CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When Rod Smith took over as Illinois’ offensive coordinator earlier this year, most fans expected to see an increase in production on that side of the ball. After all, Illinois returned three running backs from last season and wideouts Mike Dudek and Ricky Smalling, and also welcomed four new quarterbacks to the roster, including graduate transfer A.J. Bush.
But I’m not sure anyone expected the show that Smith’s backfield has put on so far.
“Last year, game after game, we were disappointed with the rushing attack,” said senior captain Nick Allegretti on Monday. “As an offensive lineman, you want to be able to run the ball. As a Big Ten offensive lineman, you especially want to be able to run the ball. To have at least seven games left on the regular season schedule to continue to do that, I’m incredibly excited for that. I know the coaches are going to put us in the right position.”
Entering their third game of conference play, the Illini run game ranks third in the Big Ten in yards per game and 13th nationally. Backfield members Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein rank fourth and 12th in the FBS in yards per attempt, and No. 1 and 2 in the Big Ten.
The success starts up front though for Illinois’ ground game.
“Hats off to Reggie, Mike, and A.J.,” Allegretti said. “They’ve done a tremendous job of taking advantage of the opportunities the offensive line has given them. But past that, the coaches have done a tremendous job in preparing us. Every week, we go in, and we know what we’re going to see for the most part.
“But the plays that are being called, when they’re being called, we’re getting what we expect. We’re able to take our steps, block who we need to block, and the running backs are getting the hole.”
Run blocking doesn’t just fall on the offensive line, however. All 11 guys have to buy into their roles in order to establish a solid run game, including the receivers on the outside.
“The reason why we’re busting some long plays, it starts up front always,” Smith said, “but the big plays get sprung out by perimeter blocking. Our perimeter run game blocking has been pretty good so far.”
Illinois welcomes former quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and the Purdue Boilermakers to town on Saturday afternoon. After dropping their first three games at home, the Boilermakers have bounced back with wins over No. 23 Boston College and Nebraska on the road.
The Illini will celebrate their annual Homecoming this week and sport their “Gray Ghost” uniforms.
“We have a good Big Ten team in Purdue coming into town for Homecoming,” Allegretti said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere. We have the opportunity to really set this season off right. We started it, we got the first Big Ten win, got a road win, but we need more. We can’t just be happy with that. We can’t be content with that. We have to push forward. To get that second one in a row would be absolutely huge for us.”
Kickoff is set for 2:30 pm C.T. on Saturday.