Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Illini Try to Get Back Down to Earth

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Illini Try to Get Back Down to Earth

Article excerpt

Howard Griffith was the most recent Illinois running back to stack up 1,000 yards in a season. Sadly for the Illini, that happened four years ago.

Illinois once boasted some of the best backs around - Red Grange in the '20s, J.C. Caroline in the '50s and Jim Grabowski in the '60s. But since Griffith, the Illini simply haven't posed a serious menace on the ground. Pass-happy Mike White, who coached Illinois seven years in the '80s, completed the team's transformation. A John Deere tractor could have chewed up more yardage and looked twice as imposing.

And this season?

"We don't have the kind of running game we want yet," coach Lou Tepper said Tuesday. "But we're certainly much closer than we were a year ago."

In large part, that's because of two deceivingly compact packages in the Illinois backfield: sophomore Ty Douthard (6 feet 1 and 205 pounds) from Cincinnati and freshman Robert Holcombe (5-11 and 187 pounds) from Mesa, Ariz.

Together they've dented opposing defenses for 797 of Illinois' 981 on the ground. Holcombe leads the team with 443 yards net, Douthard's second with 354 yards. Douthard has broken the 100-yard-a-game barrier twice this season, Holcombe once.

That's mulch compared to Michigan tailbacks Tim Biakabatuka and Tyrone Wheatley, who've mowed over 1,100 yards between them this season. Illinois (4-2 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) plays No. 11 Michigan (4-2, 2-1) at 2:37 p.m. Saturday in Champaign.

"All eyes are going to be on Wheatley and Biakabatuka," Douthard said. "But that's our chance to shine, to show everybody that Illinois has a running game, too.

"The showdown to me will be their backs against our backs," Douthard said this week. "It's a big game, no doubt about that. We have to win this game."

Douthard gives the Michigan backs their due. But like Tepper, he senses that the seeds for a greener running game are beginning to take hold.

"In the past, we have been a passing team that had a finesse running game," Tepper said. …

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