Slowed by Arizona State in the first game against a power conference opponent, the Illinois running game still has something to prove.
CHAMPAIGN -- Slowed by Arizona State in the first game against a power conference opponent, the Illinois running game still has something to prove.
The Big Ten leader last season while averaging 246.1 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry, the Illini were held to 105 yards in the 17-14 victory over the Sun Devils on Saturday, when Illinois managed just 2.3 yards per carry. The Illini haven't lost confidence in the running game that led the conference in three of the last five seasons, but the Illini headed into the season without Mikel Leshoure, who set a single-season school record with 1,697 yards a year ago before jumping to the NFL.
"I felt like last year we had a strong running game where there were plays we could always call and get 5 or 6 yards,'' said fullback Jay Prosch. "Right now, we're not always hitting. Our main isolation players aren't hitting either. It's not a lack of players or a weakness. It's something we have to keep working to get back going again.
"I feel like we have all the weapons we need to execute.''
No. 24 Illinois (3-0) hosts Western Michigan (2-1) in a non-conference game Saturday (2:30 p.m., BTN).
Senior running back Jason Ford gained 58 yards on 21 carries against Arizona State. He has 192 yards rushing while averaging 3.6 yards per carry in three games. Freshman Donovonn Young had just eight yards on two carries and didn't touch the ball again after a first-quarter fumble against the Sun Devils.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said Young would be back in the mix against Western Michigan.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase rushed for 67 yards on 18 attempts against Arizona State but was hampered by a bruised right shoulder in the fourth quarter.
"We can run the football,'' coach Ron Zook said. "We got away from the option when Nathan was nicked up a little bit.''
Petrino felt the Illini lost the one-on-one battles, therefore losing chances for big plays. After converting 4 of 6 third-down conversions in the first half, the Illini made 1 of 7 in the second half.
"You've got to convert third downs and stay on the field, get more plays and wear them out,'' Petrino said. "Let any defense go 3-and-out, they'll be good because they're fresh. We have to do a better job of that next week.''
RECRUITING: The trash talking rival recruiters aimed at the Illini hasn't bothered Zook. A 3-0 start to the season, plus a recent commitment from three-star defensive tackle Vontrell Williams of Chicago Mount Carmel, didn't hurt either. Williams and Bolingbrook linebacker Antonio Morrison, who committed to Florida in August, also attended the Illini-Arizona State game.
"Our recruiting is going a lot better than people think,'' Zook said. "We had some key guys here for the game. They saw the atmosphere. It was a good feeling.
"I don't think there's any question the more positive it is, the easier it is to sell.''
NOTABLE: Scheelhaase said his bruised shoulder felt better than Monday, when he said he would be "A-OK'' for the game vs. Western Michigan. ... A crowd of 42,000 is expected Saturday. ... Illinois is 3-0 for the first time since 2001. The Illini haven't been 4-0 since winning their first seven games in 1951. ... Illinois' game against Northwestern on Oct. 1 has been set for an 11 a.m. kickoff with broadcast on ESPN2.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.