Slow start not causing Smalling to hit the brakes

Slow start not causing Smalling to hit the brakes

CHAMPAIGN — Shallow crosses.

That's the type of route Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith wanted to try to utilize in the Illini passing game to get Ricky Smalling involved more in the offense. Let the sophomore wide receiver put his athleticism to work in a high percentage situation.

It worked in Saturday's 55-31 victory against Minnesota at Memorial Stadium.

Smalling tied his season high with four receptions against the Gophers and set a new season high with 86 receiving yards. Most of that total came on Smalling's 67-yard second-quarter touchdown.

On a crossing route.

Illinois quarterback AJ Bush Jr. used play action to draw in the Minnesota defense, Smalling slipped inside of Gophers freshman defensive back Terell Smith on the slant and turned back toward the sideline to go untouched for the big-play touchdown after shedding Smith's initial tackle attempt.

"We've been waiting for Ricky Smalling to step back up like that," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "As we talk about some of things that we needed to do better, we needed to get more from our passing game. A lot of times it's just on the quarterback, but we've dropped some balls."

Smalling had struggled this year to match his production from a breakout freshman season. The Chicago native tied Malik Turner for the team lead in receptions with 31 and held the receiving yardage lead on his own with 501 yards, making him just the fourth true freshman to lead the Illini in receiving yards in program history.

This season has been less successful for Smalling. While he does lead the Illini with four receiving touchdowns, he has just 18 receptions for 264 yards through nine games. That included just one catch each in losses to Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland.

"It's been tough a little bit with how he's doing," Rod Smith said before Saturday's win against the Gophers. "We've got to continue to keep working and find a way to get him involved more moving forward. He's got to also make some catches as well. If the ball's catchable, he's got do his part as well."

Rod Smith said Smalling hadn't let his struggles affect his play.

"I see a kid who's a competitor and who wants to be able to produce and help the football team," he said. "Rick works his tail off during the course of practice. We'll continue to develop that part of our game, our offense. It's got to come around to catch up with the other part as far as the run game."

Illinois rushed for a season-high 430 yards against Minnesota, but the Illini passing game was more of an equal to the run game. Bush matched his season high with 216 passing yards for a second straight game, and Smalling's touchdown played a big part in that.

"It was good for his confidence," Bush said. "He had a breakout freshman year and things are kind of slow this year. I was just happy to see him flying down the field because that's all he wanted to do."

Bush said Smalling's 67-yard touchdown could break the ice for the 6-foot-1, 205-pound receiver for more success moving forward. That's true, Bush said, for the entire Illinois offense.

"After late last game, when we put up (24) points (in the second half against Maryland), that starts a chain reaction," he continued. "Momentum is big in football. We've all been working hard. It's nothing new. We're just finally putting it together. It was just like a puzzle. We'd put a piece down then somebody would take a piece up. It would never connect. We've been doing all the same stuff we've been doing but just probably a little bit better."