CHAMPAIGN — Each of Casey Washington’s catches last Saturday carried an individual story.
It’s not always the case. A receiver might haul in a lone, quiet reception or numerous nondescript passes in any given week.
The Illinois sophomore, however, put together an interesting performance in the Illini’s 23-20 victory at Rutgers despite not collecting his first catch until the third quarter.
Washington’s three catches for 52 yards paced Illinois’ receiving corps and played an important role in the Illini’s first win this season.
His thought process toward each of those catches displayed just what sort of presence Washington brings to the table when running his routes.
“If I can be a player that’s on the field always thinking, I feel like I’ll be in the best positions to make plays,” Washington said, “in situations where I need to come through for the team.”
Even though offensive coordinator Rod Smith spent ample time last week establishing a run game behind quarterback Isaiah Williams and running back Chase Brown, Williams still attempted 18 passes, but only completed seven of them.
Washington’s first notch in those seven completions occurred midway through the third quarter, with Illinois trailing Rutgers 20-10 and sitting just outside the red zone.
Williams found a wide-open Washington at the Scarlet Knights’ 3-yard line. But Washington snagged the ball with a knee on the ground, ending the play. A flag was thrown on the play, leading Washington to think the play was over, but it was an offsides call by Rutgers.
“I just had a little brain fart there, to be honest,” said the 6-foot-2, 190-pound receiver out of Round Rock, Texas. “Just being too worried about what was going on. There was flags thrown, and I was just not focused on what I should’ve been focused on, which is catching the ball and getting into the end zone.”
That said, Washington does feel the NCAA could learn from the NFL in changing the rule where a player can go forward if he’s not touched first by an opponent.
“Since this stage for college is the stage before the NFL, I honestly think I should be able to get up and go,” Washington said, “because that’s what I’m practicing to be and that’s what I’m trying to get to.”
No problem this time. Running back Mike Epstein eventually got the Illini into the end zone to trim Rutgers’ lead to 20-17.
Fast forward to Illinois’ final offensive drive, starting with 1 minute, 17 seconds remaining in regulation, the score tied at 20 and the Illini starting the drive at their own 46-yard line.
Following a short Williams keeper, the playcaller hit Washington on a 16-yard completion that took the Illini into Scarlet Knights territory. Washington said he recognized in the moment that it was a free play, with Rutgers again penalized for offsides.
“We have routes on that play, so that was scripted,” Washington said. “I just feel like it’s another route, but it obviously helps in the back of your head (to know) this is a free play, so why not take advantage of it?”
Washington’s last catch came three plays later and gave kicker James McCourt a legitimate chance, from 47 yards out, to boot a game-winning field goal.
Williams looked right with 11 seconds on the clock and found a backpedaling Washington for 16 more yards. Washington acknowledged he could have secured a few more yards, but he wanted to be safe rather than sorry.
“I should’ve been more aware of what was going on with everything. But just when I was running the route, I wasn’t too sure if we had a timeout left,” Washington said. Illinois did indeed have one timeout left. “I was just wanting to make sure I (did) possess it and get out of bounds to stop the clock.”
Washington’s output in New Jersey was the second-best of his Illini career, following a 4-catch, 55-yard effort versus Northwestern last season. Illinois didn’t win that game, however, so Washington’s latest exploits come off as more crucial.
“It just felt like any other football game,” Washington said. “Just went out there to compete and came up with a couple catches.”
Who’s throwing the ball to Washington and his fellow receivers this Saturday isn’t 100 percent certain. Brandon Peters is available after missing the last three games with a positive COVID-19 test, and Smith indicated earlier this week he wants to keep Williams involved.
Given Washington’s output last week came with Illinois using its fourth different starting quarterback in as many games, it’s safe to say Washington doesn’t need any specific quarterback in order for success to transpire.
“It’s pretty much the same — just going in every week making sure all my assignments are right, making sure I’m mentally locked in,” Washington said. “I’m just out there to catch the ball, so it doesn’t really matter who’s throwing to me.”