The 2020 Big Ten season marches on to its fourth week of games, and this weekend's slate features a game between two teams that have become very familiar with one another in recent seasons. The Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-2) will play the Illinois Fighting Illini (0-3) for the fifth straight season. This game will also mark the seventh all-time meeting between these programs and the fourth time in which Rutgers is the home team.
The Scarlet Knights appear to be on the verge of finally turning things around with Greg Schiano returning as head coach. They've shown some improvement on both sides of the ball and have been a much more competitive team this year. Perhaps they're finally turning the corner as a member of the Big Ten (8-47 record in conference games). Illinois, on the other hand, has been ravaged by injuries and absences due to COVID-19. Their defense struggles to make stops, their offense struggles to move the ball and score points, and their rebuild is going backward instead of forwards.
Rutgers needs a win to solidify its progress, while Illinois needs a win to avoid its first 0-4 start since 1997. The Illini finished 0-11 that season, and they'll need to dig down deep in order to get their much-needed first win of the year.
Illinois at Rutgers
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 14 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Rutgers -6.5
When Illinois Has the Ball
Sophomore Coran Taylor got the start at quarterback against Minnesota last week and could get the nod again this week depending on the Illini's health situation. Fellow quarterbacks Brandon Peters and Isaiah Williams haven't been cleared to return from the COVID-19 list just yet, while Matt Robinson is still recovering from an ankle injury he sustained against Purdue two weeks ago. Taylor has certainly endured this baptism by fire, but this experience will also be valuable for him moving forward. He certainly had his work cut out for him against the Golden Gophers last weekend.
Taylor went just 6-for-17 as a passer for 106 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked four times, and the passing game looked like it was stuck in neutral all afternoon. Wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe was the only Illini with multiple receptions, and he finished with two catches for 60 yards and a touchdown. But one part of the offense that has been able to move the ball has been Illinois' ground attack.
Taylor and senior running back Mike Epstein accounted for 150 of the Illini's 181 rushing yards last weekend. Epstein had a touchdown run, averaged almost 10 yards per carry (9.8), and both men's efforts have made Illinois the Big Ten's seventh-ranked rushing offense (163.0 ypg). But consistency on this side of the ball continues to be an issue with this team, and time will tell if health will improve that. But as for the current task at hand...
The Illini could catch a break this week against this Scarlett Knight defense. A defense that gives up 411.0 yards (ninth in the Big Ten), and 37.7 points (13th) per game. They do, however, own the conference's second-best rushing defense (120.7 ypg). But this would be a very good chance for the Illini to capitalize on any opportunities that might come their way.
When Rutgers Has the Ball
Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral is the Scarlet Knights signal-caller for 2020, and so far he's held onto the job. He's completing 63.5 percent of his throws for 467 yards and three touchdowns, which is good for a 106.4 passer rating. Vedral hasn't exactly stood out in the box scores, but he's kept this offense afloat, and he's the team's third-leading rusher (55 yards, TD).
And speaking of rushing, the Knights have taken the by committee approach with their backfield. Isaih Pacheco (35 carries, 153 yards, 2 touchdowns), Kay'Ron Adams (nine carries, 69 yards), and Aaron Young (14 carries, 38 yards) have all shared the load this season. Bo Melton and Aron Cruickshank (combined for 29 catches, 190 yards, 2 touchdowns) are Vedral's top targets so far, and this team is slowly coming together in Schiano's second tenure.
Expect Rutgers to take its chances against an Illini defense that ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten in total defense (475.7 ypg) and dead last in scoring defense (39.0 ppg). They just can't seem to get off of the field. Only Stanford has a worse third-down conversion rate allowed than their 60.0 percent mark, and the Cardinal have only played one game.
Illinois is 4-2 all-time against Rutgers overall and 2-1 against them in New Jersey. The Illini have won the last two meetings, and they've outscored the Knights 157-132. This year's game will be a low scoring one, but the Scarlet Knights do just enough against the Fighting Illini defense to pull out a close win.
Prediction: Rutgers 21, Illinois 14
Podcast: Week 11 Preview and Predictions
— 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.