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‘We get off the bus running the football’: Illini run game ready for No. 3 Buckeyes

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It’s the second-ranked running offense against the second-ranked run defense

NCAA Football: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Head coach Lovie Smith has made it clear what the offensive philosophy is for his football team.

“We get off the bus running the football,” Smith said after the Illini’s 41-23 victory over Nebraska on Saturday.

The Illini finished Saturday’s contest against Nebraska with 285 yards rushing, just a week removed from tallying more than 300 yards on the ground against Rutgers.

Five games, four starting quarterbacks for Illinois, but the key for the Illini on the offensive side this season has been running the football. When the team has gained more than 200 rushing yards in a game this season, the Illini come out victorious.

But running the ball is not going to be as easy this weekend with No. 3 Ohio State coming into town.

Entering Saturday’s contest, the Illini trail only the Buckeyes in rushing offense. Defensively, Ohio State comes in second in the conference in rushing defense, allowing only 98.8 yards per game to opposing offenses.

“There’s not a weak spot anywhere when you watch them on defense,” said offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

For Illinois, keeping Justin Fields and the Buckeyes high-powered offense off the field will be a key — and one way to execute that will be unlocking the run game for the third straight game.

The Illini have the fourth- and fifth-highest rushers in the conference with Chase Brown (357) and Mike Epstein (338).

“I think we’re both pretty balanced,” Epstein said. “I think we’re both pretty fast, pretty strong. The fact that we’re both so versatile, we can catch the ball, run the ball, block for each other, it changes the element of the game. It’s very hard to account for that on the defense.”

Brown, who transferred into the program last year, had his first two career touchdowns against Nebraska on Saturday.

“I’m just really happy to have [Brown] in the room,” Epstein said. “He’s a really good kid, he’s humble, he works really hard.”

But the head coach said the two of them together is how the Illini can find ways to come out on top.

“This is how we win football games,” Lovie Smith said. “We wanna establish our run, we’re not gonna come out and throw the ball 70 times a game or something like that. We’re gonna do what we feel like we do best.”

The offense thrives when having a successful run game, not only because it prolongs drives and gives the Illini an advantage in physicality — but also because the run game opens up the pass game to create a more balanced attack.

“Our run game has been hitting on all cylinders,” said quarterback Brandon Peters. “When that happens, it opens up the offense and it makes my job easier.”

“When you can run the ball like that, it gives you a lot of confidence.”

And if Ohio State can’t shut down Illinois’ backfield on Saturday, then the Illini could be primed for an upset.

“If you can’t stop the run,” Epstein said, “It’s gonna be a long day for you.”