The Scarlet Knights defense faces one of their toughest tests of the season against Illinois on Saturday. Yes, you read that right. The Illini showed how potent their ground attack can be in their victory at Penn State last week. Illinois rushed for 357 yards against the Nittany Lions, averaging over five yards per carry. Chase Brown was especially impressive, as he carried the ball 33 times for 223 yards (6.8 yards per carry) and a touchdown. Joshua McCray was nearly as good, rushing for 142 yards on 24 carries (5.9 yards per carry). Containing the run against Illinois is a must if Rutgers wants to have a chance to win.
Here are three keys for Rutgers to slow down the Illini’s rushing attack.
1. Stack the box
If there is one advantage the Rutgers defense has, it is that the Illini do not have a balanced offensive attack. Therefore, the best way to stop the run is simply to keep more defenders close to the line of scrimmage and dare Illinois to beat the Scarlet Knights with the pass.
The Illini have been far more proficient on the ground than through the air. On the season, Illinois ranks 124th out of 130 FBS teams in total passing. On the other hand, Illinois ranks 42nd in rushing.
This lack of balance was on full display against Penn State. While the Illini were able to run the ball almost at will, former Rutgers transfer Art Sitkowski threw for a paltry 38 yards on 8 of 19 passing (along with an interception and two lost fumbles.) This week Illinois coach Bret Beliema announced that Sitkowski will be out for the rest of the season with a broken arm. It came one play after he threw what would have been a game winning touchdown but the receiver dropped it.
This means Illinois will hand the reigns back to Brandon Peters, a senior quarterback who threw for the winning two point conversion against Penn State. (Peters had started the season as the starter, before giving way to Sitkowski and missing some games due to injury). Neither Peters nor Sitkowski has put together a great season, as both quarterbacks are at 50% or lower in their completion percentage.
Again, the plan for Rutgers defense is simple: bring the linebackers and safeties in to blitz the run and hope that the defensive backs can win battles in single coverage. With cornerback Max Melton hopefully healthy enough to be back in the fold for Rutgers and a lack of explosive receivers for Illinois, this is simply the best strategy. Expect to see a lot of 8 men in the box looks from Robb Smith’s defense. The Illini’s scariest offensive weapons are in the backfield and Rutgers defense will need to gamble a bit by loading up the box to try and contain the Illini rushing attack.
2. Gang tackle and limit big plays
This goes right along with the concept of stacking the box. Chase Brown is a physical runner who can break tackles and power his way to long runs. In addition to his monster game against Penn State, the senior had an even better performance against Charlotte earlier in the season, carrying the Illini to victory with 257 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80 yard scamper.
“You see Chase and his abilities and his skill set, but I think he also has the ability to take the home run hit like you saw. There wasn’t anybody catching him,” Illini coach Bret Bielema told the Southern Illinoisan about Brown after the Charlotte game. “He’s really just scratching the surface of what he’s gonna become.”
Against an explosive runner like Brown, The Scarlet Knights best chance of slowing him down is tackling well. This requires defenders to swarm to the football and maintaining gap control. It also means preventing the speedy Brown from getting the edge and sprinting down the sideline for big gains. Linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, a senior captain who leads the Rutgers defense in tackles, will need to be at his best as the defense looks to slow down the Illini senior back.
3. Keep the Offense on the field and control the clock
Perhaps the best way to keep Illinois’ rushing attack in check is to keep the Illini offense off the field. Illinois controlled the clock against Penn State, maintaining the ball for over 36 minutes of possession. The longer the Scarlet Knights defense is on the field, the more the Illini rushing attack has a chance to wear down Rutgers and test their depth on the defensive side of the ball.
Simply put, the Scarlet Knights offense can not allow that to happen, meaning they need to be more efficient when they have the football. Coach Schiano has to hope the offensive line will bounce back after the bye week and open some holes for Rutgers own rushing attack led by Isaiah Pacheco and Kyle Monangai. Noah Vedral will need to be sharp in his throws and keep drives alive with his legs and his arm. Rutgers can not afford many three and out possessions if they expect to win on the road in Champaign.
Loading up against the run, tackling well and limiting big plays, and controlling the clock on offense are the keys for the Scarlet Knights to limit the Illini rushing attack and getting back in the win column.