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Rutgers Football Position Meter and look toward Illinois

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Week 3 saw some regression to the mean as the picture becomes clearer.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Illinois
The annual crossover matchup between Illinois and Rutgers is a must-win for both teams.
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Below is how the Rutgers Football position groups fared in game three against #3 Ohio State. They never quit and forced the Buckeyes to keep their starting quarterback in the game until the very end. It would have been interesting if there were more fans in the Horseshoe to witness it. As always, your thoughts are welcomed in the comments section.

This one was tough to grade and skewed somewhat by the second half.

Quick recap and what to watch for in Game 4 against Illinois.

Quarterbacks

This was a mixed bag, so ultimately I gave the trending even. QB play in the first half was not nearly enough to get anything going against the #3 team in the land. Noah Vedral got better as the game went on, so hopefully he can build on his performance with another game in this offensive system. Johnny Langan was less effective, but I think it was more that Ohio State was able to get fresh bodies in the game when RU sent in the full line change rather than Langan regressing. Art Sitkowski showed his four-star potential by firing balls all over the field, but ultimately fumbled away a chance for RU to score near the Ohio State goal line.

This week v Illinois: Telling your QBs not to turn the ball over is not how you win, so the offensive coaches are the ones who need to call plays that result in safer reads. If the team needs a spark, potentially inserting Sitkowski in the second quarter could at least make things more interesting than the second quarter offensive atrociousness the past two games. Even if Vedral comes back in the game, the defensive backs may not creep up as much. Illinois is a team that can contain QB runs at the expense of intermediate passing lanes being open. Rutgers doesn’t need to throw bombs necessarily, but well timed crossing routes should get some yards after the catch.

Running Backs

The running backs had a bad day other than that huge run by Isaih Pacheco. If you remove that one 66 yard highlight play, they carried 14 times for 15 yards total, ouch. Pacheco and Aaron Young each caught three balls for six yards, we need more. A lot more. Ohio State didn’t blitz that much so can’t mark that as improved, either.

This week v Illinois: Run hard to set the tone. The press has been encouraging RU to run more north and south, but this is not the game to run into the middle of the line. Illinois clogs the middle, but Minnesota got huge gains with one-cut, Robert Martin type running. It will be interesting to see how Sean Gleeson adjusts because he’s too smart to keep doing the same thing that hasn’t worked. A few jet sweeps probably could loosen things up a little bit. Illinois is vulnerable to running backs catching the ball so we could see a higher percentage of Aaron Young.

Wide Receivers

Did Rutgers just inherit an Air Raid receiving corps overnight? Ohio State has big, fast athletes everywhere and even their third string corners were five-star recruits. Yet the Rutgers receivers were getting separation which was most notable when the RU backups; Paul Woods, Isaiah Washington, and Christian Dremel saw action with Sitkowski. They were getting open with good route running time and time again. The starters weren’t bad either as Bo Melton and Aron Cruickshank each hauled in seven receptions. Shameen Jones had four of his own, including some key plays to keep RU on schedule. They may have reached their ceiling with Vedral for now, but long-term we all can feel a lot better about their production.

This week v Illinois: Take advantage of mismatches. If Illinois tries to cover the slot with a linebacker, make them pay. If Illinois is forced to use their younger players, be precise with routes like Purdue did in game 2. Overall, the RU wideouts need to just keep doing what they are doing, gain yards after catch by securing the ball then making the first man miss.

Tight Ends

Last week they finally got a highlight reel play! Jovani Haskins used his size to shield a smaller DB and haul in a touchdown. Otherwise they struggled against defensive linemen but did ok blocking against linebackers and safeties. All in all, there was growth from previous weeks and against a team that doesn’t have Buckeyes on their helmets is good enough in short yardage. Matt Alaimo had good chemistry with Art Sitkowski which bodes well for future games.

This week v Illinois: Illinois, like Rutgers, wants to keep three linebackers on the field as much as possible. To make them reconsider, the RU tight ends need to make them vulnerable in pass coverage OR neutralize them in the run game. The place to really hurt this Illinois team is the slot/seam area and just one completed pass to a tight end at the second or third level will really open up even more space for the Rutgers offense. I think Alaimo is the right guy, maybe even on a fade route out of a short yardage situation.

Offensive Line

They really couldn’t control the point of attack against Ohio State’s first stringers, but against the backups (who are still all four star talents) the Scarlet Knights were able to use technique and savvy to get the job done. Depth is still a concern as Rutgers only has six offensive linemen they trust. Raiqwon O’Neal and Reggie Sutton at tackle though inspire confidence in pass protection more than anytime since when, 2012? The patchwork operation did enough to hold up defenders for those trick plays to work unlike last year when the big boys on the schedule were getting right into the backfield.

This week v Illinois: Get a little more push than has been the game plan in recent weeks. The Illini have been good when they can engulf the middle of the field, but when opponents have been able to open little creases they have been gauged. The Gleeson / Andrew Aurich blocking style isn’t intended to blow people off the ball, but they need to try a little more of it this week. In pass protection, Rutgers should be attacking the slots, so a big key is simply getting an initial pop rather than having to hold for extended plays. The key will be the interior linemen containing the big guys Illinois has in the middle by not letting them collapse the pocket, the strength of their defense.

Defensive Line

Rutgers had eight tackles for a loss. Julius Turner had three alone and continues to cause havoc. Both Turner and Dwumfour were good again, while Robin Jutwreten had a nice bounce back game. The ends did not get initial pressure, but they played with good effort and ran a few plays down from behind. Elorm Lumor and company were mostly neutralized and Ohio State still ran for over 200 yards despite how clogged the center of the line was.

This week v Illinois: The strength of the Illinois football team is like usual, the running backs and running quarterbacks. They key is to bottle up as many plays near the line as possible to force third and long situations. Rutgers is still looking for some semblance of a base pass rush that has not come. If they can get that this week, it should be enough for a win.

Linebackers

This was a weird one against Ohio State. On one hand, they made some nice individual tackles against the monster skill players from the Buckeyes. On the other, they were not very helpful in coverage whatsoever, surrendering clutch catches to tight ends. Olakunle Fatukasi had another monster game with tackles, but if the other team can do whatever they want for a half, usually the linebackers have a role in the air and ground in not stopping it.

This week v Illinois: Maintain gap assignments. Illinois beat Rutgers last year because their offense made a few big plays whereas the Rutgers offense didn’t. The best path for the Illini to win this game is to bust a few big runs or get yards after the catch. Rutgers needs to play with enthusiasm, but does not need to sell out to force turnovers, Illinois will do that on their own if you let them put the ball on the carpet. If you get Illinois in obvious passing situations, bringing confusing pressures will force them to play faster than they want. The linebackers can’t just sit back Chris Ash style, but all-out blitzing should not be necessary. Being smart with who is in the QB spy, who is blitzing, and who is responsible for backs on dump offs is critical. Illinois has inexperienced quarterbacks with Peters still out, so confuse them.

Defensive Backs

This is all about how much of a curve you are willing to give. OSU quarterback Justin Fields has thrown more touchdowns than incompletions this year. Rutgers coverage did help the front four get at least one pure coverage sack on him and another due in part to the lockdown, but on the flip side I don’t think they got a hand on a single ball for a single pass break up other than one that was called back for pass interference. Their performance wasn’t enough to win many games, but they won’t be facing another Heisman contender the rest of the year.

This week v Illinois: Don’t get beat deep. Illinois has been playing their 4th string quarterback who is a runner first, runner second, and check down artist third. Make them out execute you and sustain drives even if it means surrendering a few extra yards underneath. Make them connect on timing routes, then secure the tackle. I usually am all for playing the younger defensive backs, but in this one maybe Larry Stevens and Kessawn Abraham are better options than the freshmen.

Special teams

In the Indiana and Ohio State games, special teams needed to be great to make things interesting. They struggled in the first half against the Hoosiers, but since then they have strung together back to back to back above average halves. Punting, kick coverage, kick returns, everyone is contributing. They deserved the up arrow, though for Rutgers to beat the best teams on their schedule, they probably need the fireball. The cross-field, cutback punt return touchdown was the most exciting play (that counted anyway) since maybe Janarion Grant’s punt return TD in more conventional fashion.

This week v Illinois: Steady as she goes. This is not a game where the special teams need to try to do too much. Don’t kickoff return the ball short of the 20. Don’t risk punt returns when you can simply fair catch. Don’t go for a big hit in kick or punt coverage, just stay within yourself. Special teams are more likely to lose this game than win it, possibly the only time I will say that the rest of the season.

Coaching

For the most part, I don’t know what type of criticism is appropriate. They made things interesting, keeping the team and fan base locked in for all 60 minutes. I couldn’t give the fireball because, well, they had no chance to win once they were down by 30+. Still though, a great performance by the staff that is the envy of the rest of the Big Ten and making waves throughout college football already, especially in the Volunteer State.

This week v Illinois: Just win. Whatever it takes. Greg Schiano at times during his first tenure struggled in games when Rutgers had equal talent and came in overconfident, failing to make adjustments or add wrinkles. Hopefully these players, most of which weren’t on the team the last time Rutgers beat Illinois in 2017 will come out with their hair on fire. Gimmicks are fun, but just overwhelming a team is more fun. It’s a shame there will be no fans in the stands because Rutgers would have a monstrous edge if there were after all that has happened in 2020.

The skinny

Illinois cruised to victory the last two years in this head to head matchup between teams who are near mirror images of one another. Both teams have rebuilt with similar philosophy, so this game is not as much about X’sand O’s as it is which team wants it more and is mentally checked in all week in practice. Both teams have similar strengths; defensively they want to lean on the interior of their front seven and offensively run the ball with the QBs and deep RB rooms, reducing the need to rely on dropback passing.

Illinois is 0-3 but they will be getting reinforcements back in this contest, though their starting quarterback remains out. The Illini may treat this as a bowl game knowing it is their best chance for a win in 2020, so Rutgers needs to impose their will and break that spirit early. The Scarlet Knights better not be thinking about anything beyond this game, this was their Super Bowl the last two years and they came up completely empty.

I mentioned this already this week: all the momentum from the past three weeks will evaporate if Rutgers loses this game and we’ll be back to wondering if they can win another game in 2020. If Rutgers wins, the band wagon will grow substantially. Which is it going to be?