Illini have opportunity to spark rushing attack against Hoosiers

By By: Stephen Bourbon

In offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s first year at Illinois, the improvements to the offense have been widespread.

The Illini rank significantly higher this season in key statistical areas such as total offense, passing offense, first downs and scoring offense from the 2012 team.

One area, however, that has remained stagnant is rushing offense. In 2012, the Illini rushed for 125.3 yards per game — 11th in the conference. A year later, those numbers are nearly identical: 133.3 yards per game and again second-to-last in the Big Ten.

“It’s hard, it really is,” Cubit said. “It doesn’t magically happen. When you’re trying to win games, what’s the best way for us to win games? You got to throw the ball.”

The Illini use two running backs, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, in the rushing game. Both split carries in the rushing game. Ferguson leads the team in rushing with 395 yards rushing and three touchdowns but hasn’t been able to get going recently. In the past three games against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State, Ferguson averaged just 28.3 yards per game on 3.1 yards per carry average.

In those three games, Young hasn’t been much better. He recorded 12 yards against Wisconsin and 21 yards rushing against Penn State but didn’t even see the field against Michigan State.

Outside of the two running backs, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is the team’s third-leading rusher. Scheelhaase, who has rushed for 1,901 yards in his career, has just 106 yards this season, and Cubit has stressed that he wants his quarterback to stay in the pocket and make throws rather than scramble.

“We’ve had some different game plans,” Ferguson said. “We had the field spread out and the linebackers haven’t spread out to the receivers, so that’s why we passed a little more.”

One reason the rushing game hasn’t been as effective or relied on as much is the Illini have been down in games early on, forcing the offense to go to the air more often. In the team’s five losses, the Illini have gone into halftime facing a deficit each time and were outscored 89-31 in the first halves of those games.

“We’ll continue to harp on running the ball more, the better we play early in games,” head coach Tim Beckman said.

There is an opportunity to jump start the stagnant rushing attack this weekend against Indiana. The Hoosiers enter Saturday’s game with the 117th-ranked defense in the country out of 123 FBS teams and 114th against the run; however, Cubit said that just because the opposing defense has a weakness in an area doesn’t mean the Illini can afford to be predictable.

“It’s the same thing if they’re not covering the wideouts out there and throw it out there and the guy gets five yards, you say that you have a five-yard average. I’ll do that every single time,” Cubit said. “If you think you’re going to pound the ball without big, massive offensive linemen and big, strong tailbacks, a great defense is going to stop it. It’s hard.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.