Illinois-Rutgers: One of these teams isn't going to lose on Saturday
Losing is never fun.
Most coaches will tell you that it doesn’t matter whether it’s by one point or by one hundred points, a loss is a loss. Well, we’re about to have a battle in the basement of the B1G with the two teams that were at opposite ends of that old cliche.
Rutgers and Illinois will play this week after suffering in very different ways the past few weekends. The Illini have been close. They’ve held fourth quarter leads in their last to games against Nebraska and Purdue, only to come up short – or just a tad too far to the right.
The Scarlet Knights haven’t even been competitive. In the last two weeks, they’ve been outscored 136-0 by Ohio State and Michigan. On consecutive Saturdays, the two top dogs in the B1G didn’t need anything more than a slight breeze to blow away Rutgers.
Both teams want to end losing skids. Lovie Smith wants his team to finally close out in the final period. Chris Ash is wants put something on the field that resembles a football team. As the two worst teams in the conference based on our weekly power rankings, it looks like both are catching each other at just the right time.
Someone has to win on Saturday. Or maybe better stated, one team isn’t going to lose this weekend. And as cliche as this may sound, the game is going to come down to one thing: the basics.
Improving on the simple things was on the minds of both Ash and Smith in their weekly press conferences.
Smith harked on the way his defense has given up big plays recently, including a 63-yard TD run by Terrell Newby two weeks ago against Nebraska and a simple screen pass from David Blough to Malik Kimbrough that turned into a 45-yard scoring play.
“We have to eliminate those,” Smith said on Monday. “There were other plays that we’re not proud of but those big plays we have to eliminate.”
He went on to say that discipline has been an issue defensively through five games this season, and that guys are missing tackles and have been caught out of position which has given offenses opportunities to pick up large chunks of yardage at a time.
Clearly Rutgers has had some of those same issues defensively as well. The Scarlet Knights have given up more plays that result in 10-plus yards than anyone in the B1G. On average, the defense is allowing a play of at least 10 yards every five snaps.
That wasn’t what Ash wanted to highlight when he met with the media on Monday, though. Instead, he spoke about the offense and how important it was to finally get things moving on that side of the ball.
“Everything we do starts up front,” Ash said. “We have to play better on the offensive line. We’ve struggled to run the football in the last two games. We’ve struggled to protect the quarterback in the last two games.”
“So we have to get better up front. We have to get better at the quarterback position. We have to get better at the wide out position.”
That’s all true. In the last two games, Rutgers hasn’t scored a single point, has completed five-of-34 passes and has totaled just 146 total yards offensively.
What does that mean for this week’s battle at the bottom? It’s going to take a traditional B1G approach to win this game. Not that either team is capable of doing anything too fancy in the early stages of this transition period, but Rutgers and Illinois should be entering this contest with a smash-mouth style approach.
Running back Robert Martin has to be a factor on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights need to establish a presence on the ground before allowing Chris Laviano the opportunity to make plays through the air. It’s happened before, and it can happen again.
Until last week, the Scarlet Knights were averaging over 220 yards per game on the ground and Martin was leading the conference in yards per game, averaging 119.3. He’s since slipped to the B1G’s seventh most-productive back on a weekly basis and Rutgers averages 164.8 rushing yards per contest.
Though the spread offense may not be a traditional B1G scheme, it has worked at times this season against teams not named Ohio State and Michigan.
Just a week ago, we outlined how much improvement Illinois’ defense was making at defending the run. A few days later, they were carved up for 231 yards and three TDs against a Purdue offense that netted just 10 rushing yards against Maryland.
Illinois still has one of the best defensive fronts in the conference and is more than capable of shutting down a Rutgers offense that has stalled each of the past two weeks. The combination of Dawuane Smoot, Chunky Clements and Carroll Phillips – who will be out for the first half after a targeting penalty late in last week’s game – should pose a lot of problems for an offensive line that has surrendered 43 tackles for loss and 15 sacks this year, two of the worst totals in the B1G.
That match-up seems to be the one to keep an eye on in Piscataway. But there are going to be some other significant factors in play on Saturday.
Rutgers still doesn’t have a play-maker on defense. Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Kiy Hester have did a decent job getting into the backfield the first four weeks of the season and Anthony Cioffi has two interceptions, but there’s still no standout on that unit.
Against an Illinois offense that just racked up 499 yards against Purdue, that could be problematic.
For Illinois, the status of quarterback Wes Lunt is going to play a big factor in what Smith does offensively. If he’s available, the Illini will probably have a pretty balanced offensive game plan. If Chayce Crouch is pushed into the starting spot, we’re likely to see a more run-focused scheme.
Crouch did complete 10-of-14 passes for 142 yards last week but he was really effective with his legs, carrying the ball for 137 yards and a pair of TDs on 17 carries. Plus, with Reggie Corbin, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Kendrick Foster potentially splitting carries at running back, Illinois could keep fresh legs on the field for most of the afternoon while wearing down an unproven defense.
This match-up between a pair of win-less conference teams boils down to running the football and stopping the run. The two areas that Smith and Ash addressed in their weekly press conferences are going to be the keys to success in an important week for both teams, as the number of wins remaining on the schedule continues to shrink.
Heading into Saturday, we still have a lot of questions about Illinois and Rutgers. There’s no guarantee we find out much more about either team after the game, either.
We do know this much, though: one team isn’t going to lose. Whichever team plays that traditional brand of B1G football is going to be the one that gets its first B1G win.