Ferguson shines with increased workload

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

In the Illinois football team’s dominant 50-14 over Miami (Ohio), the Illini once again showcased their new high-powered offense. While the entire offense was clicking for much of the game, running back Josh Ferguson only needed one half to make his mark on the contest.

Despite playing two quarters and one play — Ferguson was on the sidelines the second half for all but one because of the lopsided score — the running back tallied 148 yards and a touchdown on 13 touches.

Efficiency and versatility have been Ferguson’s two calling cards in the Illinois offensive system under Bill Cubit. Ferguson can move between a traditional running back position next to the quarterback in shotgun, to split out like a wide receiver in an empty set, back to running back in an under center I-formation.

“Coach (Cubit) puts us in the best positions; he’s a genius,” Ferguson said. “He knows how to get me on pretty good matchups with linebackers and different guys like that. I’m appreciative of that.”

It is that flexibility in the offense that keeps Ferguson on the field. The sophomore might not have ideal size or strength of a classic between-the-tackles rusher like teammate Donovonn Young, but before defenses can worry about stopping the scat back, they have to find him in the formation first.

While Ferguson has heard himself compared to Reggie Bush, he isn’t on the former Heisman winner’s level of talent or skill; however, his elusiveness and multiplicity on offense does draw a resemblance.

“That’s what I hear,” Ferguson said with a laugh. “That’s a pretty cool comparison, I’ll take it.”

He was doing his best Bush impersonation with a litany of spins, jukes and cuts that left multiple missed tackles in his wake on every touch. On his only touchdown of the day against Miami, a cutback move to shake a defender elicited a “wow” from head coach Tim Beckman on the sideline after the play.

This season, Ferguson is second on the Fighting Illini with 196 yards rushing but leads the team in catches with 12 and receiving yards with 262. His receiving numbers leads the country for running backs and his 114.5 all-purpose yards per game ranks sixth in the Big Ten.

While this has been Ferguson’s best season for statistics, and staying healthy — he took a medical redshirt in 2011 for a hamstring injury and missed three games last season — it’s a change to the depth chart that has made 2013 memorable.

Ferguson was a backup to his classmate Young each of the past three seasons but after a victory over Southern Illinois where the Illini netted just 49 yards rushing, he was vaulted to “co-starter” on the depth chart along with Young and was the first running back on the field to start games against Washington and Miami.

“It’s awesome,” Ferguson said. “During the summer, you don’t work to be a backup. That’s been my focus, is to work hard and let everything else fall into place. … We’re buddies, but we’re both student-athletes, so there’s always going to be competition.”

The label “starter” for Illinois running backs might only mean who is on the field for the first play, because of how much Young and Ferguson switch in and out, but Ferguson took advantage of being on the field from the very first drive against the Redhawks.

Illinois’ first offensive play was a run to Ferguson for 13 yards and a quick first down.

Second play, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase found Ferguson for a 14-yard gain on a quick pass play.

After an incompletion, the Illini went back to Ferguson for rushes of seven and five yards to move the sticks.

Next play, Scheelhaase found Ferguson again on a screen for 25 yards down to the Redhawks 11-yard line.

The Illini would score three plays later, but on the game’s first six plays the sophomore running back already had five touches for 64 yards and got the Illinois offense on the board early in the game.

Even though the starting title is just that — a bold name on a depth chart — Josh Ferguson made the most of every touch to start the game Saturday and is not looking to relinquish that title.

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