As is generally the case during a 2-10 season, the Illini weren't very good at anything in 2012. What was truly worrisome to me though was our running game. With the offense the Illini ran and the two guys sharing time at quarterback, it was obvious that we weren't supposed to be a passing team -- and we definitely were not -- but our running game was exceptionally poor as well.
It wasn't just that we finished 11th in the Big Ten with 127.83 yards per game, it was that we finished dead last in the conference in yards per carry (3.46) and rushing touchdowns (12). The blame for this was shared, as part of it certainly fell on the offensive line's inability to open holes for our running backs, and it was also because of the scheme we ran fitting our personnel.
Which was one of the reasons I was happy with what I saw on Friday night at Memorial Stadium.
While Bill Cubit's offensive gameplan will certainly call for more passes than we've seen in recent seasons it also changes the run game. While some read option still exists in the system, there's a lot more power running in this offense. With the running back lining up behind the quarterback and plowing ahead rather than going side to side trying to read a defensive end or beat a linebacker to the corner.
And it's a perfect system for Donovonn Young, who while talented, didn't really fit what the Illini tried to do in the run game last season. The read option does not play to his strengths.
It showed on Friday night as well, as Young was one of the stars of the game. By the time the night was finished he'd carried the ball 19 times for 86 yards and three touchdowns. Now his average of 4.53 yards per carry was not excellent, but it was an improvement over the 4.4 yards he averaged last season. Still, that's not the aspect of Friday night's performance that stood out to me. Nor was it the three touchdowns, which matched Young's rushing touchdown total from the entire 2012 season.
No, it was the amount of carries Donovonn got, and the way he was used.
There were only two games last season in which Young carried the ball 19 times or more: the losses to Louisiana Tech and Indiana. In those two games he carried the ball 40 times for 202 yards, good for an average of 5.05 yards per carry.
Donovonn Young is the kind of back you want to give the ball to often. He's big, he wears down on opposing defenses. And he's not going to outrun a defense, either. He's a battering ram. Which his why having him take the ball in the backfield and make a cut or find the hole on Friday night was so effective.
His most impressive play was when he took a handoff behind the line of scrimmage, went outside the right tackle, took on defenders and literally carried them downfield while never stopping. By the time the Orange defense finally dragged him down Donovonn had picked up 18 yards. It was the kind of play I'm hoping to see often this fall.
Now, it's important we remember that this was a spring game, and not the real deal. We don't know if this was just Young playing well, or if it was Young facing an Illinois defense that's very young and wasn't exactly stout against the run last season. Still, more than the results, it was the process that gives me some optimism about Young and the running attack next season. While they weren't as impressive, guys like Dami Ayoola and LaKeith Walls played well too. Unfortunately Josh Ferguson did not play even though he was listed on the Orange Roster. I don't know if this was because of injury or coach's choice, but either way, I'd have like to have seen how he performed in this style of offense.
The run game is going to be very important in 2013 if this team is going to succeed. Cubit's offense may be more of passing attack than we've seen in the past -- though it's important to point out that the Blue Team, which never trailed, ran 33 pass plays and 29 run plays on Friday night -- but we still don't really have the personnel for that kind of attack. Which means if this offense wants to have consistency it will need Donovonn Young to play a significant role.
And as we all know, things tend to work out well around here when there's a running back wearing #5 playing well.