It is finally over! Rutgers ended their 16 game conference losing streak on Saturday with a convincing 35-24 victory over Illinois on the road. The last time Rutgers had won in Big Ten play was the thrilling come from behind, 55-52 victory over Indiana on October 17, 2015, which was 728 days ago. Today’s triumph was also the first Big Ten win during head coach Chris Ash’s tenure at Rutgers, now midway through his second season. It was not a mistake free performance by any stretch, but this was a much needed victory for a program in desperate need for good news.
The game came down to a battle between the Rutgers rushing attack and the Illinois passing game, just as we expected. Fortunately, the Scarlet Knights were able to dominate on the ground by committee and wear down the Illini. On the flip side, the Rutgers defense did a solid job of limiting big plays and generated a lot of pressure on QB Jeff George Jr. in the second half. Illinois did have some success late in the game through the air, but the issue was no longer in doubt.
Newly anointed starting quarterback Gio Rescigno deserves a lot of credit for the way he played today in leading the offense. He was just 5 of 10 for 89 yards passing, but he exhibited poise and also ran well, producing 41 yards on 7 carries. The problem is that he took a beating in this game and went down twice in the second half holding his left knee. The second time he was untouched and fell off of his plant leg, his left, on a throw. The kid has guts and continues to prove what a great teammate he really is in being prepared and playing well in his first extended duty of the season. However, he was taken out on the last drive of the game due to his health, with his condition unknown at the moment. He took way too many hits in this game and needs to learn to slide to minimize the damage.
Johnathan Lewis made his first appearance of the game on the second play of that drive, running for 1 yard, only to have former starter Kyle Bolin come in on a critical 3rd and 9 play deep in Illinois territory. He rolled out and found Gus Edwards for a big third down conversion. That was a big play in the game and he stayed in for the remainder of the drive. Soon after, Blackshear burst into the open field for a 41 yard run down near the Illini red zone. Robert Martin finished the drive off with a 16 yard touchdown run and Rutgers led by 18 points with 3:24 to play in the game.
After the Rutgers offense had scored just 44 points in four games against FBS competition entering today, they were able to have their best outing, aside from their 65-0 win over FCS Morgan State, against the Illinois defense. Rutgers produced 382 yards of offense, including 274 yards on the ground. Four players averaged 5 yards per carry or better on the afternoon. The offensive line generated a ton of room for the backfield by committee to run through.
Starting running back Gus Edwards led the way with 91 yards rushing on 21 carries and two touchdowns. He did have a fumble in the game as well, but had a solid game overall. True freshman Raheem Blackshear had limited carries but took advantage of the opportunities he did have, finishing with 87 yards on just 6 carries and one touchdown. His performance certainly warrants more chances moving forward. Josh Hicks even got in on the action, rushing for 25 yards on 5 carries and a touchdown. Robert Martin fumbled away his first carry and didn’t see much action until the fourth quarter, but still finished with 35 yards on 5 carries and a score. All four running backs who played produced at least one touchdown.
On defense, Rutgers was able to frustrate George Jr. and picked him off twice. Jawuan Harris, playing in his first game of his career on defense after switching during the bye week, shined in his defensive debut. He had the first interception of the game in the opening half, as well as a forced fumble and he led the team with 11 tackles, several of them in the open field. K.J. Gray had the second interception off of a bobbled pass by Illinois receiver Mikey Dudek in the red zone. That was a huge turn in this game, as the Illini were driving well in their first possession of the second half, trailing 21-10.
There were certainly mistakes made by Rutgers in this game. Tariq Cole made a costly personal foul penalty in the first quarter and Sebastian Joseph was called for a late hit flag in the second quarter. However, Cole played well overall and Joseph soon after his mistake, made a big sack, which led to a Illinois punt near halftime.
Despite the win, Rutgers made too many mental mistakes that led to penalties in this game, with Rutgers committing 8 on the day for 75 yards. The offense also committed three turnovers, with Edwards, Martin, and Rescigno all coughing it up. The bottom line is that Rutgers played well enough to win today, but they can’t continue this type of sloppy play against the rest of the Big Ten. Illinois is a young team and looked like the worst team in the conference today. However, Rutgers deserved the victory and thankfully will not retain the title of the worst team in the Big Ten this season.
This was a huge win for a program desperate for one and they played relatively well coming off of the bye week. Perspective is needed, as they still have a lot of work to do in making real progress this season. However, it was important for Rutgers to take a step forward with this win, as they move to 2-4 on the season and 1-2 in Big Ten play. This team needed a confidence boost and hopefully this game can lead to even more improvement during the second half of the season.
Next up is homecoming a weeks from today against Purdue (3-2, 1-1), who are playing on the road at Wisconsin on Saturday. There is no denying that the Boilermakers are much improved, but this is a winnable game at home for Rutgers if they play their best. The defense will have a huge challenge against the passing attack of Purdue, but Rutgers will have a chance to control the game through the ground against them, like they did today. For now, let’s all enjoy this victory and be happy for the players and coaching staff for coming through today. There is a long way to go, but this win was a necessary step forward in the rebuilding process.
Here are the highlights:
Raheem Blackshear Touchdown Run
Josh Hicks Touchdown Run
Gus Edwards Touchdown Run
Critical Muffed Punt By Illinois down 21-10 late 3rd Quarter
Rob Martin Touchdown Run That Sealed The Win