The Illinois offense through nine games has experienced a rash of injuries, lineup changes and inconsistent play all while learning a new scheme under first-year ofensive coordinator Garrick McGee.
However, the offense has received one surprising consistent: great production from junior running back/kick off returner Kendrick Foster.
Foster, who planned to transfer following last season, probably is the best story of the Illini season so far. Each week, his role continues to grow with increased touches in both the run and passing game. Foster has set career highs with four starts, 596 rushing yards, nine touchdowns and 481 kicoff return yards -- all of which lead Illinois in its respective category.
Last Saturday versus Michigan State, Foster recorded new career highs with 17 rushing attempts for 146 yards. He also matched his season high with two rushing touchdowns.Five of his 17 carries resulted in explosion runs (runs of 10-plus yards).
The first run took place from the Illini's own 27-yard line with 2:30 remaining in the first half. The offense aligned in 11/Diamond formation (1RB-1TE-3WR) with tight end Tyler White aligned off the line of scrimmage.
The offensive line stepped in unison to the left, setting up the inside zone running play. McGee added a wrinkle by using White, originally set up to the right and motioned back left, to come back across the formation to his right and "wham block" defensive end Auston Robertson. The backfield action of White caused strong safety Matt Morrissey to hesitate, which enabled Foster to run for positive yards. Foster showed the ability to make the first defender miss and the foot speed to get into the third level for an explosive run.
Next, Foster was able to covert a critical 4th & 1 because of good vision and physical toughness.
McGee countered the Spartans eight-man box with 12/ACE personnel (1RB-2TE-2WR) using TE Ainslie Johnson as the H-back in the backfield on another inside zone. Johnson motioned behind the line of scrimmage left to right to "wham block" the end man on the line of scrimmage. MSU slanted the front four to their right and DE Demetrius Cooper crossed the face of right tackle Austin Schmidt. Johnson helped seal Cooper and Foster's ability to cutback off of the block, redirect downhill and split two second level defenders with good contact power.
The 4th & 1 conversion eventually set up a 19-yard touchdown before the end of the first half, which gave the Fighting Illini the lead going into half time. MSU was anticipating pass with three receivers in trips alignment to the far side of the field.
To minimize the risk of a turnover in the red zone and catch the defense by surprse, McGee called on Foster to execute a draw play. The Spartans brought pressure from the boundary (short side of the field) blitzing CB Tyson Smith off the edge. Foster quickly attacked the B-Gap (gap between guard and ackle) and displayed the agility to make Morrissey miss in the open field and the play strength to carry two third level defenders into the end zone.
The longest run of the day took place from the Illini 36-yard line and it came out of 11/Diamond Personnel. An inside zone was again called by McGee but with a twist. For instance, RT Christian DiLauro pulled back to his left to trap block LB Riley Bullough, this opened up a crease for Foster to Bang the ball downhill.
Once he forced another missed tackle vs Morrissey, Foster showed excellent burst, challenging the angles and running away from defenders in the open field for a 64-yard TD.
Kendrick Foster was once considered a "program guy" who was undersized and not fast enough but gave good effort. This past offseason, he transformed his body along with his mindset to lead the Fighting Illini in rushing yards, KOR yards and TDs. His three TD runs of 50-plus yards is tied for sixth most in the FBS. Also, Foster is in the top ten of four Big Ten statistics: second in yards per carry (6.34), fifth in all-purpose y/g (124.0), sixth in rushing TDs (7) and seventh in total TDs with (9).
This type of production likely will make Foster the runaway winner for Illini offensive MVP this season.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.