Petrino said. “I just told him going out there, I said ‘you’re going to have a big game today.’ I just felt like he had a great week of practice. Some of the runs that we’re doing well, he runs real well. I was real proud of him. He had a great game.”

As a fifth-year senior, Pollard has seen his fair share of ups and downs. He arrived at Illinois rated as a top-50 running back by Rivals.com. In his freshman and sophomore years he missed more than half the season due to injury and was granted a medical hardship waiver extending his eligibility. As a junior, Pollard was given 11 total carries all season.

Against Western Michigan on Saturday, Pollard was finally the Illini’s most effective weapon, averaging 9.5 yards per carry.

“They call me the old guy around here, I’ve been around here for a long time,” Pollard said. “It feels pretty good to have a game like that to still see that I still got it. It felt good to make some plays and help the team out.”

Despite Pollard’s experience in the program, he’s never seen Illinois start the season 4-0, something the Illini hadn’t done since 1951. His 136-yard effort on Saturday ended a 60-year blemish on Illini football history.

“It’s great to be 4-0,” Pollard said. “It feels so good just to see the smiles in the locker room, guys happy jumping around. It’s pretty good to be 4-0.”

Right underneath Pollard in the stat sheet was freshman Donovonn Young, who turned out the first 100-yard game of his Illini career against the Broncos. Young said Pollard has served as a mentor since he arrived in Champaign from Katy, Texas. It’s a new role for the senior, who said he likes working with “great players” like Young and fellow freshman Josh Ferguson.

“Troy, that’s my man, I’m just excited for him,” Young said. “I’m excited that he’s been here five years and he’s finally doing it big. I’m just happy for him.”

Pollard said there’s no chance he’s cutting his dreads, which hang on his shoulders as he runs, despite Zook’s insistence that he might run faster if he cut his hair.

It’s been six years since he last got a haircut. Pollard is used to it by now. It’s a part of how he plays.

“I can’t say enough for Troy Pollard,” Zook said. “There’s a guy that’s just done a great job, keeps his mouth shut and does what he’s supposed to do.”