Lovie Smith's Illini head to Piscataway to take on the struggling Scarlet Knights
Normally a matchup between Illinois and Rutgers wouldn’t get much coverage, but this year’s encounter is a little different. While the Scarlet Knights (1-4, 0-2 Big Ten) are still fighting their way out of the Big Ten cellar (3-18 in conference games under Chris Ash), the Fighting Illini (2-2, 0-1) have shown progress to some degree and are looking to continue their improvement. These two schools will meet for third straight season. They’ve split the first two meetings with Illinois slightly outscoring Rutgers 48-42. The Knights are looking for the upset while the Illini look to get their team back on track.
Rutgers started the year with a convincing win over Texas State. But since then the Scarlet Knights have been dominated by Ohio State, Kansas (giving the Jayhawks only their third win in more than a year), Buffalo (their first win over a Power 5 team since 2007), and Indiana by a combined score of 173-47. Their defense has allowed an average of 450 yards per game during this stretch, they have a revolving door at quarterback, and the losses to Kansas and Buffalo will sting for quite some time. Defeating Illinois for the second consecutive year will give this team some hope and room to breathe.
Illinois on the other hand has looked like two completely different teams over the first four weeks of the season. The Illini showed their talent in a come-from-behind win over Kent State to start the season, then followed that up with a 20-point victory over Western Illinois to improve their record against FCS teams to 15-0 since 2002. But since then, the second half of games has been an issue for them. Illinois blew an 11-point halftime lead in the loss to South Florida at Chicago’s Soldier Field. The next week at home against Penn State, Illinois trailed 28-24 before allowing the Nittany Lions to explode for 35 fourth-quarter points for their worst loss of the season.
A win for Illinois on the road against Rutgers will allow the Illini to regain control of their season and keep the possibility of bowl eligibility alive.
Illinois at Rutgers
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct 6 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Rutgers +4
Three Things to Watch
1. M.J. Rivers or A.J. Bush?
Bush, a graduate senior, was named the Illini’s starting quarterback coming out of training camp. Unfortunately he injured his hamstring against Western Illinois and hasn’t played since. He took part in pregame warmups for both the South Florida and Penn State games, but ultimately didn’t play. Before the injury Bush completed 18-of-30 pass attempts for 223 yards and had a passer rating of 122.4. But Rivers has held his own in Bush’s absence.
Rivers, a true freshman, has completed 63 percent of his passes (46-of-73) for 422 yards, three touchdowns, and also has a 122.4 rating. He’s also run for 48 yards. With the Illini coming off of their bye week, the hope is that Bush is fully recovered and will be ready to play. If so, head coach Lovie Smith has a tough decision to make this weekend.
2. Can the Illini play a complete game?
The second half has been the Achilles heel for the Illini in 2018. Illinois has been outscored 74-58 in both the third and fourth quarters combined this year, and their lackluster performance in those final 30 minutes can be attributed to both of their losses. In the second half against both South Florida and Penn State the Illini looked like a team that ran out of gas. Their offense stalled, their defense looked winded, and they’ve been a Jekyll and Hyde team in this regard. If the Illini want to get back in the win column, they need to play a full 60 minutes of football.
3. Rutgers' quarterback carousel
The Scarlet Knights have used a platoon system at quarterback this season and it hasn’t worked out as they hoped. Freshman Artur Sitkowski and senior Giovanni Rescigno have both had ample chances to get this offense going. Sitkowski has only completed 49 percent of his passes (57-of-115) for 483 yards while throwing four times as many interceptions (eight) compared to touchdowns (two). He's also been sacked five times and has posted an unimpressive passer rating of 76.7. Rescigno hasn’t fared much better, with a 50 percent completion rate (24-of-48) for 223 yards and a pick. He's been sacked three times and has a slightly better passer rating (86.6) compared to his teammate.
Not only is this part of the offense struggling, but the quarterbacks will face an Illinois defense that has seven sacks, five quarterback hurries, 20 passes deflected and seven interceptions. Rutgers would be OK if Illinois' second-half woes showed up at HighPoint.com Stadium this Saturday.
While the last two games were not pretty, this Illinois team is much improved on both sides of the ball compared to the one Rutgers beat last season. The second half issues are a concern, but the Illini have more than enough talent to win this game. Chris Ash is in his third season as the Scarlet Knights' head coach and unfortunately there have been few signs of progress as they have gone 7-22 in his tenure. It won't be high-scoring game by any means, but Illinois will find a way to put it together and move above .500.
Prediction: Illinois 20, Rutgers 13
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.