CHAMPAIGN - Illinois almost did something last Saturday that no Illini football team has done in more than two decades -- but it wouldn't exactly have been a mark of pride.
Illinois finished its 34-10 Week 3 loss to Western Michigan with just three total rushing yards. The Illini were another Wes Lunt sack or another poorly executed rush away from becoming the first Illini team to finish a game with negative yards net rushing since 1993 when Illinois ran for minus-27 yards in a 16-14 home loss to Arizona.
"It put a really, really bad taste in a lot of people's mouth," senior center Joe Spencer said. "It's a big punch in the gut, a big slap in the face. It was a hard film session to watch. We walk off the field and to have a reporter tell me that we ran for three yards after sacks were put in, that's not acceptable."
While a 21-0 deficit early in the second quarter to the very talented Broncos (3-0) led to Illinois passing 42 times compared to just 15 runs (11 running back carries for 23 yards), a total of three rushing yards against a Mid-American Conference opponent -- one that allowed 181.1 rushing yards and 28.3 points per game last season -- certainly is alarming heading into Big Ten play
"Western Michigan, they brought a lot of stuff that we weren't exactly, we didn't prepare for especially with their movement," junior tackle Christian DiLauro said. "That kind of got us off in the run game, especially working off adjustments. Offensive line-wise, we weren't able to adapt quick enough in the game like we should've been able to. That kind of hurt us. That's one thing is that we can't let that get us down. It's a learning experience. It's a rough learning experience. But at the end of the day, we're growing as a unit."
Smith has billed his desired offensive identity as a "running football team." First-year Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee is tasked with turning around an Illini rushing attack that finished last in the Big Ten in 2015. He's limited by his personnel. He's still recruiting the dual-threat quarterback, more physical offensive line, quicker receivers and more versatile tight end that he prefers.
The Illini run game showed some promise during the first two weeks of the year, rushing for 287 yards against FCS opponent Murray State (7.2 yards per carry) and 182 yards against North Carolina (5.1 yards per attempt). But the WMU performance was a huge step back, especially with Nebraska next on the schedule.
Illini head coach Lovie Smith still expects more out a group that includes three veteran offensive linemen and talented running back, sophomore Ke'Shawn Vaughn, he said has the talent to start for most Big Ten teams.
"It's pretty simple, we got to block better," said. "The run game works when you win up front, and we didn't win up front last week. Simple as that. We got to get helmets on everybody and get some push. Running back-wise, if you got one guy, you got to make somebody miss, make one person miss most of the time. For us (as coaches), we have to stay committed to the run too."
Said junior running back Kendrick Foster: "It was just more of a cohesiveness, teamwork. We just got to dial down, do the details. It's all about fundamentals really with us. Just certain bringing your hips on a block or certain steps with our linemen, that was pretty much all that was wrong."
Injuries also have forced instability on the offensive line. Illinois has started a different front five in each of the first three games. Spencer missed the opener due to a knee injury, and redshirt freshman guard Gabe Megginson missed Week 3 with a leg injury.
Senior tackle Austin Schmidt also missed part of the first half against Western Michigan with an injury but returned later in the game. Junior Jordan Fagan, who barely played last season, and true freshman Darta Lee have filled in -- and experienced a lot of growing pains.
"It was kind of one of those things where you have to jell as a unit, and we have to be able to learn how to do that quicker given the situation," DiLauro said. "You prepare, you prepare and you prepare, and you start to kind of jell with the person next to you. Even all five of us, we all know how we talk. So when you bring somebody in and you might not be used to it, it can cause some confusion at times. Joe might have to help Darta and point some things out that he wasn't used to and hadn't seen all week."
Illinois had physical, full-padded practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. Foster said the team "got some new schemes in." DiLauro said the running game has "beat ourselves most of the time," and simply has to cut down on penalties and technique flaws.
Spencer, a team captain, said his message has been more positive, that the offense simply has to come together and build confidence to wash away that terrible taste from the Western Michigan loss.
"Things were said, but I don't think anything needed to be said. I think we all know," Spencer said. "Eyes forward. We can't change the past, but we can change the future."