Josh Ferguson: Running in the right direction

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Josh Ferguson: Running in the right direction

Illinois' Josh Ferguson (6) carries the ball during the game against Texas State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. The Illini won 42-35.

Illinois' Josh Ferguson (6) carries the ball during the game against Texas State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. The Illini won 42-35.

Illinois' Josh Ferguson (6) carries the ball during the game against Texas State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. The Illini won 42-35.

Illinois' Josh Ferguson (6) carries the ball during the game against Texas State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. The Illini won 42-35.

By Sean Neumann

It was a rare moment of unrestricted joy. One of those moments of life that sticks in memory as a truly “good time.” In fact, it was the first moment of the game against Texas State for Josh Ferguson.

The Illini running back broke free on a 75-yard run after a screen pass from Wes Lunt. All he saw in front of him was green. All he saw alongside him were his friends protecting him.

Just a few years ago, no one expected Ferguson to be the guy running for a 75-yard touchdown. He came to Illinois under a cloud of doubt with his small size for a running back — weighing just 175 pounds his freshman year.

“I’m a praying guy,” Ferguson said, explaining how he fought through the low expectations. “I had support from my team and my family, which helped. It was a process.”

The process saw Ferguson gain 20 pounds of muscle since his freshman year, and although he’s still a quiet guy off the field, he’s a veteran leader in the Illini locker room.

“I talk a little more than I have in the past, but mainly, I just want to lead by my actions,” Ferguson said.

And that’s what he’s been able to do best.

Ferguson had a career-high game Saturday against Texas State, marking personal bests in rushing yards (190), touchdowns (three) and all-purpose yards (233).

Even after Ferguson’s impressive performance — which helped lead the Illini to a 42-35 win over Texas State — sophomore quarterback Wes Lunt said the junior back was calm as ever. 

“He’s a pretty even-keel guy,” Lunt said. “As long as we win, he’s a happy guy. It’s been waiting to happen those first three games — for him to explode — and he did a heck of a job.”

Illinois’ running game had struggled before Saturday, failing to break anywhere over 78 yards on the ground in the first three games of the season — averaging just 2.7 yards per rush. The Illini’s 219 rushing yards against Texas State was more than they had in their first three games combined. 

Ferguson was averaging just 42 yards per game. 

“We’d been struggling with him,” Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said of Ferguson. “He hasn’t been as productive as he was before. The expectations are so much higher.”

The expectations haven’t just risen for Ferguson, who had a break-out year in 2013 when he ranked second in the country in receiving yards per game by a running back (44.6). They’ve also risen for the entire Illini offense. 

Cubit said the offensive players feel pressure to score on every drive, which is a feeling the coach said is beneficial.

“If you play any other way, you’re fooling yourself,” Cubit said. “We’ve got to come up guns a blazin’ and get going. That’s just the way it is.”

One of Cubit’s best weapons in his offensive arsenal is the dual-threat Ferguson provides in the backfield.

The running back has the second-most receiving yards by a running back in program history and broke Illinois’ single-season record for receiving yards by a back last year with 535 in 12 games. 

Ferguson’s 33-yard touchdown reception against Texas State helped close the gap and shift momentum when the Illini were trailing in the second half. “I think it’s pretty cool because the linebackers have a little bit more to worry about,” Ferguson said. “With a guy that just runs the ball, you can say he’s one dimensional. But with someone that can catch and give the defense a little more headaches, I think that’s great for an offense to have.”

Even when Ferguson doesn’t get the ball, he said he feels productive by simply getting in the defensive players’ heads as he provides a threat on every play — whether it’s a pass or a run.

Off the field, Ferguson has had his share of student-athlete stress — not only dealing with the criticism of his size when he arrived at Illinois, but also a hamstring injury that kept him out for his true freshman year. 

Ferguson said the biggest tool in clearing his head is sleep.

“That’s the only true thing that relaxes me, because I can get my mind completely off whatever I need to get it off at the moment,” he said.

The demanding schedule for a student-athlete forces Ferguson to pick and choose his focus between the integral parts of his life: school, football and social life.

“In the grand scheme of things when you sit back and think about it — why you came here, why you are a student-athlete — it’s not that hard of a decision to make,” Ferguson said. “Being here is a dream come true. I wanted to be a college athlete since I was 8 years old. I think about those things and it makes the decisions easier to make.”

Ferguson’s faith also allowed him to keep a peace of mind when it came to turning things around on the field, which finally happened last weekend against the Bobcats.

“I was confident that at some point we were going to break loose,” Ferguson said. “That’s how it happens. When you press the issue, it’s just going to break open at some point.”

And it didn’t just break open for Ferguson. It broke open in record numbers.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.