Is this the week that Rutgers football finally end their 16 game Big Ten losing streak? We don’t know that answer yet, but we do know that the matchup against Illinois gives Rutgers their best chance to win a conference game this season. However, the Illini are thinking the exact same thing about the Scarlet Knights and are at home after winning last season’s matchup in Piscataway by the score of 24-7. This game is obviously a big opportunity for both teams, who are on pace to finish in last place of their divisions respectively.
In an effort to find out more about this week’s opponent, we were fortunate to speak with our colleagues at SB Nation’s Illinois site, The Champaign Room. I was able to trade questions with Brandon Birkhead and asked about how the rebuild is going under second year head coach Lovie Smith, what his impact has been on the defense, as well as what the strengths and weaknesses are for Illinois. Let’s kick things off.
What is the current pulse of the fan base midway through year two of the Lovie Smith era? Is there belief he is making progress in rebuilding the program or is their cause for concern that it might not work out?
BB: Some are starting to get frustrated, but most understand how broken the program was when Lovie Smith took over. Also because of the awful decision to hire Bill Cubit as Head Coach to only to fire him months later, really makes this year one for Lovie Smith. He wasn't able to recruit his own guys that first year and had to hold on to as many Cubit/Beckman recruits as he could (which he did a good job at), and training camp had to be pushed back.
So if you consider this as year one, and also remember that Illinois has the youngest team in the country, not much could have been expected. Some of the freshman have shown promise (Mike Epstein, Isaiah Gay, Louis Dorsey, Bennett Williams, and others). Also in some ways the team has gotten better, but is just far too under talented at key posistion just yet.
That being said you would like to see more progress in recruiting, and the offense. It's yet to be seen if the Lovie Smith era is going to pay off, but the program is on a much better path than it was under Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit.
With Jeff George Jr inserted as the starting quarterback last week at Iowa, the offense produced over 400 yards, but he accounted for 4 turnovers. Is there reason to think he is the answer and what are the current strengths and weaknesses of the offense right now?
BB: The answer to what question? Being the long term Illinois QB. No. Not a chance. He makes far too many mistakes and too many turnovers.
But is he the best option that Illinois has right now? Absolutely. The offense looks much more effective under George Jr. because unlike Chayce Crouch, he actually provides some passing threat to the defense. You would like to have a guy who could run a bit behind center in Garrick McGee's offense, but right now the team will have to make due with George Jr.
There is a chance that True Freshman QB Cam Thomas could see the field at some point this season, but the team so far seems determined to keep his redshirt. That could change later in the year.
Running back Mike Epstein has an impressive 6.1 yards per carry average on 57 rushing attempts this season so far. What has been the key to his success and should Rutgers fans expect a balanced attack on Saturday between the ground and the air?
BB: Epstein is a runner with great burst and speed. He is also very decisive. He will see the opening and hit the hole. He's a one cut runner who keeps things simple. He may not have the most power, but he runs behind his pads and finishes off runs.
Unfortunately Mike Epstein picked up an injury last game and won't practice this week. The team has yet to make a call if he will play Saturday, but it looks unlikely as of now.
Illinois will try to keep things balanced, but they will have to go with the flow of what is working against Rutgers. Lovie Smith wants to have his offense built on a power running attack, but it's been inconsistent so far in 2017.
What type of impact has Lovie Smith and coordinator Hardy Nickerson made on the defense this season? How much progress have they made and what has been their strong suit?
BB: For how young the defense -- half the starters are true freshman -- the coaching staff has done a good job. The team has improved their tackling and run defense in a substantial way. (I know Illinois gives up over 200 yards rushing, but trust me it's better) There's still a long way to go with a young group, but the defense is ahead of the offense now, even though both groups have their struggles.
When the defense works well, it's a classic Lovie Smith defense. Rush 4 or 5 guys, and drop a lot of guys into soft coverage to force short throws. If you tackle well on those short throws and don't give up big plays, it works. Still, Illinois has struggled in the past few weeks with some blown assignments and rushing the passer.
The Illinois defense has held up well in the red zone this season. What has been the key to their success?
BB: Wait.......*looks up stat.......holy hell the Illini are top 20.
I guess it comes down to dropping a lot in coverage like Lovie Smith prefers. In the red zone, all the zones the defenders are in compress and it makes it harder for opposing QBs to make throws. Stop the run well enough on top of that and you can find some success.
How have the special teams play been overall this season, in particular the specialists?
BB: Illinois has one of the better kickers in the Big Ten in Chase McLaughlin. He's 8/9 on the year and is a very dependable kicker.
Freshman punter Blake Hayes from Australia has handled punting duties well. He's averaging just a shade under 40 yards per punt and has downed 7 in the opposing 20.
The rest of the special teams have been fine, but nothing to write home about. The group hasn't done anything to hurt the team, which is pretty good for a ST unit.
Who are some names Rutgers fans should watch out for that haven't been discussed here yet?
BB: With Mike Epstein out, Reggie Corbin and Ra'von Bonner will be splitting the main running back duties. Bonner is Illinois best power runner while Corbin has some decent burst.
WR Mike Dudek had an amazing freshman year for Illinois but is now coming off two straight torn ACLs. He has been off to a slow start this season, but has shown flashes of his former greatness. He could be ready to break out again soon.
Which team will break through with a win on Saturday, Rutgers or Illinois?
BB: I think this game is extremely tough to predict, and could come down to one or two lucky bounces one way or the other. I'm more than a little concerned with the Illinois offense, and the turnover issues of Jeff George Jr. I think I may have to give the slight edge to Rutgers in this game even though it'll be very close. 24-20 Rutgers.
Thanks to Brandon for giving some great insight on the current state of Illinois football. You can follow Brandon on twitter here and for more coverage on the Illini, visit The Champaign Room. To read my answers to Brandon’s questions on Rutgers, click here.