It was appropriate that Rutgers wore black uniforms for this game in what was a 38-17 defeat to Illinois, the second worst team in the Big Ten. The performance felt more like a funeral than a blackout game, as Rutgers made the same type of mistakes that have plagued them the entire season. Another slow start, costly penalties, turnovers and poor tackling that led to big plays foiled any chance they had to win this game. Hope appears to be dead for Rutgers football in this 2018 season, as the second half of the schedule is immensely more challenging than the first half that just produced a 1-5 start.
The Illini gashed the Scarlet Knights defense for 228 rushing yards in the first half alone, good for an 11.4 yards per carry average. Quarterback A.J. Bush returned to the lineup after missing the past few games with an injury and was the best player on the field in this game. He threw for one score and ran for two more, totaling 116 yards on the ground. Running back Reggie Corbin had a 73 yard touchdown run and finished the day with 137 yards on just 11 carries. As a team, the Illini produced over 300 yards overall on the ground in this game.
While Rutgers did produce some positive moments in this contest, they continued to beat themselves with crucial mistakes and failed to produce scoring drives when they needed it most.
After falling behind 3-0 after an Artur Sitkowski interception, Rutgers produced 12 play, 75 yard touchdown drive. Running back Jon Hilliman ran with authority in this game and rambled for a 32 yard score.
Unfortunately, the Scarlet Knights defense could not hold up once again. Illinois quarterback A.J. Bush returned from injury after missing the last several games and carved up the Rutgers defense. He amassed 80 rushing yards and two touchdowns before halftime, as Illinois three times before the break to take a commanding 24-7 lead.
The Rutgers offense did respond with a much needed scoring drive, as Sitkowski started to play better after two early interceptions. He led an 11 play, 80 yard touchdown drive and found tight end Travis Vokolek in the end zone on a 7 yard pass. The Illini led 24-14 at the break.
Rutgers sorely missed kicker Justin Davidovicz, who one week after making a stadium record 52 yard field goal, was held out of the game after tweaking something in pregame warmups, per the BTN telecast. With Rutgers trailing 24-14 in the third quarter, Ash called for replacement Gavin Haggerty to attempt a 47 yard field goal and it wasn’t even close.
After Illinois scored a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, the issue was no longer in doubt. Rutgers failed to convert on first and goal later in the game and after a 20 yard field goal from Gavin Haggerty, the Illini’s Mike Epstein ran for a 41 yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage after a unsuccessful onside kick. The Scarlet Knights did produce another positive drive, but Sitkowski threw his third interception of the game near the goal line.
Overall, this loss was a similar story to last week’s defeat to Indiana. The offense got off to a slow start and the defense was gashed for 24 points in the opening half, unable to prevent big plays. Rutgers recovered enough to get back into the contest, but not enough to actually win the game. This time, it wasn’t even close at the end. Too many mistakes including poor tackling, penalties, and turnovers cost them that opportunity.
Sitkowski had an uneven performance including the two early turnovers, but he did have a stretch of completing 12 consecutive passes. On the day, he was 29 of 46 for 267 yards passing, 1 touchdown and 3 picks. He’s showing glimpses of promise, but continues to make too many mistakes. Even so, it’s the right move to allow him to work it through it at this point. If he can continue to progress it might result in the only tangible positive to come out at the end of this season.
Travis Vokolek was a bright spot in the loss, breaking out for the best game of his career with 5 catches for 47 yards and a touchdown. Bo Melton also had a solid game with 6 catches for 70 yards. The issue is the offense hasn’t produce big plays in the passing game, as the longest completion was just 28 yards, which came on the last drive. They produced several long drives but 17 points simply isn’t enough to win a Big Ten game, even against Illinois.
The issue Rutgers has is continuing to fall behind so far so early that the offense has to abandon the run game. They ran just 30 times on the day and only averaged 4.0 yards a carry. Hilliman had the best production of the group, totaling 76 yards on 10 carries including his score. Blackshear had a mixed performance, producing 78 yards combined on 21 touches from scrimmage.
The Rutgers defense continues to mystify with its poor play. They again played better in the second half, but still allowed 419 total yards and 330 rushing yards in the game. Illinois averaged 7.7 yards per carry, which sadly isn’t even unbelievable at this point based on how badly Rutgers has defended the run this season. The most alarming aspect of the defense being so bad this season is that its Ash’s strength as a coach. After improvement on that side of the ball last season, its been a disaster through the first six games of 2018.
Mistakes were a killer as well, as Rutgers committed 10 penalties for 105 yards, as well as turning the ball over three times on Sitkowski’s interceptions. Week after week, the same issues exist. The coaching staff is simply failing to get this team to rectify these mistakes and it’s resulted in the absolute worst start imaginable. It’s a young team, but progress is hard to see at the midpoint of this season.
Rutgers is now 1-5 overall and 0-3 in Big Ten play. They floundered their best chance for a conference win in this game and Chris Ash is now 1-2 against Illinois with both defeats coming at home. The fans that did turn out for the blackout game didn’t appear to be much more than 10,000, which is an awful showing. However, you can’t blame a fan base that is rightly fed up with the team’s performance this season. After this loss, it’s hard to argue that Rutgers isn’t the worst power five team in college football. The scary part is with a brutal November schedule looming, things will likely only get worse. The Scarlet Knights will travel to Maryland next weekend.