Illinois, which led the Big Ten in rushing with 246.1 yards a game last season, has dipped to fifth in the league this fall (209.8) after managing just 82 yards last week against Northwestern last week.
Ordinarily, this is a cause for alarm, and Illini coach Ron Zook got back to some run-game fundamentals in practice this week.
But there are at least two reasons why it’s not as troubling as it could be.
* Donovonn Young.
Young, a true freshman from Katy, Tex., has all the tools to follow in the footsteps of Pierrre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure, three recent Illini rushers who are now drawing NFL paychecks.
Zook and his staff don’t want to rush Young, or lose senior Jason Ford, although Ford’s late fumble forced Illinois to come up with a game-saving touchdown in the final seconds of its 38-35 victory over NU.
But the 19th-ranked Illini’s trip to Indiana Saturday shapes up as a good opportunity to give Young more work.
* A balanced offense.
When Northwestern stacked the box against the run. Nathan Scheelhaase passed for a career-high 391 yards, 268 of them to A.J. Jenkins, who had the third most productive day in a Big Ten game since the league went into business in 1896.
If people didn’t know the Illini could pass, “They do now,” said sophomore receiver Spencer Harris, who caught six balls for 63 yards when NU was pre-occupied with Jenkins, who leads the Big Ten in receiving yards (126.6) and catches (8) per game.
A passing attack that ranked 10th in the Big Ten last year is fifth this season. That has translated into an offense that ranks third in the league, up one notch from last season, despite having its running game shut down last week.
* A third reason not to fret: The Illini are 5-0, which is, after all, the most important stat.
They have won their last three games by nine points. That raises some questions, but grinding out close wins also is a sign of poise and toughness.
Illinois’ first 5-0 start in 60 years is exciting. It’s also humbling.
“That’s amazing,” defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. “We feel very fortunate. We have a lot of improvement to do. We know we have to take advantage of this opportunity. Because they don’t come around often.”
MOVIN’ ON UP
Illinois, which finished 10th in Big Ten passing last season, may not be passing fancy to outsiders. But it has quietly shown versatility on offense while passing every test so far. (Big Ten rank in parentheses)
LAST YEAR LAST WEEK THIS WEEK
SCORING 32.5 (4th) 32.2 (6th) 33.4 (5th)
RUSHING YDS 246.1 (1st) 241.8 (5th) 209.8 (5th)
PASSING YDS 151 (10th) 182 (7th) 223.8 (5th)
TOTAL OFFENSE 397.1 (4th) 423.8 (4th) 433.6 (3rd)