WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- After Illinois football’s embarrassing 39-0 loss at Penn State last week, Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit felt pessimistic on Josh Ferguson’s chances of returning in time to play at Purdue the following Saturday.
But the Illini senior running back knew immediately following the Illini’s third straight loss -- all with Ferguson sidelined with an AC sprain in his right shoulder -- that it was time.
Illinois running backs coach Nathan Scheelhaase texted Ferguson, who didn’t travel to State College, Pa., from the Penn State locker room.
“You ready,” Scheelhaase texted.
Ferguson’s reply from Champaign: “good to go”
During the week, the Illini staff hoped to ease Ferguson back into a playing role. Ferguson wasn’t having it.
“We thought he was going to take a few reps in practice and stuff and he took every rep,” Scheelhaase said. “He wasn’t letting any other running back get a rep. He said he was going. From there on, they had him in a green (limited contact) jersey. He said, ‘I don’t need a green jersey. I want to be in a white (full-contact) jersey.’ So he knew the magnitude of this game. He knew that we needed him back.”
The Fergy Effect was in full technicolor on Saturday as Ferguson totaled 175 yards, 133 on the ground, to spark a sputtering Illini offense rout Purdue 48-14 at Ross-Ade Stadium.
“It was fun to be back out there with my teammates,” Ferguson said. “It has been a long time since playing with those guys. Being my last year, I wanted to make sure I got back out there.”
Changing the dynamic
Only special talents have the ability to change the dynamic of an offense. Ferguson is one of them -- as is receiver Mikey Dudek, who is sitting out the season after suffering a torn ACL -- and the versatile running back proved his worth on Saturday.
An Illini offense that was shut out and totaled just 167 yards against a strong Penn State defense last Saturday produced a season-high 595 yards against a poor Purdue defense.
“You can tell the difference when Fergy’s in there,” Cubit said. “It’s a little bit different offense with him.”
Ferguson doesn’t only produce himself -- he’s fourth in career all-purpose yardage for Illinois -- he helps others produce.
Ferguson wasn’t even the Illini’s leading rusher on Saturday. That was fresher-feeling freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who ran for a career-high 180 yards on 16 carries including a 78-yard touchdown run.
“Ferg was like, ‘I’m back,’ and this was his game,” Vaughn said. “It ended up being both our games. We had a good game today."
Vaughn said Ferguson challenged Vaughn to a total yards competition at halftime. The freshman won, slightly (by five yards).
“Josh being back is a great impact," said Vaughn, who played almost every offensive snap during the previous 15 quarters. "It takes a lot of pressure of me. Me and him can be a 1-2 and do what we did today.”
The Illini rushing attack, which had produced just 138 rushing yards (2.2 yards per carry) the previous three games, posted its first 300-plus rushing game since 2011. Ferguson and Vaughn became the first pair of Illini running backs to each top 100 rushing yards in a game since Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young did it against Cubit's Western Michigan team in 2011.
Ferguson also improved the Illinois pass efficiency. Previous teams ran 2-man coverage against Illinois, using press coverage on the Illini receivers with two safeties over the top, challenging the weak Illini run game (they entered last in the Big Ten in rushing yards -- by 40 yards per game! -- severely limiting quarterback Wes Lunt’s effectiveness.
Purdue stacked the box, leaving their corners in soft man coverage with only one safety deep, opening up space for receivers Desmond Cain (six catches, 74 yards, 1 TD) and Malik Turner (two catches, 36 yards, 1 TD).
“You can see our running game is a little more effective with (number) six back there,” said a smiling Lunt, who passed for 169 yards and three touchdowns. “That’s nothing against the other backs. He’s just a veteran. You can tell that. I’ve never seen him so confident. You could see that with his runs today.”
Said Cubit: “It’s tough to ask the quarterback to go back there without a run game. So now, you got box counts and Wes can go take the ball and make a play."
A new hope?
Ferguson, who had 133 rushing yards on 12 carries and six catches for 41 yards and a touchdown, was a nightmare for the Purdue defense and will be a headache for the final three Illini opponents -- well, at least Minnesota and Northwestern.
Opposing sidelines always scream Ferguson's whereabouts. He's one for whom must always be accounted. Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks knows. He deals with Ferguson too often during practice.
“He can go from zero to 60 in a heartbeat,” Banks said. “A lot of guys are fast but they can’t get to their top-end speed quick enough. He’s not that guy. He can get to his top-end in a hurry. That’s dangerous.
“He’s a guy that’ll make you look like the smartest guy in the country -- or the worst coach in the country if you’re going against him. He’s special. He really is. I’m not just blowing smoke. He’s a really good player, and we’ve felt that since I’ve been here. He’s special. When the ball’s in his hands, he gets it done.”
The Illini’s big game came against one of the Big Ten’s worst teams and worst defenses -- way worse than next week's opponent, No. 3 Ohio State.
But you can’t help but wonder what the impact of Ferguson -- a likely NFL draft pick -- would have been at Iowa (would he have not fumbled like Vaughn late in the fourth quarter?) or against Wisconsin (would he have made an 11-point difference?).
"Boy, how about if we had everybody healthy?" Cubit said, sheepishly referring to Dudek.
Nevertheless, at least Ferguson returned in time to make a huge impact in a must-win game for a team intent on making a second-straight bowl.
“I knew I was going to play,” Ferguson said. “I knew I couldn’t sit out any longer.”
They have three more chances -- vs. Ohio State, at Minnesota and vs. Northwestern at Soldier Field -- to earn that bid.
One week after feeling futile, the Illini have a new hope with the Ferg Effect in full force.
“(Ferguson) came out with a fighter’s mentality,” Scheelhaase said. “Some of those early runs, you saw him lower the shoulder and dipping out of bounds, and you thought, ‘OK, this dude is ready to go.’”