This series has been one to forget since the Knights joined the BIG. However, most will remember the two games they played in 2005-2006. Illinois leads the series 5-2. Let’s take a look back.
The first game between these two schools had many memorable moments. Greg Schiano was entering his fifth year at Rutgers and many expected this to be his make or break season after a disappointing finish to the 2004 season. Illinois was led by 1st year head coach Ron Zook. An interesting note about his coaching staff was that current Maryland head coach Mike Locksley was his first year offensive coordinator.
Led by quarterback Ryan Hart, Rutgers stormed out to a 20-7 halftime lead. On Rutgers’ first offensive possession of the second half, Brian Leonard caught a swing pass in the left flat, hurdled Illinois corner Charles Bailey and ran 83 yards for a touchdown. It was in my opinion his greatest “Leonard Leap ‘’’ and it also finished at number 1 on SportsCenter Top 10 plays the following week. Unfortunately, that was the final bright spot for Rutgers that day. Illinois came all the way back to tie the game at 27 and force overtime. In the overtime, Jeremy Ito hit a 40 yard field goal but it was future NFL running back Pierre Thomas who punched it in from 2 yards out to give the Illini a 33-27 victory. This game still has lasting effects on the program because it is now remembered as the birth of the “Chop”.
In a rematch of the wild 2005 game, Rutgers was looking for revenge. The Knights went 3 and out on their first drive but by the time they walked back onto the field with 4:51 in the first, they were up 14-0. Derrick Roberson recovered a block punt in the endzone and freshman corner Devin McCourty had a 38 yard pick six. Unlike the year before, Rutgers did not allow a furious comeback and led at the half 30-0. Jeremy Ito nailed a 40 yard field goal in the second half to make it a 33-0 final. Former Rutgers special team’s coordinator Vince Okruch was the Illinois defensive coordinator and Maryland Head Coach Mike Locksley was their offensive coordinator once again.
Fresh off a 78-0 annihilation against Michigan, Chris Ash’s Scarlet Knights were looking to get back into the win column against a one win Illinois team. The Fighting Illini built up a 17-0 lead behind running back Kendrick Foster. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Giovanni Resicgno found Nick Arcidiacno to end Rutgers’ 11 quarter scoreless drought. Illinois’s Darius Mosely put the game out of reach with a 78 yard interception return. Lovie Smith and Illinois left Piscataway with a 24-7 victory.
With the best team of the Chris Ash era, Rutgers walked into Champlain looking to end a 16 game BIG losing streak. Rutgers rushed for 256 yards and held Illinois to only 86 rushing yards. Running backs Gus Edwards (2) Raheem Blackshear (1) Josh Hicks (1) and Robert Martin (1) all rushed for touchdowns. The Knights scored first and did not give up the lead once, cruising to a 35-24 victory.
With the season spiraling out of control, Rutgers looked to ride the ship when Illinois came to Piscataway for the third time in their history. Jonathan Hilliman gave Rutgers a 7-3 lead after a 32 yard touchdown run. Behind the combination of running backs Reggie Corbin and AJ Bush Jr, Illinois torched the Rutgers defense all day. Art Sitkowski found Travis Vokolek in the endzone to make it 24-14, but the 3 interceptions thrown by Sitkowski proved too costly. Illinois ran its way to a 38-17 victory.
Interim Coach Nunzio Campanile was looking for his second consecutive win after leading the Knights to a win over Liberty the week before. Down 10-0, Johnny Langan threw a dart to Mohamed Jabbie for a 31 yard touchdown. Justin Davidovicz drilled a 25 yard field goal to tie the game up at 10 going into the half. The second half was dominated by Illinois as they scored 28 unanswered points for a final of 38-10.
Favored in a BIG game for the first time in what felt like forever, Rutgers was looking to add another signature win in Greg Schiano’s return season. The Scarlet Knights cruised down the field on their first drive to go up 7-0 thanks to Bo Melton’s 29 yard touchdown catch. The game was an absolute battle from there on. The deciding factor was the play of Isaiah Williams. The Illinois quarterback ran for 192 rushing yards and 1 touchdown. Illinois finished with 338 rushing yards as a team yet Rutgers had a perfect opportunity to clinch the win. In a tie game with under 2 minutes left and Rutgers on the Illinois 37 yard line, Noah Vedral threw a horrible interception that led to a Illinois game winning field goal. Lovie Smith’s 23-20 victory was his third straight win over Rutgers.
This week Rutgers returns to Champaign to try and snap out of a 4 game losing streak on the season as well as a 3 game losing streak to the Illini.