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Rutgers Football Game #9 Preview at Illinois

Both teams come into this one after wins that surprised many.

Liberty v Rutgers
Langan was a changed man last week, can he do it again?
Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

How To Watch, Stream & Listen

Rutgers (2-6; 0-5) at Illinois (4-4, 2-3)

Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

Kick-off: Saturday, November 2 at 3:31 p.m. EDT

Weather: 39 degrees, mostly cloudy with a 5% chance of rain, 15 mph winds

TV: BTN with Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen, and Elise Menaker

Stream: FOX Sports App

Radio: Rutgers IMG Sports Network with Chris Carlin, Ray Lucas, and Anthony Fucilli: WCTC 1450-AM, WOR 710-AM, WENJ 97.3-FM, WNJE 920-AM, Sirius 111, XM 196. (WRSU 88.7-FM)

Current Spread: Illinois -20

Against The Spread: Rutgers 2-6; Illinois 5-3

Series History: Illinois leads 3-2

SB Nation Illinois: The Champaign Room

Illinois Statistical Leaders

Passing: Brandon Peters - 86 for 153 pass attempts, 56.2%, 997 yards, 12 TD, 4 INT; Matt Robinson - 32 for 57 pass attempts, 56.1%, 348 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT

Rushing: Reggie Corbin - 526 yards on 96 attempts, 5.5 ypc, 5 TD; Dre Brown - 411 yards on 66 attempts, 6.2 ypc, 2 TD; Ra’Von Bonner - 156 yards on 45 attempts, 3.5 ypc, 3 TD;

Receiving: Ricky Smalling- 24 catches for 225 yards, 9.4 ypc, 1 TD; Josh Imatorbhebhe - 22 catches for 364 yards, 16.5 ypc, 6 TD; Trevon Sidney - 16 catches for 123 yards, 7.7 ypc, 1 TD; Daniel Barker - 12 catches for 188 yards, 15.7 ypc, 2 TD;

Defense: Dele Harding - 90 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, 0 sacks, 2 INT, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble; Jake Hansen - 62 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 fumble recoveries, 7 forced fumbles; Sydney Brown - 46 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0 INT

Kicking: James McCourt - 29 for 29 PAT’s, 7 for 11 FG attempts, Long of 57 yards

Illinois Statistical Comparison Versus Rutgers

S&P+ Advanced Stats Profiles: Illinois | Rutgers

What To Watch For

Pacheco / Adams / Young watch

The Pacheco watch was in doubt last week due to the pounding Isaih has taken all year. Lucky for Scarlet faithful, not only did he suit up, he showed the same toughness and desire no matter how good or bad the blocking in front of him. The starting running back was rewarded with 107 yards on the ground to his name and two touchdowns. This was critical because both freshmen, Kay’Ron Adams and Aaron Young were bottled up; each recorded less than 30 yards on seven carries. Hopefully after another week of practice in Campanile’s scheme, a back other than Pacheco will have it down pat.

Even more than the backs, the Rutgers offensive line really brought their lunch pails and imposed their will on the finesse Flames. Liberty’s defensive line and linebackers are not as undersized as you might think, but Rutgers was often just shoving them backwards at the snap creating running lanes for Pacheco and quarterback Johnny Langan who also totaled over 100 yards on the ground. It was a combination of several factors that contributed to this success, but the biggest difference seemed to be that Rutgers linemen simply knew who they had to block. In previous weeks, too often defensive ends and linebackers were just coming through the line unblocked and backs were helpless. This is what happens when you change offensive schemes midseason. Hopefully not only can RU repeat what they did last week, they can add more into this week’s game plan.

Facing QB option runs is not what the Illini are built for. They are built for facing teams like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern who run a more typical pro style. Meaning linebackers play run first by keying on the running back then drop into zones if the play turns out to be a pass. If I were an Illinois coach game planning, I would be evaluating if I think my linebackers will read and react to the QB option runs by Langan effectively. If I have doubt based on what I saw earlier this year against teams like Nebraska, then I might do some designed run blitzing which the Illini did not do much the last few weeks but mix in plenty of safe zones to hope to just contain.

There is a chance Illinois could make strategic errors in this area, but will it matter?

Langan / Campanile watch

For Rutgers to win this game, they will need to complete a few passes like they did last week to shock the world! The elements alone will make this week more difficult. Temperatures in the 30s with 15 mph winds is going to make spinning the football for anyone without a cannon quite difficult. If Johnny Langan can throw the ball with authority like he did last week unlike the ducks we saw in previous games, he might be ok. If he cannot throw the ball really at all, maybe we see Art Sitkowski (if the game is close) or the upstate New York native Cole Snyder who is no stranger to these conditions. Expect Langan to play as long as possible this game though because both teams are going to try to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible in the windy cold.

Overall, Illinois is a tremendously opportunistic defense; Jake Hansen has 7 forced fumbles alone. The rest of the team has 8 total. (For comparison, Rutgers has forced one fumble this season officially as a team). The Illini play a similar defensive style to what is the new normal in Big Ten football against the pass. Play bend but don’t break defense with linebackers who have enough coverage skills to pick off an occasional ball and rely on your front four to get coverage sacks. Their front four is not awesome, but play with excellent hustle to run down plays from behind. Their secondary is vulnerable to big wide receivers and tight ends so this may be a game Matt Alaimo or Daevon Robinson break out. If Isaiah Washington can make a few catches, that will really open up some space for Rutgers to run the ball.

After all that positivity, keep in mind Rutgers has too often shot themselves in the foot on offense. Illinois is so much more fundamentally sound and less likely to make mistakes. So for Rutgers to stay competitive they need to play a perfectly clean game.

Chris Ash, Head Coach. Andy Buh, D.C.

The Illinois offense is run first, run second, run third, pass as a last resort. They boast three solid running backs even with Mike Epstein out for the year ... again. Illinois’s offensive line blocks the run quite well, getting some push up the middle and their tackles do a nice job of using leverage to allow defenders to run themselves out of plays or overpursuing. The Illinois skill position players also block quite well for their positions. Their best receiver Ricky Smalling who has done some damage against RU is questionable so it’s possible Illinois wins a game for a second week in a row by only attempting six passes from our old friend Brandon Peters formerly of Michigan.

As we say every week, Rutgers needs to gamble by placing Avery Young and Damon Hayes on islands and try to play 9 on 9 football inside the hash marks. The Rutgers run defense when they are fully committed can hold up for most of a game. We saw them do that for three quarters against Iowa and Boston College AND four quarters against Michigan. Playing it conservative against Illinois will not work because like Maryland they can spring big perimeter runs if you lose edge containment.

Rutgers is the healthiest defense IN THE COUNTRY! They need to dig in for this game and have no excuse performances from their linebackers again like we saw a few times this year. If the LBs don’t get off blocks and make plays, this one will be a blowout like Indiana and Maryland. Illinois’s offensive tackles are susceptible to edge pressure, but if you can’t put them in passing situations, that won’t matter.

Andy Buh’s group was pathetic in the first half last week. Then did they make significant halftime adjustments? Was it just luck? Did something click for the players in the second half? Whatever it was, Rutgers held on for a win to get a monkey off their backs last week. Please Andy, we need a good performance from you this week!

Special Teams

The Illinois special teams are solid. That’s how you punch above your weight. They have a great punter in Blake Hayes (45.0 avg) and a good kicker in James McCourt who is automatic on extra points with a 57 yard field goal to his credit. The wind will be a huge factor in the kicking game, so can Justin Davidovicz and Adam Korsak outperform their opposition?

Illinois has a much better return group than Rutgers, so it will be curious to be if the winds let that matter at all. If kicks are short and returns plentiful, RU may be in danger.

Why should I have hope?

  1. Illinois is banged up.
  2. Something finally clicked for the Rutgers offensive line under Nunzio Campanile last week.
  3. If Johnny Langan can throw with the accuracy he showed last week, RU will move the ball some.

Still though, Rutgers scored 44 points against Liberty, the same team who gave up 44 to FCS Maine (2-5) the week before. Don’t expect anything close to the same performance. Illinois on the other hand completely suffocated Purdue after upsetting previously unbeatable Wisconsin. Rutger’s hasn’t stayed even close with a Big Ten Titan since 2015.

Final Thoughts

Rutgers is on a roughly equal talent footing as Illinois. Rutgers is a much healthier team than Illinois. That being said, this game is barely winnable from the Rutgers perspective. I say that because Rutgers just has not put together a full four quarters on both sides of the ball against any opponent this season. Not even close. Illinois will not make mistakes, Rutgers absolutely will.

Illinois is a much better team than Rutgers right now, but the Illini strengths don’t line up perfectly with RU’s biggest weaknesses. So things could break right for Rutgers for them to stay close and even with a few lucky bounces, pull out a win. I wouldn’t bet on it, but this is not a completely unwinnable game.

Let’s hope this game, Illinois is running against the wind ...