As the 2021 college football season plays out, I am starting to wonder if the apocalypse is upon us. In what is truly developing as one of the most wacky college football seasons in years, the Scarlet Knights travel to Champaign this Saturday to face the Fighting Illini who upset then seventh ranked Penn State in nine overtimes. To date, top 25 ranked teams have lost 47 times through the first seven weeks of the season, not to mention that ten FCS teams have beat FBS teams, tied for the most since 2013. The season has featured the first unranked opponent to beat No. 1 since 2008.
Illinois has been a major actor in this madness having now beat both Nebraska and Penn State. On the other hand, the Fighting Illini have lost to Texas San Antonio (UTSA), who add to the wackiness in their own right being undefeated and ranked No. 23 nationally.
What can be considered good news is that last year Rutgers went up against running quarterback Isaiah Williams. This Saturday it will be Brandon Peters as former Scarlet Knight Art Sitkowski is out for the season and will undergo surgery for his broken left arm. But will it be Peters? There is chatter in Champaign about returning Isaiah Williams to QB as Illinois out of the 130 teams that have played this season, the Illini currently rank 118th in passing yards per game. Against Penn State last week, Art Sitkowski was 8-of-21 for thirty-eight yards with one interception, although he threw a potential game winning touchdown in overtime that was dropped. Last year in the 23-20 win over Rutgers in Piscataway, Williams ran for 192 yards. However, this season he is the Illini’s leading receiver with 34 catches for 305 yards and a touchdown.
Illinois will depend on its running game this Saturday once again after rushing for 357 yards and 5.3 yards per carry in the win over Penn State. Based on past matchups, the game plan for Illinois will be to run, run and then run some more. This will pose a big challenge for the Rutgers front seven but allows the Scarlet Knights to utilize blitzing from the backend and sellout on the run, gambling that the Fighting Illini will not be able to throw the deep ball.
The Illinois running games features Chase Brown who ran for 223-yards against Penn State, the most ever by an opponent at Beaver Stadium, in the longest game in college football history. Brown was recognized as Big Ten Player of the Week for the second time in the last four weeks. He previously won the award after rushing for 257 yards against UNC Charlotte. In addition to Brown, Rutgers will have to contend with Josh McCray who compiled 142 yards against the Nittany Lions. Their smash-mouth style is working effectively behind an experienced offensive line.
One of the strategies used by head coach Bret Bielema is to bring in an extra offensive tackle. Against Penn State, the Illini took it a step further, adding two extra tackles to beat an already weakened Penn State defensive line. This allows greater flexibility for misdirection plays which keeps the defense guessing.
The Illinois offensive line is experienced and play well together as a unit. Like Rutgers, Illinois will employ at least seven offensive linemen including sixth-year center Doug Kramer and fifth year left guard Jack Badovinac. The Illini offensive line was manhandled against Wisconsin but played extremely well against the Nittany Lions. The question is which offensive line will show up this Saturday in Champaign?
Illinois’ defense is solid allowing twenty-four points or fewer the past five games. Illinois is led by Tarique Barnes at middle linebacker who has been arguably Illinois most consistent player. The defensive line has been solid, but depth is an issue overall on this side of the ball. Illini linebacker Jake Hansen suffered a season ending knee injury in the loss to Wisconsin. The loss of Hansen was big as Hansen led Illinois in tackles in 2018 and 2020, He was named All-Big Ten in 2019 & 2020 and was a preseason All-Big Ten selection in 2021.
The Illini defensive backfield is a veteran unit having only lost cornerback Nate Hobbs from last season. The other three 2020 starters; Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, and Tony Adams remain. Despite the experience, the Illini defense is susceptible to the deep pass.
News & Notes
- Rutgers and Illinois have played seven times to date with Illinois winning five of the seven meetings. RU has lost four of five as Big Ten foes and last won against the Fighting Illini was in 2017. We’ll have a complete series history later this week.
- As of mid-week, the weather forecast according to AccuWeather for Saturday’s game is 58° and clear. We’ll have an update on Friday’s game preview.
- The prognosticators set the opening line with Illinois as a 2 point favorite, but as of Wednesday, the money wagered has move the Scarlet Knights as a 1 ½ point favorite. We’ll have a full betting preview later this week as well.