CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — The Illinois offense is ranked last in the Big Ten. Don’t blame the running game.
Even in a 45-16 blowout loss to Iowa last weekend, Illinois rushed for 200 yards at Kinnick Stadium — the second-highest total the Hawkeyes have allowed this season. It was only the second time Illinois has rushed for over 100 yards this season, and it was the first time reaching 200 yards since last year’s 24-7 victory over Rutgers — the opponent this Saturday.
Mike Epstein led the Illini with seven carries for 83 yards, including a career-high 58-yard dash in the second quarter. Reggie Corbin also toted the ball seven times for 61 yards, and Ra’Von Bonner chipped in with 49 yards and Illinois’ only rushing touchdown.
“You need more than one (running) back,” coach Lovie Smith said. “(In) an ideal world, most of the time we’re going to play about three. They were all productive.”
Epstein’s outing was another example of the consistency he has shown all year. He has rushed for four touchdowns, which is ranked seventh among all true freshmen in the FBS. He is also ranked eighth in that group with 69.2 rushing yards per game.
Corbin missed the first three games of the season due to a shoulder injury. In his first game back against Nebraska, he rushed for just nine yards on four carries. But against Iowa, Corbin showed that he has big-play ability with two runs for over 15 yards.
“As you watch his play, of course he can make you miss in the open field as well as any of our running backs,” Smith said. “He’s quick. . (He’s) a different flavor.”
Smith acknowledged that Bonner can also make defenders miss, but he can run with more power. Despite not always getting consistent touches, Bonner said he has embraced every opportunity he’s been given.
Epstein leads the team with three rushing touchdowns, but Bonner has scored two of his own, including a 2-yard plunge to tie the game early against Iowa. Bonner said the environment in Iowa City, Iowa, was one of the most hostile he has ever played in, but hearing over 70,000 fans go silent after his score was a moment he hopes to relive again.
“It was beautiful,” Bonner said. “It’s kind of indescribable, for real. You kind of just grow up and you see guys doing that on TV, but when you’re doing it, you just see how blessed you are.”
Illinois was also able to utilize another running back against the Hawkeyes: Dre Brown, who missed the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons due to torn ACLs in his right and left knees. He made his collegiate debut on special teams.
Smith said it would be difficult to implement another running back into the team’s backfield, but added that he will look to find ways to keep Brown involved.
Brown knows he has his work cut out for him when it comes to cracking the depth chart at running back. For now however, he’s just happy to have finally began his college football career.
“After all I’ve been through when I got to (play against Iowa) it was kind of like, ‘What do I have to lose?'” Brown said. “A lot of people probably wouldn’t think after two ACL tears, four surgeries that I’d even be here.”
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