Ford likely to see bigger role in running game

Jason Ford can expect a heavy workload Saturday.

While Illinois has distributed the carries between Ford, senior Troy Pollard and freshman Donovonn Young this season, Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said Ford could be the Illini’s featured back against Penn State this weekend.

“There’s a chance,” Petrino said of giving Ford more carries. “He’s just got to make sure that he’s ready to go. He definitely played a lot better last week, so there’s a chance we do that, no question.”

Starved for playmakers on offense outside of wide receiver A.J.

Jenkins and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, the Illini received their best effort of the season from Ford last Saturday against the Boilermakers. The senior had five receptions for 63 yards, a season high, and rushed for 87 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries.

“Coach Zook wants me to keep building into this week,” Ford said. “He wants me to punish like I did in the past few games. … I may not have been as productive as I wanted to be early, but I’m going to keep rolling and try and finish the season strong.”

Ford caught seven passes for 52 yards all of last season. Last week, he more than doubled his receiving total for this season, giving him 120 yards through eight games. Ford attributed the success to his above-average hands and said he likes helping Scheelhaase on check downs.

“It’s nice,” Scheelhaase said. “He catches the ball real well out of the backfield, and when he’s able to do that, he makes us more dangerous.”

Petrino said he intends to keep Ford involved in the passing game this week. He’s diagraming different ways to get the 235-pound running back into the open field so he can go one-on-one against smaller corners.

“There’s a couple routes that we run that are combinations with him and the tight end, and it helped get them both involved,” Petrino said. “Hopefully, we’ll continue to work on that, and some of it will be a bit different because they run different coverages. But we’ll definitely keep doing that.”

Illini head coach Ron Zook stressed the importance of establishing the run game early to open up Scheelhaase’s options through the air, something the Illini have struggled with the last two weeks. Late offensive starts have sunk Illinois in its losses, and Zook said finding a rhythm with Ford in the first quarter could solve the problem.

“I told Jason on Monday that we’re going to saddle him up and ride him,” Zook said. “That doesn’t mean the other guys aren’t going to play, but I think Jason has played extremely well over the last couple weeks, and you know, we just need to get him in there and let him roll.”

Penn State enters Saturday’s game ranked third in the Big Ten in rush defense, one spot beneath Illinois. The Nittany Lions have allowed 101.9 rushing yards per game and surrendered six touchdowns on the ground.

“If you’re able to establish the run early, for any team in any game, it helps you out,” Scheelhaase said. “Not only does it kind of build the confidence of what’s going on, but you’re moving the chains, you’re getting those guys on the other side tired, you know, but it opens a lot of things up. That’s what we did last year when we played Penn State — we ran the ball well early.”

Last season, the Illini ran for 282 yards on homecoming in Happy Valley. They came away with their first victory at Penn State in seven tries.