Oct 14, 2016
The long Rutgers nightmare to start the season may be ending. The Scarlet Knights (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) started the first half of the season running the gauntlet through some behemoths, emerging battered and bruised from a 153-0 dismantling at the hands of Ohio State and Michigan. The Scarlet Knights currently sit in last place in the Big Ten East Division. Is the season over? No, it’s just beginning, with B1G Western Division cellar dweller Illinois coming to High Point Solutions Stadium for RU’s homecoming (Noon ET, ESPNews).
As cliché as former head coach Kyle Flood’s “1-0” mantra seemed, each week in a college football season really does take on a life of its own. Matchups will be the key, but you can rest assured that this is a must-win for Rutgers if the Scarlet Knights want to head in the right direction over the second half of the campaign.
Remember, Rutgers took Iowa to the edge in a Sept. 24 contest at HPSS. However, also remember that this was a different Rutgers squad that lost three players who started in that game (Janarion Grant on offense, and Greg Jones and Quanzell Lambert on defense). So, while RU showed promise before the Ohio State and Michigan fiascos, the Scarlet Knights are dealing with serious injury woes.
The Fighting Illini (1-4, 0-2) are smarting after dropping a 34-31 overtime game against Purdue last week. In the first year under head coach Lovie Smith, UI has yet to beat a Football Bowl Subdivision school.
Illinois may start a backup quarterback in Chayce Crouch, who replaced injured starter Wes Lunt and nearly led Illinois to victory over the Boilermakers. Don’t let Crouch’s backup status fool you, as he possesses great running skills that would keep Rutgers off balance. While No. 1 QB Wes Lunt is the better passer, he doesn’t possess much in mobility. Crouch ran 17times for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue. However, he is an unproven passer, so Rutgers would have to keep him on-dimensional if he is the starter. That being said, Crouch completed 10 of 14 passes last week, which is more than RU’s combined completions the last two weeks.
Rutgers has hinted this week that it may employ a two-back running attack. Illinois has displayed some success with this, especially when Reggie Corbin has the ball. The freshman averages 8.7 yards per carry and presents a dangerous option against Rutgers.
The Illini will probably look to exploit Rutgers’ depleted linebacker unit. RU’s LBs were a weak spot to start the season, but the Scarlet Knights are down to bare bones after losing two potential starters over the last month. Safety Kiy Hester may be the most important player back in the lineup if he is ready to go. He is the Scarlet Knights’ best defensive back against the run, but Hester has been sidelined last week. The Scarlet Knights
Illinois’ defensive strength is its front line, but a key player is out for the first half of this game. Carroll Phillips was ejected in the second half of the Purdue game for targeting David Blough. Look for Rutgers to use this to control the line of scrimmage early in this contest. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, son of the legendary Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB by the same name, will need to step up in Phillips’ absence. Nickerson leads Illinois with 47 tackles.
Illinois is giving up 5.7 yards per play this year on defense, which has to drive the defensive-minded Smith a bit crazy.
If Rutgers wants to find some kind of passing game, this is the chance. Illinois’ already weak secondary is depleted. Rutgers looked decent passing the ball in the second half of the Iowa game, so we’ll see if the Scarlet Knights find some of that. Illinois may just stack the box forcing Rutgers to try to run the ball after seeing Ohio State and Michigan smother the Knights for 154 total yards (117 rushing and 37 passing).
My advice to RU head coach Chris Ash: take the ball if you win the toss and get on the Illini early. These are two fragile teams, so the first to score has a great chance of carrying the day.