Saturday, November 7, 2015

Return of the Mack: The science behind Josh Ferguson's performance at Purdue

                                     Photo Credit: Geno Green

For the last three games, the Illinois Fighting Illini's running attack looked pedestrian at best as they lost each contest with Josh Ferguson out of the lineup due to a shoulder injury.

The return of Ferguson in Saturday's 48-14 win at Purdue for the Purdue Cannon harkened back to Illinois' 4-1 start earlier this season when both dimensions of its offense clicked.

Moments after Illinois' 39-0 loss at Penn State on Oct. 31, Ferguson received texts from members of the coach about whether or not he could go at Purdue the following week.

"Right after the Penn State game, the coaches texted me and I told them I am ready to go," Ferguson said after Saturday's win at Purdue. "I knew I had to play because I could not sit out any longer and I knew health-wise I would get cleared this week."

Ferguson admitted even with the mounting losses by Illinois, that having to sit out a quarter of its regular-season schedule forced him to focus more on improving his body.

"It was pretty much a blessing in disguise being hurt because I was able to work on some other things," Ferguson said. "I got some running done and leg work. Once the shoulder got healed, it was time to put it all together."

Ferguson failed to miss a beat at Purdue, making in an impact from different positions on the field with 134 yards on 12 carries, to go along with six receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown.

Illinois' first possession saw Ferguson complete a 5-yard reception and a 7-yard run on a jet sweep out of the wide receiver position. 

Ferguson's two plays would help pave the way for Lunt's 32-yard touchdown pass to a crossing Malik Turner to open the scoring for Illinois. 

After a Purdue three and out on its first drive, Ferguson showed his versatility on the direct snap out of the wildcat formation with a spin move to highlight five-yard gain. Ferguson looked like himself again and did not show any lingering effects from his shoulder injury which kept him out of action since the Nebraska game on Oct. 3.

Ferguson would begin to see an increase in workload on Illinois' third drive with a timely 7-yard run on 3rd and 1. 

The Illini's next play saw Ferguson once more trouting out at the wide receiver position on a jet sweep for a 17-yd run to set up placekicker Taylor Zalewski's 46-yard field goal make to go ahead by double digits for the first time since the Sept. 26 game against Middle Tennessee.

More plays were being given to Ferguson in the latter stages of the first half as fellow running back Ke'ShawnVaughn looked on. 

Ferguson would make the most of his increased workload by dragging a couple of Purdue defenders with him for a 16-yard run. Ferguson would follow up with another 4-yard run.

After a Jimmy Herman penalty, Ferguson showed acceleration on the second level of Purdue's defense and went down the sidelines for an 11-yard rush.

Illini quarterback Wes Lunt would find Ferguson on the screen pass with daylight to spare and danced in from 12 yards out for a TD to put Illinois ahead 20-0.

Illinois' opening possession of the second half saw Ferguson leave right off from the first half with a 19-yard reception on a screen pass from backup quarterback Chayce Crouch.

Ferguson's runs of 33, 19 and 10 helped set the tone as Vaughn would march in uncontested from six yards out to put Illinois up 34-7 with 2:30 left in the third quarter.

Illini coach Bill Cubit complemented Ferguson on his ability to extend plays, with regards to making things happen on screen passes.

"[Josh] makes things happen," Cubit said in Saturday's postgame press conference. "With the screen pass, we go down there and we're reeling a little bit and he catches it on third down and goes in. It was great seeing him with a smile on his face after the game and that's why we all do this."

In a game which no one knew if Ferguson would be 100 percent, it would turn out the Illini only needed three-fourths of the package  and can save more energy for the looming showdown at home against the defending National Champions, the Ohio State University.

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