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Rutgers Football Game #6 Preview vs Illinois

The current annual crossover matchup means someone will get a B1G win.

Rutgers v Illinois
Blackshear had a few big plays v Illinois in 2017.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

How To Watch, Stream & Listen

Illinois (2-2; 0-1) At Rutgers (1-4; 0-2)

Where: Highpoint.com Stadium, Piscataway, NJ.

Kick-off: Saturday, October 6th at 12:00 p.m. EDT

Weather: 69 degrees, cloudy with a 1% chance of rain, 3 mph winds

TV: BTN Lisa Byington (play-by-play) and J Leman (analyst). Out-of-market channel finder.

Stream: BTN2go

Radio: Rutgers IMG Sports Network with Chris Carlin, Eric LeGrand, Ray Lucas, and Anthony Fucilli - WCTC 1450-AM, WOR 710-AM, WENJ 97.3-FM, WNJE 920-AM, XM 195, Sirius 94 (Justin Sontupe, Stephen Nelson and Allie Palmer)

Current Spread: Illinois -6

Against The Spread: Rutgers 2-3; Illinois 2-2

Series History: Tied 2-2. Rutgers won 35-24 in 2017.

SB Nation IU site: The Champaign Room

Illinois Statistical Leaders

Passing: M.J. Rivers - 46 for 73 pass attempts, 63.1%, 422 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT. A.J. Bush Jr. - 18 for 30 pass attempts, 60.0%, 223 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT.

Rushing: Reggie Corbin - 327 yards on 48 attempts, 6.8 ypc, 4 TD; Mike Epstein - 324 yards on 48 attempts, 6.8 ypc, 2 TD; AJ Bush Jr. - 142 yards on 26 attempts, 5.5 ypc, 0 TD; Ra’Von Bonner - 109 yards on 22 attempts, 5.0 ypc, 1 TD

Receiving: Ricky Smalling - 9 catches for 133 yards, 14.8 ypc, 2 TD; Sam Mays - 12 catches for 128 yards, 10.7 ypc, 0 TD; Mike Epstein - 8 catches for 80 yards, 10.0 ypc, 0 TD; Trenard Davis - 8 catches for 64 yards, 8.0 ypc, 0 TD;

Defense: Del’Shawn Philips - 32 tackles, 2.5 for a loss, 0 sack, 2 INT, 0 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery; Jake Hansen - 29 tackles, 6.0 for a loss, 0 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 recovered fumbles, 0 pass defended; Bobby Roundtree - 25 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 Morning sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 5 passes defended

Kicking: Chase McLaughlin - 12 for 12 PAT’s, 8 for 11 FG attempts, Long of 54 yards

Illinois Statistical Comparison Versus Rutgers

S&P+ Advanced Stats Profiles: Illinois I Rutgers

Penn State v Illinois
Rivers had plenty of time to learn from this film.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

What To Watch For

Energy

Illinois is coming off a bye for their first true road game of the season. With two and a half games under his belt, freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers had a bye week to get more confident in the offense. Expect Illinois to have installed some full house backfields, wrinkles in the passing game, and some trick plays to try and lighten the load on their signal caller. The success of these plays will have a major impact on the momentum generated by the ground and pound style of offense they run. On the flip side, Illinois hung in there with Penn State in the first half before getting destroyed in the second half by the Nittany Lions; pretty much exactly what happened to Rutgers against PSU in 2017. The Illini could be a little rusty though off a bye and RU needs to take advantage.

Rutgers had energy in the first half of the Indiana game and added even more in the second half. It will be a blackout game against Illinois which historically has been energizing for the Scarlet Knights, although the noon kickoff may offset that enthusiasm a bit. After the improvement seen on offense in each of the last three halves of football, Rutgers should come into this game amped for their best shot at a win the rest of the way. Of course we have seen the team show up flat a few times in Ash’s tenure as most groups of 18-22 year olds can from time to time. The Illinois fan base seems to think their team will come out swinging, per Aaron’s Q & A with them.

Illinois has skill position talent

The Hoosiers were efficient but outside of Stevie Scott, really didn’t possess many playmakers on the offensive side. Illinois is quite the opposite even after star wideout Mike Dudek suffered a season ending knee injury in the season opener. Ricky Smalling is a good receiver (who also battled injuries so far this season), he had 5 catches for 111 yards and a touchdown last year when Rutgers traveled to Champaign. Sam Mays is a tall receiver at 6’3’ who already has 12 catches this season and is the body type Rutgers struggled to contain against Indiana.

On the ground, Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein both are averaging 6.8 yards per carry on the season for more than 320 yards. Ra’Von Bonner also had some success as a bruising back against the Scarlet Knights last year with 62 yards and a touchdown in that contest. Because of Illinois’s ability to break big gains in the run game, the Illini ran a lot of option with AJ. Bush Jr (21 carries, 139 yards) in their season opening win over Kent State. After Bush (5 carries, 3 yards) did not get it going on the ground against Western Illinois, he was replaced by true freshman M.J. Rivers II. Rivers then played the entire games in losses to South Florida and Penn State as Bush battled a hamstring injury. His status is still questionable.

For the third week in the last four (Indiana and Kansas being the other two), Rutgers will face an offense that does not feature a big time downfield passing attack. The Illini will look to run the ball or get the ball on short passes to their playmakers in space and attempt to wear down the Rutgers defense over the course of the game. Sound like what the Scarlet Knights strategy was on offense in 2017 or what?

Sitkowski watch

Like fellow true freshman Rivers on the other side, Art Sitkowski was up and down against Indiana. This is expected for a rookie. Earlier in the season Rutgers rarely was able to throw the ball beyond the first down line to gain, but that changed a bit against Indiana. For the first time since the season opener, Scarlet Knights fans saw some reasons for optimism. The odd thing is that for the first week since maybe the 2016 season finale, Rutgers might not have a starting quarterback controversy before or after the game if Art can show more of the same against Illinois.

The early week Illinois podcast from Champaign Room does not think Rutgers can pass which is key considering they think the safety position is the biggest position needing improvement on the Illini roster. Look for their second podcast of the week closer to kickoff. So if we see continued growth from Sitkowski, Rutgers has a good chance to win this game. If he plays like he did against Buffalo and Kansas, mark another “L”. Expect shots downfield, particularly in the middle and on seam routes to attack the safeties and at the very least get them to hesitate a half second in run support.

Coaching

John McNulty has gotten some fans to question his playcalling and predictability, but for the most part McNulty settled in. He was right that Rutgers could not pass block well enough. The key moving forward is scoring more points, particularly early in the game, just like it always is to avoid being stuck in passing situations. One reason I have some level of excitement for this game is because Rutgers might come out pounding it, or they might really try to pass the ball a lot. Save late in the 2008 season, we have usually been pretty sure the Rutgers game plan each week. Maybe it works, maybe not but at least the opponent has to be guessing.

After rewatching the film, Jay Niemann called a pretty good game overall. One could argue that some of the zone blitzes with inexperienced personnel may have been gambles, but had Rutgers played it straight up, fans would have been calling for exotic blitzes. Though I appreciate the shutout in the second half, Indiana was trying to shorten the game and when RU needed just one stop to get the ball back with all the momentum and decent time, the defense could not. In college football these days, holding a team in the mid-20s is the best you can expect most weeks so I could see people actually giving a higher grade. The short of it is that if Rutgers does not win a game where they have a chance, everything will be second guessed. As much as you look at the final point total for Penn State at 63, Illinois put up 24 points and rushed for 245 yards on the night in that contest. When was the last time Rutgers even put a dent in a Big Ten power on the scoreboard or on the offensive stat sheet? For this reason, it will be critical for Rutgers to figure out a way to force Illinois to throw the ball by slowing the run game, the opposite of a week ago.

Neither Rutgers offense or defense did what it took to WIN the game last week. Both units did enough to be in it, but neither side could make those big plays required. Indiana just made a few more, can the coaching staff figure out ways to have a different result this week?

“Special” teams

Justin Davidovicz and Adam Korsak may be the best two players on the Rutgers team and per S&P, Rutgers is ranked 5th in the nation on special teams. Davidovicz hit both his extra points and added a 52 yard field goal to close the gap to a one score game. The kick was the 4th longest in Rutgers history and had he missed, the game would have been essentially over. Indiana touched back each of Justin’s kickoffs. Adam Korsak only averaged 41.5 yards per punt, but despite what ESPN boxscore says, downed three of the four inside the 20 yard line with none of the four getting returned at all. Isaih Pacheco only averaged 19.3 yards per kick return, but seems on the brink of breaking one. A big play from him or anywhere else on special teams could galvanize a team looking for every reason to get excited.

Illinois boasts a strong kicker of their own, Chase McLaughlin has kicked a 54 yarder and is 8 for 11 on FG attempts. He also has gotten touchbacks on 18 of his 22 kickoffs. Blake Hayes is averaging a whopping 45.9 yards per punt, a key reason the Illini special teams per S&P+ are an impressive 14th in the nation. For reference, Rutgers had First Team All Big Ten punter Ryan Anderson a season ago, and he only averaged 44.4 yards per punt.

With both special teams so strong, this will probably be a stalemate. If either squad makes a mistake, it will challenge that school’s offense and defense in a big way and likely impact the final score of the contest.

Final Thoughts

Indiana was indeed ripe for the picking, but Rutgers just took too long to get both sides of the ball clicking. Rutgers did not get it done against Kansas earlier this year and the Jayhawks have been whipped the last two weeks by Baylor and Oklahoma State as expected. So this is a must win, as Illinois is one of the other teams near the bottom of the Power Five conferences. The Big Ten gifted these two teams matchups with one another for a six year stretch so that one of them HAS to win each annum until 2022. Whomever loses will have a really tough sell that their program is going in the right direction on the recruiting trail. The potential for decommits could grow despite hope with freshmen in the quarterback room for both teams, so it may be the biggest game of the season for Chris Ash and Lovie Smith, as both desperately need a Big Ten victory.

All we ask for sound football. Will Rutgers win? I have no idea, but once again the Scarlet Knights have a golden opportunity at home to put another game in the win column if they execute well on both sides of the ball. If they don’t, the season will continue to get longer in a hurry and future will be even more of an uphill climb.

To hear my participation on the Illinois SB Nation podcast, click here.