Key to Illini’s offense isn’t Juice, it’s Rashard

John Supinie

Much of the Illinois football preseason -- and most of the nonconference schedule -- became a heated debate over the ability of quarterback Juice Williams and the Illini's passing game.

Can he throw the ball effectively? Can he make good decisions and move the offense? Should Williams remain as the starting quarterback?

But as Illinois heads into Big Ten Conference play today at Indiana, the key to the Illinois offense is a running game led by junior running back Rashard Mendenhall. Despite sitting the bench for long stretches in all three games, Mendenhall ranks fifth in the Big Ten with 322 yards rushing.

"Everybody talks about Juice making improvement, but if there's one guy who can put the team on his back and be the kind of player we all hope he can, it's Rashard,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said.

Stopping Illinois means stopping the running game. After leading the Big Ten by averaging 188.8 yards rushing per game last season, Illinois overcame the graduation of senior running backs Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey behind Mendenhall, two newcomers and the running ability of Williams.

The Illini rank eighth nationally in rushing offense (258 yards per game) after gaining 378 yards on the ground last week against lowly Syracuse.

"We have to do what we do best,'' Zook said. "I'm not worried about style points or anything else. At any level, you have to be able to run the football. People say it's hard to run the ball with a spread offense. We take a lot of pride in being able to run the football.

"We have to be able to throw the ball, too. Everybody in the Big Ten is going to load the box and make Juice beat them.''

That leaves all eyes on Mendenhall. The state's top recruit when he committed as a Niles West senior in 2004, Mendenhall worked to earn his share of the carries with Thomas and Halsey his first two seasons. He already has six rushing touchdowns this year.

"I was a little more nervous to see how things turn out,'' Mendenhall said. "We took a lot of pride in running the football. We wanted to come out and repeat that this season.''

By moving to the top of the depth chart, Mendenhall faced new challenges of durability, consistency, leadership and ball security. The 5-foot-11, 224-pound Mendenhall added 20 pounds in the offseason and worked to change his style to a consistent runner with more straight-ahead power who moves the chains and avoids lost yards. After two years as the apprentice, he's The Man.

"The results speak for themselves,'' said Illini linebacker J Leman. "He knew his day would come.''

Mendenhall rushed for 150 yards and three touchdowns against Syracuse, but he's faced a learning curve as the lead back. He sat for a long stretch against Missouri after missing a block and getting a holding penalty on the following play. Against Syracuse, Mendenhall suffered an ankle sprain.

Junior-college transfer Daniel Dufrene (17 carries, 115 yards) and freshman Troy Pollard (17 carries, 118 yards) offer not only depth but also options if Mendenhall falters. Dufrene also suffered ankle sprain against Syracuse. Mendenhall and Dufrene appeared recovered in practice this week.

Mendenhall ranked 10th in rushing in the Big Ten last season with 640 yards. He led the league with 8.2 yards per carry. Mendenhall (6.4 yards per carry), Pollard (6.9) and Dufrene (6.8) provide the Illini three rushing threats behind Williams, who has 117 yards rushing.

Indiana also moved the ball in three nonconference games. Behind sophomore quarterback Kellen Lewis, Indiana ranks seventh nationally in rushing offense, 17th in scoring offense and 20th in total offense.

Indiana seeks its first 4-0 start since 1990 -- a remarkable accomplishment considering coach Terry Hoeppner died in June.

Hoeppner's death "might have been used as motivation,'' Lewis said. "Instead of mourning and saying, 'If we fail, we were mourning coach Hep,' we turned the other way. Let's finish what he started and play 13. Guys used it as a motivation and not as an excuse.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more Illini coverage, see Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.

GAME CAPSULE

(Editors: Update local radio information and betting line in preview capsule.)

Illinois (2-1) vs. Indiana (3-0)

When: 11 a.m. today

Where: Memorial Stadium (49,225), Bloomington, Ind.

Series record: Illinois leads 41-20-3

Last meeting: Indiana 34-32 (2006)

Rankings: both teams are unranked

Radio: Illini Sports Network

TV: Big Ten Network

The line:

Coaches: Ron Zook, 6-20 in third season at Illinois, 29-34 in seventh year overall; Bill Lynch, 3-0 in first year at Indiana, 84-67-3 in 15th year overall.

NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 8th, 258.0; passing 83rd, 189.7; scoring 36th, 32.0; total 30th, 447.7. Illinois defense -- rushing 12th, 71.3; passing 55th, 217.7; scoring 41st, 20.0; total 22nd, 289.0. Indiana offense -- rushing 7th, 258.7; passing 64th, 219.0; scoring 17th, 44.3; total 20th, 477.7. Indiana defense -- rushing 10th, 65.3; passing 29th, 244.7; scoring 37th, 19.3; total 32nd, 310.0.

Notable: Illinois hasn't won a Big Ten opener since 1993. The Illini haven't won three consecutive games since a seven-game winning streak to finish the conference season in 2001. … Illinois blew an 18-point lead against Indiana a year ago. The Illini haven't won at Indiana since 2001. … Mendenhall needs 71 yards to move into the top 25 rushers in Illinois history. He has 1,180 in his career. … Indiana is 3-0 for the second time in three years. … Sophomore Kellen Lewis' 199 yards rushing last week against Akron was the third highest single-game total by an Indiana quarterback. Antwaan Randle El had highs of 210 and 209 yards. Indiana wide receiver James Hardy averages 24.5 yards per catch. Hoosiers receiver Ray Fisher ranks fifth in the Big Ten with 16 catches.

Quotable: "We practiced against Juice Williams all camp. We've been practicing against the best, so we're ready to go. They're very similar players.'' -- Illini defensive tackle Chris Norwell, on preparing for Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis.

Prediction: Illinois 33, Indiana 30