Illinois' may possess one of the few veteran quarterbacks in the Big Ten but its offensive success is predicated on the play of a talented cadre of running backs.
"Us being able to put the ball on the ground and really pound it out is something that we take a lot of pride in," center Duke Preston said.
It starts with sophomore E.B. Halsey, one of the Illini's few bright spots in a dreadful campaign a year ago. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Halsey is the quintessential all-purpose back, able to nimbly dart between the tackles or turn the corner in a blur. He is also a good pass receiver and a solid blocker.
After averaging 120.8 all-purpose yards per game last season, Halsey has 350 rushing yards and five touchdowns through four games and has also caught eight passes.
His tailback counterpart, fellow sophomore Pierre Thomas, has been a revelation this season. Thomas ranks eighth in the Big Ten in rushing (79.5 yards per game), tenth in the nation in kick-return yardage (31.2 yards per attempt ) and he leads the Big Ten and is tenth nationally in all-purpose yards (175.8). More of a straight-line power back, Thomas (5-11, 190) is averaging a gaudy 7.4 yards per carry. He has two rushing touchdowns and a 99-yard kickoff-return touchdown.
The final piece to the puzzle is fullback Jason Davis who has run for 123 yards and a touchdown on just 15 carries. He caught five passes for 42 yards and two touchdowns last week against Purdue and now has 13 catches for 110 yards.
All told the Illini are ranked second in the conference in rushing. Halsey, Thomas and Davis combined for 208 rushing yards on just 31 carries in the 38-30 loss to the Boilermakers.
"A true test was this past weekend watching Jason Davis and E.B. Halsey and Pierre and those guys. The way they hit holes is really motivating for us and it's really something that we want to be able to showcase to the rest of the country and to the rest of our conference," Preston said.
An even greater challenge for the Illini will come this week, when they face the nation's stingiest defense in Wisconsin.
"We just have to… hope we can run the ball and establish some type of a running game, which is really tough to do against these guys," Illinois coach Ron Turner said.
Illini want to run
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