Gophers trampled under feet of three Illini running backs

Anthony Maggio

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – What is the key to a potent passing attack?

For Illinois, it isn’t a prolific passer like Kurt Kittner or speedy wide receivers such as Brandon Lloyd or Aaron Moorehead.

Instead, as Minnesota’s football team found out in its 25-14 loss Saturday, it’s all about the running game.

“We knew coming into it that we had some things we could really exploit,” Kittner said. “Today you saw a much improved run game.”

The Illini went into the contest against Minnesota averaging only 2.9 yards per carry and 101.5 rush yards per game – 10th in the Big Ten.

Their passing game was ranked first in the conference.

But Saturday, Illinois showed the Gophers its running game could carry the offensive load, finishing with 198 rushing yards.

The Illini trifecta of senior Rocky Harvey, junior Antoineo Harris and sophomore Carey Davis each ran for 65 yards on the day.

Almost as surprising as three running backs finishing with the same number of yards was the frequency of rushing attempts. Illinois averaged 35 rushes per game heading into Saturday, then handed the ball off 48 times against the Gophers.

“Our game plan is, always has been and always will be to have good balance,” Illinois coach Ron Turner said. “We want to do that every week. Sometimes you do it better than others, but the running game was going pretty well, so we kept going with it.”

On the Illini’s opening drive they ran the ball 12 times and passed only three. They went 77 yards to Minnesota’s three-yard line but settled for a field goal.

Illinois spread the ball around on the drive, with Harris getting five carries, Davis four and Harvey three. All found holes inside and outside, assaulting the Gopher defense from all angles.

“That was the game plan,” Harvey said. “We were just trying to give them different looks and different approaches.”

The Illini continued to pound the ball early, finishing the first quarter with 17 rushing attempts and only seven passes.

Following so many running plays, Minnesota’s defense had to rethink its game plan. But new alignments were met with similar results.

“They can run the ball well,” Gophers safety Jack Brewer said. “The first couple of series we had to make some adjustments to stop the run, but they executed pretty much the whole day.”

After the first quarter, Illinois continued to rely on the run but opened up the field more with the Gophers looking for the run.

The Illini finished the day with 20 more rushing attempts than passes. The longest run of the day for Illinois was a 14-yard scamper by Casey Davis in the fourth quarter. Otherwise the running backs averaged a steady 4.1 yards per carry.

It was almost easy to forget about the passing game with the amount of time Illinois spent running. But Kittner was able to pass for 239 yards and two touchdowns.

“This is what we needed,” Harris said. “We needed a big game. The running game hasn’t been doing too well the last couple weeks, but now we’ve turned it up a notch.”

If the running game continues to shine as it did against Minnesota, the Big Ten will have to worry about stopping three potent running backs on a team with the best passing game in the conference.

Extra Points

ï Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq, who completed all four of his pass attempts for 53 yards in a relief role against Illinois, was shaken up on a play in the third quarter.

Although Abdul-Khaliq was taken out and did not return, Mason said the sophomore could have played down the stretch in an emergency situation.

ï Because of class commitments, linebacker Jimmy Henry didn’t practice last week and thus didn’t start.

Paul Nixon started in Henry’s place – the first start of his career – and had three tackles. Henry entered the game later in the first half and also had three tackles.

ï Linebacker Phil Archer had a career-high 20 tackles on the day, with nine coming on the Illini’s opening drive.

ï Receiver Ron Johnson had eight receptions for 99 yards. The senior is just three catches and 227 yards away from breaking school records in both categories.

ï Cornerback Mike Lehan had his second interception in as many games on an overthrown Kittner pass in the first half.

– John R. Carter contributed to this report.