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Illinois Is A Challenge Rutgers Football Needs To Pass

Both teams are each other’s best chance for a Big Ten win this season

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

With the bye week now behind them, Rutgers football has a major opportunity to breakthrough with their first Big Ten win in almost two years this coming Saturday at Illinois. It’s clear that both teams are at the bottom of their divisions within the conference and neither wants to be the loser of this game. The opening line from Las Vegas has Illinois favored by 3 points.

For Rutgers head coach Chris Ash, he needs to win this game for several reasons. He is 0-11 against Big Ten competition at Rutgers and the program is currently on a sixteen game losing streak in conference play. They’ve lost their last thirteen games against FBS competition. Losing to Illinois last season 24-7 was the most winnable, hence the most disappointing defeat in 2016. In a season that was supposed to mark progress from the 2-10 record last year, Rutgers is running out of chances to prove that it is improving by actually winning games. A loss to Illinois and there is a very real possibility that Rutgers will finish with a 1-11 record in 2017. However, if they can go on the road and win, the Scarlet Knights will finally have some positive momentum to return home to and the title of worst Big Ten team will be avoided.

The Illini are the youngest team in the country and are starting double digit true freshmen, including four on the offensive line. They’ve jumped into a full youth movement under second year head coach Lovie Smith. Sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr. started his first game of the season in Saturday’s loss to Iowa and while the offense was able to move the ball at times, he turned it over 4 times.

Illinois and Rutgers have the two worst offenses in the Big Ten by a wide margin. On the defensive end, Illinois is the worst in the conference in total defense and second to worst in scoring defense. Rutgers, on the other hand, is 10th in total defense and 9th in scoring defense. Of course, these stats are certainly helped by Rutgers having played an FCS team, while Illinois did not and actually beat their MAC opponent in Ball State this season. The bottom line is these teams are each other’s best chance for a Big Ten win in 2017.

In terms of injuries, Rutgers is in far worse shape than Illinois, who don’t appear to be missing any key players at the moment. On offense, Rutgers will be missing starting offensive lineman Jonah Jackson for at least a few weeks, according to this article by Ryan Dunleavy of NJ Advance Media. Jackson had shifted from center to right guard, so Marcus Applefield will regain his starting spot and redshirt freshman Mike Maietti will remain at center.

Dunleavy also reported that starting free safety Saquan Hampton could be out long term as well, making his return this week seem unlikely, although nothing has been officially announced. Losing Hampton for any amount of time would be a huge blow. With starting cornerback Blessuan Austin already lost for the season, that would put half of the starting secondary, considered the strongest group on defense, out for the Illinois game, at a minimum. The good news is that Ash did indicate that starting strong safety, Kiy Hester, will return this week after leaving the Ohio State game with an injury.

While nothing has been said recently about the best playmaker on offense, the hope is that Janarion Grant, who missed the last two weeks with headaches/concussion like symptoms, can return for the Illinois game as well. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, having Grant back on offense would be a major lift for a group in desperate need of some good news. It’s also possible, although nothing has been confirmed, that wide receiver Ahmir Mitchell could make his Rutgers debut this week after recovering from a torn ACL suffered last spring. Ash had indicated before the season that they hoped he would return at some point this season and Mitchell has been making steady progress since training camp began. His addition to an offense in desperate need of weapons could also be a major gain for offensive coordinator Jerry Kill.

As important as the bye week was to get this team some much needed time off and to get healthier, the mental break will hopefully pay dividends as well. Despite all the setbacks and disappointment that the players have experienced so far this season, preparing now for Illinois gives them a fresh start. For the coaching staff, let’s hope they also take a renewed approach with how they utilize personnel and are more aggressive in regards to their gameplanning.

Rutgers played in a much more hostile environment in their only road game this season at Nebraska. The atmosphere at Illinois will be far less daunting, which is true of the Illini defense as well. For Rutgers to begin to change the narrative around the program, beating Illinois is a good starting point. Let’s hope this team shows progress after having an extra week to work and that they can end an almost two year long losing streak in Big Ten play. The reality is if they don’t do so this week, they may not enter the win column the rest of this season, which is a scenario none of us want to witness.