Hot Reads: Here Come the Runnin' Illini
Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Hot Reads: Here Come the Runnin’ Illini

November 05, 2018

Be careful giving up 55 points to Illinois football. It might cost you your job.

It did for Minnesota defensive coordinator Robb Smith a day after the Gophers were torched by the Illini 55-31 while allowing 646 total yards. It was the first time Illinois had scored at least 55 points against any opponent since a 56-8 win over South Dakota State in 2011 and the most in a Big Ten game since a 67-65 loss to Michigan in triple overtime in 2010. The yardage total was the highest since a 2007 win at Minnesota and just the second time this century the Illini had topped 625 total yards.

To be fair, it wasn't just the Illinois loss that meant the end for Smith. Minnesota gave up 659 yards to Nebraska two weeks ago and more than 8 yards per play to Maryland earlier in the season. Still, I'm betting the added shock of having the same thing happen against Illinois, which entered the game as a 9-point home underdog, was perhaps the final push P.J. Fleck needed to make a change. If Ohio State runs wild on Minnesota it's just the natural order of things. When Illinois does it a coach is forced to frantically try to pull out of the apparent nose dive.

But maybe the Illinois offense, which will roll into Lincoln this week, deserves more credit than that. It's actually pretty good, particularly when it comes to running the ball.

Scanning through SB Nation's advanced-stats profiles, there's nothing there that's too alarming for the Illini offense but some surprises for a program that failed to be dangerous in just about any way the previous two seasons under coach Lovie Smith. Illinois is about average in terms of efficiency (61st in success rate), but ranks in the top-third nationally in explosiveness. Combine efficiency and explosiveness into one measure and the Illini look even better when running the football, ranking sixth nationally in Rushing S&P+.

Junior running back Reggie Corbin is the primary weapon. He leads the Big Ten at 9.07 yards per carry and has nine rushing touchdowns. Sophomore running back Mike Epstein ranks fourth in the conference at 6.85 yards per carry. Former Nebraska quarterback AJ Bush has chipped in five scores on the ground and is averaging 67 rushing yards per game without removing sacks. Bush has gone over 100 yards in a game three times this season, including 127 against Minnesota.

Problems still arise in the passing game for Illinois. The offensive line, which is good at opening holes in the run game, struggles to protect the passer allowing a sack on 8.3 percent of dropbacks (105th nationally). Bush ranks ninth in the Big Ten with a 56.8 completion percentage and eighth in passer rating.

Given all of that, this is an offense that prefers to run the ball. A lot. The Illini run the ball 66.8 percent of the time on standard (on-schedule) downs, the 23rd-highest rate in the country, and runs it on passing downs 38.8 percent of the time (38th nationally). It's not an offense that is going to surprise a defense with changeups often.

But it is an offense with a legitimate weapon now, and when's the last time Illinois could say that?

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