CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith admitted that he needs to shy away from calling his team a running football team. He, like his offensive coordinator Rod Smith, seeks offensive balance.
Yes, the crux of what Illinois wants to do on offense starts with a successful run game. In Rod Smith's first 13 games in Champaign, the Illini have had success on the ground. Last year, Illinois was the second best rushing attack in the Big Ten and was ranked No. 12 in all of the FBS. Things didn't slow down in Saturday's blowout win against Akron, where the team used nine different running backs to rush for 207 total yards.
Illinois, though, doesn't want to be a team that can only move the ball on the ground. Lovie Smith, Illinois' head coach, and Rod Smith want to find equity. That doesn't mean that Rod Smith will split his playbook in half and take one passing play for every one running play. Offensive symmetry doesn't only come in the form of a 50-50 split.
“It means being able to run it and throw it whenever you want, and do it efficiently," Rod Smith said.
With Brandon Peters at quarterback, it was easier to find the right offensive harmony on Saturday, and the team hopes to strike that note again this week against UConn. Peters was 14-of-23 for 163 yards and completed a pass to seven different players against Akron — backup quarterback Matt Robinson completed a pass to running back Jakari Norwood, giving Illinois eight different players with a catch.
That makes Rod Smith's job easier from his post in the press box.
“It gives me confidence as a play caller that now when I throw the ball to a certain area, I know it’s going to be caught or it has a good chance to be caught," he said.
Defenders couldn't put any special treatment on any one Illinois receiver. Though junior receiver Ricky Smalling was targeted 10 times — Josh Imatorbhebhe had the second-most targets with three — Peters spread the completions around. As a defensive mind, Lovie Smith understands how that can put stress on an opposing team.
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“Defenses would like to go into a game and say, ‘OK, they’re going to throw the ball in this situation and going here,'" Lovie Smith said. "You can’t say that about us, the way we moved it around. We want balance in run-pass balance, and we want balance in who we’re throwing the football to, also."
Even with running back Mike Epstein out with a season-ending knee injury, there are plenty of weapons on the offense thanks to an already deep group thanks to the additions of receivers Trevon Sidney and Imatorbhebhe, both graduate transfers from USC. He's still in the process of building a rapport with each of the receivers. After all, he's had just one game with them, but the options are plentiful.
Peters knew the running game was strong when he committed to Illinois as a graduate transfer from the University of Michigan, and saw that first-hand against Akron. Nine different players ran the a ball, and six of them had at least 20 yards, led by Epstein's 45 yards.
“We have a lot of weapons, for sure," Peters said. "The way the offense is built, it gives me the opportunity to disperse the ball as I see fit."
Rod Smith knows there's still work to do to achieve a perfect harmony offensively, but it's headed in the right direction — at least after one week. The players are noticing.
“We’re a high-powered offense," Imatorbhebhe said. "We can beat you running the ball or throwing the ball. We have a lot of talent on the field and when everybody is doing their job we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
The balance starts with Peters, and his ability to make any pass Rod Smith asks of him.
“We know that the passing game can be a lot better than it’s been in the past, starting with the QB," Lovie Smith said. "We have a lot of options to throw the football and our line is blocking well."