Ferguson shines in Illini win

Right from the opening kickoff against Miami (Ohio), running back Josh Ferguson was the focal point of the Illinois offense in a 50-14 win.

The sophomore scatback recorded the first five touches on offense to start the game for the Illini — three rushes for 25 yards and two catches for 39.

Whether he was lined up in the backfield or split out as a wide receiver in an “empty” five-wide receiver formation, the Illini and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit found different ways to get Ferguson the ball.

“Josh is a guy where you sit there and say, ‘I got to get the ball to him,’” Cubit said. “We need him, we need D.Y. (Donovonn Young). We need all these guys. They can’t come out and play 60, 70 plays — we’ll never last in the Big Ten.”

Young and Ferguson have been splitting carries for most of the season; although, the production hasn’t always been there. Against FCS opponent Southern Illinois, the Illini rushed for just 49 yards — averaging 1.6 yards per carry as a team. In the past three contests, however, Illinois has topped 200 yards on the ground twice, with a season-high output of 289 yards Saturday against Miami. One thing working in the Illini’s favor against the Redhawks was a lot of three-down linemen alignments that Miami used defensively.

“We made people miss, we ran people over,” Young said. “If you want to play us like that, we’re going to run the ball against you.”

Ferguson displayed the full arsenal of moves to slip by defenders and seemingly made multiple defenders miss on every touch. He utilized his patented spin move on a few occasions, but a variety of cuts, jukes and dekes gained extra yardage.

On the 15-yard line, with his team holding a 15-point lead early in the second quarter, Ferguson came out of the backfield and swung into the flat. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase dropped back to pass and checked down to the running back, who picked up a block from Evan Wilson on the corner and accelerated into the open field.

“It was a quick little screen,” Ferguson said. “I got around the block and I knew it was just me and that one guy. I just gave him … something. Honestly I didn’t even think about what I was doing, I just did it.”

That “something” turned out to be a high step for a moment’s hesitation to freeze a defender followed by a burst back inside and into the end zone. His score — a team-high third receiving touchdown for the season — pushed the lead to 22-0, part of a 15-0 run for the Illini in just a minute and 33 seconds.

“After that touchdown, I just turned to him on the sidelines and said, ‘Wow,’” head coach Tim Beckman said. “The next thing you know, he hits that gear and he goes into the end zone.”

Ferguson finished the game with 71 yards on eight carries and five catches for 77 yards — all in the first half. The numbers add to what is already a career year for the redshirt sophomore. In 10 games last season, Ferguson recorded 312 rushing yards and 251 yards receiving.

This year, Ferguson has the most total yards and is near the top on the team in rushing and receiving yards. His 196 rushing yards is second only to Young’s 208 in addition to leading the team in both catches (12) and receiving yards (262).

Ferguson’s increased efficiency and production in 2013, along with Cubit’s creativity calling plays, ensures that the running back will be a focal point not just this week, but every week.

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