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Rutgers Football defensive report card v. Illinois

Solid effort if unspectacular

Rutgers v Illinois
Roberts led a defense that played well enough to win.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Six down, six to go as we are halfway through the season. For the Ohio State game, everyone earned an F, but the Knights bounced back in a big way to snap their Big Ten losing streak. How did the units grade out? Let us know how you feel about the defensive performance with our poll and in the comments below.

Same format as we break down the defensive performance at each of the three levels organized by alignment, assignment, and technique. The players listed in each group are in order of how noticeable they were to me, but potentially not every player who saw action.

Defensive Line: B+ (Davis, Joseph-Day, Turner, Wilkins, Bateky, Turay, Nash, Lumor, Previlon)

Alignment: Rutgers was able to remain in generally 40 fronts with an occasional 50 look. There may have been more nuances to the exact shades the defensive line had on the offensive line as Deonte Roberts seemed to be making some minor adjustments as in half a step to either side for the big boys up front. Illinois ripped off a big play the first time Rutgers tried a 30 front, but the following play was not.

Assignment: Rutgers defensive line was in total stop the run mode for the first three quarters. There were a few plays that a Rutgers lineman was in the backfield unimpeded at the QB but looked around before attacking Jeff George Jr. to ensure it was not a running play or a screen pass. It may have looked foolish, but it demonstrated the commitment to ensuring Illinois would have to beat the Knights through the air.

Technique: The defensive line got a boost when Illinois starting running back Mike Epstein was ruled out before the game. They did a good job of keeping arms free and funneling runners toward linebackers. When Illinois went to their big back Ra’Von Bonner there was a period of adjustment on one drive but eventually Rutgers slowed him down. Once the Illini were in pass mode, Rutgers was able to get a little bit of pressure, enough to keep a back or tight end in to block rather than running a route.

Individual other player thoughts: Wilkins (4 tackle, 1 TFL) was simply too good for whomever was trying to block him. Bateky (2 tackles, 1 QBH) showed a similar skill set as he is still getting back to full speed after an injury. Joseph (1 sack) was disruptive but did contribute a key penalty for no reason. He made a huge play later in the same series to make amends. Previlon (1 QBH) had an offside penalty and was average. Turner (3 tackles, 0.5 TFL) made some nice plays to force backs into quick decisions. Not sure if Jimmy Hogan played. Lumor did not see much action as Myles Nash came in a few times (yes he played both ways) adding a half sack. Darnell Davis was used on some third downs which kept him fresh and he was able to generate a few pressures. He will be needed more next week. Kemoko Turay (3 tackles) added a sack and though his stats didn’t wow you, he was in on several plays despite being double teamed a lot and even was in good coverage allowing K.J. Gray to come down with his interception.

For Rutgers to have any shot to stay competitive it was sure a boost they made Illinois one-dimensional early on. Due to the play particularly on the defensive line, Illinois had to keep in a back usually so they were in effect blocking four men with six. This allowed an undermanned secondary to keep 7 men back defending just four eligible receivers. Rutgers linemen truly wanted this more and schooled the true freshmen offensive line of Illinois several times. It will be interesting to see if Rutgers can build on that desire to get a little more pressure against a pass-happy Purdue squad next week.

Rutgers v Illinois
Douglas was effective when he was on the field.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Linebackers: A (Morris, Roberts, Douglas, Rosa)

Alignment: The linebackers played mostly the normal 4-3 stack, but at times Douglas showed he was at the line of scrimmage. This disrupted at least one play where George Jr. expected him to come as a free blitzer and rushed a throw. Deonte Roberts did a great job of ensuring the linemen were in precise spots which kept the offense from easy access to block LBs.

Assignment: For the most part Rutgers played this pretty conservative, which is the way Ash and Niemann like to play their linebackers. They were in read and react mode with very few blitzes. Late in the game this unit was in pass coverage seemingly every play.

Technique: This was the first time a team didn’t really go hurry up OR test Rutgers on wheel routes. Thus it allowed Rutgers to be set and they capitalized in playing proper position and keeping arms free to make tackles. There may have been one or two plays where linebacker coverage assignments were not as tight as they needed to be, but only one actually resulted in a big play for Illinois.

Individual other player thoughts: Ross Douglas (7 tackles) played a lot more than Eric Margolis which is a good thing because it meant Illinois effectively abandoned the running game. Douglas is undersized against some Big Ten clubs but was too experienced an athlete not to make plays against so much youth on the other side. Trevor Morris (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL) who I am often very critical of, played possibly his best game as a Scarlet Knight. He was steady in pass coverage, filled his gaps well, and even delivered a few more big hits than we are accustomed to seeing from him. Roberts (9 tackles, 1 pass defended) was quiet after the ball was snapped as a product of so few wide open lanes. He gave up a decent gain on a crossing route but they say every crossing route eventually becomes open. Austin Rosa was credited for one QB hurry.

This group could not have done more in this game. The linebacking unit as a whole needs to continue to play like this for Rutgers to have any chance of winning another Big Ten game this season. It would have been nice to see some younger players log more plays BUT this was a must win and the starters had it going. The Boilermakers have a much better passing attack, so the unit will be needed to assist the inexperienced secondary.

Secondary: B (Gray, Harris, Hayes, Wharton, Campbell, Stevens)

Alignment: Rutgers mixed mostly between their base defense and traditional nickel. Jawuan Harris played almost the entire game at what seemed like strong safety.

Assignment: Rutgers played press-man with Wharton and Hayes and they had a lot of responsibility to jam and stay with their men on the outside. Harris was usually in a deep zone while Gray (even as the free safety), Roberts, and Morris were responsible for receivers coming over the middle zones. When a tight end was in the game, Douglas as the SAM backer usually had responsibility or when Illinois went three wide, Zane Campbell was on him as the nickel corner. This was pretty vanilla, especially in the first half.

Technique: For the most part, Rutgers secondary attempted to keep plays in front of them and not surrender any big ones. They did other than one touchdown where a jump ball was won over Damon Hayes. The corners were not cheating toward the run, but they didn’t need to because Harris and Gray were seemingly everywhere, there to make a play every time a runner got through the front seven. The pass completions late in the game was mostly underneath when RU was willing to give up yards to avoid the risk of big plays.

Individual other player thoughts: Jawuan Harris (11 tackles, 1 INT) is the story after switching from defense last week but K.J. Gray (8 tackles, 1 INT) was tremendous. Wharton (2 tackles) must have had a decent game since Illinois elected to test Damon Hayes (3 tackles, 2 passes defended) a lot more than Isaiah. Wharton had a key play where he shoved an Illinois receiver out of bounds before a catch was secured that forced a field goal rather than a first down in the red zone. I think I remember Larry Stevens in there on maybe one defensive snap? Campbell defended a pass nicely and added a tackle. Hester didn’t play and will hopefully return for the Purdue game.

The secondary was not tested as much as they should have been with so many guys filling in. I would give the Illinois coaching staff an F for not truly attempting to confuse Rutgers or going after Harris more. They must have known he was only a safety for a week. Jeff Brohm and the Boilermakers have a much more experienced quarterback and are very creative with playcalling. It’s good Harris got a game under his belt and Hester will have another week to heal up. Expect some bombs and trick plays next week as Gray and Harris will be challenged in a big way. I can’t give this unit more than a B because they did give up 300 yards passing even if much of it came in the 4th. Against a tougher opponent, they will need to clamp down more down the stretch.

Coaching: B

This was again the typical conservative game plan which proved successful finally. The front four was able to get a little bit of pressure, but probably not enough against a good quarterback. Simple wrinkles such as showing a free man on the outside and dropping him into coverage worked. Dropping Turay into coverage forced the K.J. Gray interception. Bonus points for getting Jawuan Harris ready to go in a week, whoever is most responsible for that deserves a gold star. Perhaps safety coach and co-defensive coordinator Bill Busch is the guy.

Next week may be the week Niemann and Ash decide to completely change it up and surprise Purdue with blitzes we haven’t seen all year. That game plan has to come at some point, perhaps against Maryland if it doesn’t next week. As a fan, it just feels like they don’t give offenses anything to really think about other than Kemoko Turay and an occasional third down zone blitz. Illinois was just not good enough to beat a base defense.

Effort: A

This defense never wore down despite a string of consecutive three and out’s by the offense. The offense also put the defense in some bad spots like a first play turnover on their second drive. The D did more than just dig in and they forced a long field goal that went wide. From there Rutgers had the upper hand the remainder of the contest. Even though Illinois scored some late TD’s, it was not from lack of effort. Defensive line started to get a little pressure when they were only rushing four as the game got late. Gray, Morris, and Harris seemed to be everywhere and almost looked like a Schiano defense at times.

Overall grade: B+

Illinois is not that good at football, but Rutgers got the win. Every unit did what they had to do to secure it. When Ash’s staff was hired, this is what we wanted to see on the defensive side as in just make Rutgers a serviceable defensive football team, which they may be. Now if the Rutgers offense can be a little more effective in the pass game keeping their defense on the sideline, this team will continue on its path to be a legit Big Ten football team.

Three stars:

  1. K.J. Gray
  2. Trevor Morris
  3. Jawuan Harris

CAPTAIN OBVIOUS: This game was won by Rutgers just wanting it more at the line of scrimmage and making less mistakes (barely).

What we learned that will apply next week

Reasons for pessimism: 1. Rutgers is still 1-17 in their last 18 Big Ten games. 2. Rutgers has never strung together back to back Big Ten wins. 3. Purdue will test Harris and the patchwork DB’s 4. What if Rutgers offense can’t run the ball like they did against Illinois? 5. Defensive line gets minimal pressure until late in the game. 6. Those turnovers were against one of the nation’s leaders in INT’s. 7. The turnovers were all lucky in some form 8. This game was never that close, how will RU respond in a true dogfight, like another EMU-type battle? 9. Every team on the schedule the rest of the way is better than the Illini. 10. Forget a tenth, RU just won!

Reasons for optimism: 1. Rutgers finally broke through with a W. 2. Defense had two picks, neither of which came from an expected starter at the beginning of the season. 3. Defense allowed 24 points which is still average this day in age. 4. Illinois only had 86 yards rushing after gauging Iowa for 200. 5. The longest run play allowed was only 14 yards. 6. Illinois completed 20 passes, but most were in garbage time 7. What if RU’s offense didn’t turn it over, could this have been 49-7 blowout? 8. If you play in enough of these actual football games, other teams could give it away, too. 9. Janarion Grant didn’t get many touches and they still won 10. If they can get running like this, they might actually win a second Big Ten game 11. Other than OSU and PSU, are these other Big Ten offenses good either?

Dave wonders ... what if RU had beaten EMU and was now 3-3? Would fans be happy?


How do you grade Rutgers defense v. Illinois?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    A: Superhuman effort, offense and ST put them in bad spots a lot.
    (7 votes)
  • 46%
    B: Winning football, defense like it oughta be.
    (84 votes)
  • 37%
    C: Solid, but where’s the pass rush?
    (68 votes)
  • 11%
    D: Illinois is horrendous.
    (21 votes)
180 votes total Vote Now