Illinois freshman running back Donovonn Young sent his father a text message earlier this week, thanking him for all those round trips from Houston to Champaign. "I told him I'll do something special this week,'' Young said. "I think that made his day.'' That might also make the Illini's day. When No. 23 Illinois plays at Purdue on Saturday in a Big Ten Conference football game, the Illini seek playmakers in a season reliant on quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Illinois freshman running back Donovonn Young sent his father a text message earlier this week, thanking him for all those round trips from Houston to Champaign.
"I told him I'll do something special this week,'' Young said. "I think that made his day.''
That might also make the Illini's day. When No. 23 Illinois plays at Purdue on Saturday in a Big Ten Conference football game, the Illini seek playmakers in a season reliant on quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins.
The concerns don't seem to be so imperative on defense, where defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation with 10 sacks, linebacker Jonathan Brown logged 17 tackles against Ohio State last week and bandit Michael Buchanan is becoming more of a weapon.
The defense faces Purdue junior quarterback Caleb TerBush, who led Metamora to the Class 5A state title in 2007. Meanwhile, the Illini look for more help on offense and special teams.
"That's what this week is all about - who can make a play and win a game,'' offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said.
-- Facing defenses stacked to stop the run, Illinois hasn't produced a run longer than 27 yards in Big Ten play. Although coach Ron Zook expected Jason Ford to play after suffering a sprained shoulder against Ohio State, the running chores could fall on Young and senior Troy Pollard.
Scheelhaase leads the Illini with 396 yards rushing, trailed by Pollard (385), Young (327) and Ford (309). Young hit a freshman wall in the last few weeks, but he looked energized this week.
"We're only halfway through the season,'' said running backs coach DeAndre Smith. "He's still got plenty of time to get going.''
Young's 6.0 yards per carry average is the most by any freshman in the nation with more than 50 carries. The Illini rank sixth in conference play by averaging 168.7 yards rushing per game. With the Illini unable to keep pace with last year's running attack, Petrino's use of more receivers often idled fullback Jay Prosch.
"He hasn't gone out and dominated a game yet from start to finish like he did last year,'' Petrino said. "We haven't been in two-back as much (because) we don't have a guy running for 300 yards a game.''
-- The Illini appeared deep at receiver in Camp Rantoul, but Jenkins has 47 percent of the team's receptions and 59 percent of the receiving yards.
Jenkins leads the nation in receiving with 895 yards receiving after Ohio State made the simple decision. Roll the safety and double-cover Jenkins, who had 80 yards on eight catches.
"Obviously, teams watch film,'' Jenkins said. "When they see somebody like me making catches, they'll try to take me away. (Ohio State) took my deep catches away.''
The Illini will benefit from the return of Darius Millines, considered the team's second best receiver. Zook said Millines would play this week, but Petrino also looked for more from Spencer Harris and the rest of the corps. Harris is a possession receiver who impressed against Northwestern but couldn't hold onto key throws against Ohio State.
"My role is a third-down guy,'' Harris said. "Make the third-down catch. I'm fine with that. I'll take the blame for not making the catches.''
Freshman tight end Jon Davis might develop into a playmaker in the season's second half.
"You have to have other people make plays,'' Petrino said. "They can't sit around and wait for A.J to save the day.''
-- Illinois ranks 119th among 120 teams in FBS in kickoff returns. The longest is 29 yards. The Illini stand 112th in punt returns. Sophomore Ryan Lankford has 36 yards in 14 punt returns. The Illini averaged minus-2 yards per attempt on punt returns against Ohio State.
"We made progress in the punt return game,'' Zook said. "It just takes one to get it going.''
"Anybody high on the stats, they've got somebody special back there,'' Zook said. "That's not to say we don't have anybody special. Usually it's a knack.''
Take Bears returner Devin Hester, Zook said.
"Do you think he's the only fast guy in the NFL?'' Zook said. "He's got a knack. When you've got a guy back there that's good, then everybody raises their level.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.
Illinois (6-1, 2-1) vs. Purdue (3-3, 1-1)
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Ross-Ade Stadium (62,500), West Lafayette, Ind.
Series record: Illinois leads 42-38-6
Last meeting: Illinois 44-10 (2010)
Rankings: Illinois No. 23
Coaches: Ron Zook, 34-46 in seventh year at Illinois, 57-60 in 10th year overall; Danny Hope, 12-18 in third year at Purdue, 47-40 in eighth year overall.
NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 20th, 210.4; passing 76th, 214.0; scoring 47th, 30.7; total 42nd, 424.4. Illinois defense -- rushing 18th, 98.4; passing 22nd, 188.4; scoring 17th, 17.7; total 12th, 286.8. Purdue offense -- rushing 24th, 206.5; passing 94th, 194.3; scoring 53rd, 30.1; total 56th, 400.8. Purdue defense -- rushing 59th, 149.3; passing 32nd, 200.0; scoring 30th, 21.0; total 40th, 349.3.
Notable: Illini cornerback Terry Hawthorne was limited last week against Ohio State because of pain in the same foot that suffered a stress fracture last season. Zook expected Hawthorne to play against Purdue. … Before last season's win over the Boilermakers, Illinois dropped eight of the previous 10 games to Purdue. The Illini last won at Purdue in 2001, when Illinois claimed the outright Big Ten title. … Purdue junior quarterback Caleb TerBush, a former Metamora star, has thrown for 949 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions. His 50-yard completion to Justin Siller last week at Penn State was Purdue's longest play from scrimmage this season. … The Boilers wear a No. 22 decal for Sean Matti, a senior running back who drowned in July.
Quotable: "It's not the Purdue team we played last year. The quarterback can throw it. The running backs are healthy. I don't know where all these receivers came from.'' -- Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
Prediction: Illinois 24, Purdue 20