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10 Years Later: The Illinois Offense Will Look Familiar This Season

Chayce Crouch isn’t Juice Williams. Kendrick Foster isn’t Rashard Mendenhall. Still, the zone-read will be back.

Michigan State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

That’s right. The look and feel of the Fighting Illinois offense will resemble that of the last Illinois team to go to the Rose Bowl. Matching the nine-win mark seems impossible, and it probably is — that’s okay.

Stylistically, expect offensive coordinator Garrick McGee to put his players in spots where they flourish. Crouch is a big, thick quarterback at 6’5”, 240 pounds. He thrives on contact and delivering blows and stiff arms running full speed ahead. He has not really been in a position (save for last year’s Rutgers win) to sit in the pocket and zip the ball around because that’s not his strength.

Illinois will be a run-first football team. In just about every one of Lovie Smith’s press conferences this year — whether it was at Big Ten Media Days or on Signing Day back in February or during Spring Ball — when asked to single out certain players, he always brought up Kendrick Foster’s name. Foster is the team’s top returning running back and gained 720 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground last season. He’s reliable and his backups are aplenty — Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown and Mike Epstein to name a few. Expect these guys to carry the load for the Illini offensively.

In zone-read situations, outside edge rushers have to decide: Play the quarterback or play the running back. That split second of indecision is when Crouch has the opportunity to hand/pitch the ball off, or keep it and go. In 2007, the Illini offense was predicated on that offensive philosophy with Juice Williams being a thick, strong running quarterback and with the moxie to make good decisions with the football in milliseconds.

Sure, there are differences. Arrelious Benn is not walking through that Memorial Stadium door. Tight end Jeff Cumberland is not lining up on offense. The Illini were slaughtered in the Rose Bowl by a much better USC team, not solely because USC was better, but because Illinois was so one-dimensional in getting the ball to Rashard Mendenhall in zone-read situations. Pete Carroll and the Trojans had an entire month to prepare for the Illini attack: stop Mendenhall, stop the Illini.

Zone-read will likely be the primary offensive go-to, and it’s up to Garrick McGee to mix it up and throw some unexpected wrinkles to keep defenses guessing in more ways than one.