Illini run game struggles, but healthy Scheelhaase makes strides on the ground

MADISON, Wis. — After entertaining questions from reporters, Donovonn Young took a look at the box score from Illinois’ 31-14 loss to Wisconsin, shook his head and sighed.

The sophomore running back’s stat line read four carries for 5 yards. His counterpart, freshman Josh Ferguson, didn’t fare much better, mustering 11 yards on seven carries as the Illini suffered yet another big loss.

“We’ve just got to depend on each other,” Young said “We’re all brothers in this. We’ve got to keep everybody’s spirits high.”

Young said earlier this week that he’d like to see more carries after receiving just six against Penn State, but the Illinois running backs have struggled to generate consistent production all season. Young has 222 yards and two touchdowns through six games this year and Ferguson has 170 yards with no scores. Illinois is second-to-last in the Big Ten in rushing.

“We’re getting beat up front a little bit, and that makes it harder to run,” co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said. “We weren’t really able to get any double teams up front and get any movement. They’ve got some really big guys up there, so we tried to get it on the edge, which worked a little bit, but that limits you.”

Illinois managed 106 yards on the ground against Wisconsin, but most of that production came from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who ran for 84 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries — both designed runs and scrambles. After suffering an ankle sprain in the season opener, Scheelhaase said he’s 100 percent healthy and had his best rushing performance of the season.

“I felt like I was back to normal,” Scheelhaase said. “I think they’ll have to play more sound, play their gaps a little better because at times today, they were just flowing to our running backs, and that’s where I got lose on a few of them.”

Scheelhaase was Illinois’ leading rusher last season with 624 yards and six touchdowns and was second in 2010 with 868 and five scores. When healthy, the junior quarterback adds a dimension to the offense with his legs that was lacking during the first five games this season.

“Nate moved well and ran the ball well, gave us a chance to move the ball there some,” Beatty said. “We’ve just got to be able to make some plays to help him out and he’s got to make some plays to help us out. ... There’s a long way to go for us to be where we need to be.”

Chad can be reached at thornbu1@dailyillini.com and @cthornburg10.