This Saturday, the Scarlet Knights travel to Champaign to take on the Illini of the University of Illinois. Though they have only played against one another on three previous occasions, there is a short but significant history between these two schools.
Prior to their first meeting, Rutgers was in the midst of yet another attempt to rebuild and be competitive, this time under Head Coach Greg Schiano. The previous season, the Scarlet Knights had a 4-7 record, 1-5 in the Big East, which was the best so far in Schiano’s four year tenure at the time. The big excitement the previous season had been the opening week win over Michigan State, but had followed that up with a loss to I-AA New Hampshire, and finished the season with a five game losing streak.
First Meeting- September 3, 2005 Illinois 33 Rutgers 30 OT
The first meeting between these two schools was the first game of the season in 2005. Like the game this week, it took place in Champaign. However, coming into Champaign, hopes were high, and the Scarlet Knights jumped to a big lead in the game. At the half, Rutgers had shocked the home team, taking a 20-7 lead. In the second half however, the Illini slowly fought back, tying the score at 27-27 with just over a minute left. In OT, Jeremy Ito kicked a field goal to take a 30-27 lead, but Illinois responded with a TD to win the game in overtime 33-30.
The game was significant for two reasons. Though a loss, it showed Rutgers and the national Saturday afternoon audience that Rutgers could play tough against a major conference foe, and despite losing, gave a measure of respect to a program that had been severely lacking in that regard.
Secondly, and most remembered, it was the game that gave Rutgers notoriety as the “ESPN Game Day Top Play” with a video of Brian Leonard the “Beast of the East” performing one of his patented “Leonard Leap” jumps over the Illinois defender on his way to a TD score. For those readers too young (or too old) to remember, here it is, in all of its pre-HD glory:
Second Meeting- September 9, 2006 Rutgers 33 Illinois 0
The second game of the home and home series between Rutgers and Illinois may not have had the excitement of the first game, but the result was much better for the Scarlet Knights. The 2005 season had been a rousing success, resulting in the programs second bowl appearance ever at the time, and expectations were sky-high. Rutgers delivered in its opening game of the season, jumping to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter, with a blocked punt for a touchdown by Derrick Roberson, and the second a 38 yard Devin McCourty interception returned for a touchdown. There was no comeback in this game, and Rutgers took this one easily, winning 33-0. As ESPN’s online box score headline said at the time, “Rutgers puts Garden State whooping on Illini.” Rutgers never let up, and the magical 2006 season was underway.
Below is a video of the 2006 highlights. The Illinois game highlights are in the 1:25-2:00 portion of the video:
Third Meeting- October 15, 2016 Illinois 24 Rutgers 7
The first meeting of these two schools as a Big Ten conference game was a home game last season. Both schools were in the midst of losing streaks, Illinois having lost four in a row, including dropping non-conference contests to North Carolina and Western Michigan, and Rutgers had lost three straight to conference foes Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan.
While Rutgers won the possession clock, holding the ball for almost six minutes more than the Illini, as well amassing 65 more yards on the day, the rest of the stats, including the final score, went to the Illini. Rutgers could not get deep in Illinois territory, and only scored once, a short pass from Gio Rescigno to Nick Arcidiacono early in the 4th quarter. Even the Big Ten Network described it, “It wasn’t the prettiest game, but it is over.”
Fourth Meeting- October 14, 2017
This year brings more heartache for fans of both programs. Both Illinois and Rutgers are again hoping that this game will break their losing streaks. Illinois has lost three in a row, to former Rutgers conference mate USF, as well as to Iowa and Nebraska. Rutgers has lost their last two games, both conference games against Nebraska and Ohio State. Since their last meeting, Rutgers has a 1-9 record, while Illinois has gone 3-8.
Illinois is favored by a slight margin in the game, a 2.5 point spread, in a home game that generally gets three points for playing at home. Illini Head Coach Love Smith has decided to bank on his younger players, and a ‘Youth Movement’ is underway in Champaign. How successful that will be is is still to be determined. Rutgers, after not finding offensive success with graduate transfer Kyle Bolin, has opened the competition for the starting role to include backups Gio Rescigno and Johnathan Lewis. At the time of publication, a starter has not yet been named.
So, we are going to have to watch Saturday to see how the latest meeting between these two programs will end. If you’re not able to travel to Illinois, the game is scheduled for noon on the Big Ten Network. To delve more deeply into stats, click here.