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OTB staff reactions to Rutgers’ 20-14 win over Illinois

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Our contributors give their thoughts following the first Big Ten victory of the season.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Our staff reacts to Rutgers’ 20-14 victory over Illinois on Sunday.

Andrew Cangiano:

Wow, did Rutgers need that game. The Scarlet Knights weren’t perfect, but they made the three critical plays in the fourth quarter needed to seal the 20-14 win.

- The first was a fourth down completion by true freshman Gavin Wimsatt, who on his first collegiate snap showed poise in delivering a strike to Bo Melton to keep the drive alive. Rutgers would go on to score the go ahead touchdown on a 15 yard scamper by Noah Vedral.

- The second was a great open field tackle by KessawnAbraham on fourth and one to stop Chase Brown from picking up a first down that would have put Illinois in position to score the winning touchdown.

- Nearly as crucial was a third and six conversion on a quarterback keeper by Noah Vedral to pick up the game clinching first down. Give the Scarlet Knights credit, they made the plays they needed to down the stretch to earn their first Big Ten win of the season.

A few other thoughts on the contest:

The running game is back! Offensive coordinator Sean Gleason stuck to the run, as Rutgers carried the rock 51 times and amassed 237 yards rushing in total. The bye week certainly seemed to help the offensive line to correct some of its issues and the Scarlet Knights utilized the ground attack to control possession in the second half, as they kept the Illini offense off the field.

On the flip side, the defense did a tremendous job of limiting the Illinois ground attack, holding the Ilini to 107 total rushing yards. As I wrote prior to the game, limiting big plays by Chase Brown was a must and Rutgers did just that. As Coach Schiano said postgame, the tackling wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly better than it had been.

As usual, Noah Vedral was solid, but not spectacular, but he turned in a gutty performance, returning from an injury in the first quarter to rush for the go ahead score early in the fourth quarter and the game sealing first down.

One player who deserves mention is punter Adam Korsack. It’s a position that obviously gets overlooked, but the Aussie continues to shine, as he delivered a perfectly placed 50 yard punt that pinned Illinois at their own one yard line with under nine minutes to play. He also placed two others inside the 20.

While this is only one win, the importance of this victory can not be overstated. An 0-5 start in conference would have been quite discouraging and made the chances of reaching a bowl game even slimmer. Now the Scarlet Knights are 4-4 and have a chance to become bowl eligible if they can split their final 4 contests.

This week they have a tough matchup, as they host an incredibly hot Wisconsin team, which beat down #9 Iowa 27-7 on Saturday. The offensive line played much better against Illinois and that unit will need to continue to improve if they hope to establish the run against the Badgers stout defense.

For right now though, Scarlet Knights fans can all take a sigh of relief and enjoy a well earned victory. There are certainly areas for improvement, but this was a huge win for this team.

Cara Sanfilippo: Full disclosure: I almost didn’t watch this game. Partially because I was away on Saturday and forgot to set my DVR and partially because when I realized I almost didn’t care to watch it. Thankfully, YouTubeTV knows my viewing habits and recorded it for me based on my previous viewing.

I watched with one eye closed for the initial few drives because I was expecting some ugly, messy play. When the Rutgers offense started moving the ball and the defense was limiting big plays and even getting some three and outs, I opened both eyes but watched nervously for the rest of the game. When Brandon Peters threw for two long completions and the Illini took the lead, I thought, ugh, same old Rutgers (like I said I’ve been down).

I realized two things during this game. 1). My unwavering, sometimes begrudging, support for this team is sometimes bad for my mental and physical health, 2). Those of us, myself included, calling for someone else besides Vedral to start have seen why the coaches get paid the big bucks. Cole Snyder stalled the offense whenever he was in. Vedral is clearly is the best option as Gavin Wimsatt gets up to speed. Speaking of whom, boy was I excited when he came in, and apparently so was the Rutgers offense. He was the spark Rutgers needs to claw their way back to the lead and they never looked back. Even with a 6 point lead, until Kessawn Abraham got the stop on 4th and 1 to seal the game, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that Rutgers would somehow not lose the game.

Let’s be honest. I really wasn’t comfortable until Vedral got the first down and they took a victory formation. It will be a while until I am fully comfortable with this team’s ability to win but today I am riding high knowing the season is potentially not over. I’ll take it. Onto Wisconsin, who just beat Iowa, at home. Hopefully, like Illinois, they will not be able to carry that momentum into next week. Go Knights!

David Anderson: That game was interesting, mostly. Don’t get me wrong, I let out a solid, happy “yeaaaaaaa” on Vedral’s gutty touchdown run to give Rutgers the lead and a fist pump in the air on Abraham’s 4th down stop. It was great to see Rutgers win a conference game when at no point were they firing on all cylinders, which hasn’t happened since ... they were in the Big East?

I’m still digesting the implications outside the film, but the fact remains, every single year the monkey will be on Rutgers’s backs until they win their first Big Ten contest of the season. They have now taken that first step so hopefully we can see a team that will give itself a chance to win a few more conference games and that Northwestern embarrassment was just a blip. Wisconsin has one of the best rushing defenses in the country, and a passing defense that is not. Hopefully next week will be more interesting as in exciting, with Rutgers willing to throw the ball even if it risks them going down in flames to a resurgent Badger squad.

Art Stein: I predicted RU to win 21-18 so I can’t say I was surprised by the win. What did surprise me was how the vaunted Illinois running game was for the most part neutralized. I was also surprised by the play of the Scarlet Knights offensive line which is a patchwork of player combinations. I agree with Aaron that Gavin Wimsatt with one play turned the game around. If the old coaching axiom that the best players play, starting on Monday, Wimsatt should be the back-up quarterback. A game-plan that mixes the play of Vedral, Langan and Wimsatt gives Rutgers three legitimate weapons from behind center. Kyle Monangai is becoming a beast. It is time for Rutgers to open its arsenal. Everything will depend on if the offensive line holds it together. For now, I am going to savor this win.

Fred Gaudios: There was a moment deep in the fourth quarter where I took a breath and said to the folks watching the game with me, “this may not be a good game, but this has been a fun game.” My vibes weren’t quite that positive with Rutgers down at the half, and I was really sweating Rutgers being only up by six after kicking a field goal on their final possession. The game could have easily ended 21-20 Illinois, but with a game-saving tackle by Abraham, it didn’t, and now Rutgers has banked four wins and is playing meaningful football in November. It was cool also to see certain players contribute for the first time in yesterday’s game. Four (!!) QBs contributed, even if their contribution was simply holding the line and not letting things get too out of hand. One more thought: I’m not sure how Rutgers cobbles together two more wins this year, but I suppose it’s possible, and stranger things have happened. Even if they don’t, yesterday’s win was well-earned and gives this team a renewed chance to make something out of this season.

Lawrence Krayn: The Knights got their season back on track, and once again established their formidability in the conference with a huge road win over an Illinois team that was coming off of a huge win at Penn State.

Most impressive to me was how well they played in the trenches. I was concerned before the game that our offensive and defensive line woes would cost us the game, as Illinois has had an impressive rushing attack all season.

It really does look like Rutgers spent the bye week doing some self-reflection and improvement, and it paid off. This team can still gather momentum and get a post season bid. As Coach Schiano pointed out, just having the ability to write their own script in November is a huge step forward for the program.

I must say this: putting Gavin Wimsatt in on a pivotal 4th and 5 play spoke volumes. This wasn't some effort to just get the young man a snap or some limited game experience. This was the staff seeing their starting quarterback out of the game for a play due to injury, needing a certain skillset, and calling Wimsatt's number because he was the most capable on the team of executing that play. That speaks wonders about what they've seen so far and his future. Schiano was wise to downplay it and temper expectations after the game, but it shouldn't be lost on anyone.

Aaron Breitman: Rutgers is playing meaningful games in the last month of the season with something to actually play for beyond pride. It’s the first time since 2017 and only the second time since joining the Big Ten over eight years that we can honestly say that. That’s legitimate progress, even if things feel slow to move forward at times. No rebuild is linear and how they perform in the final four regular season games will obviously determine how much of a success this year will ultimately be. However, they really are just one win away from cementing true progress from a win-loss perspective this season.

In winning Saturday, the program regained its footing and showed real character to be able to get off the mat after a terrible October otherwise. Credit to everyone in the program and while this wasn’t a notable win in regard to the opponent, it might end up being the most important one of the season in regard to righting the ship. These are the contests Rutgers has to win to be respectable in the Big Ten and to be able to be in bowl games each year. After beating Illinois just once in the previous five seasons, getting that win is a necessary step to bigger things. We are on to Wisconsin with a chance, a chance I tell you, to earn the program’s best Big Ten win since joining the league in 2014.