Rutgers-Illinois has never been considered a marquee Big Ten matchup, but both teams are coming into this game at the perfect time. As it turns out, sometimes good things come to those who wait. In the case of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, good news came in the visit last weekend from the Liberty Flames.
For the first time since firing head coach Chris Ash, Rutgers (2-6, 0-5 Big Ten) was on the winning side of the ledger, defeating Liberty 44-34. Rutgers earned their first victory for interim head coach Nunzio Campanile, thanks to a solid game from quarterback Johnny Langan. Langan completed 15 of 21 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns, while also adding 21 carries for 118 yards and another score. Running back Isaih Pacheco chipped in with 107 rushing yards and a touchdown.
"It's been a tough few weeks and they have gotten a lot of criticism and they have heard a lot of really negative things from people outside the program and they stayed together," Campanile said after the game. "They believed in each other. They went out and played really hard for each other. Really proud of our guys."
Illinois (4-4, 2-3) also comes into this game with momentum having won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time in head coach Lovie Smith's four-year tenure. The Fighting Illini upset Wisconsin two weeks ago and proved that wasn't a fluke when they traveled to West Lafayette, Indiana, last week. Illinois left with a convincing 24-6 win over Purdue, improving its record to .500 and giving the Illini a good shot at bowl eligibility.
Illinois can take another step towards that goal with a win over Rutgers, who the Illini beat on the road last season, 38-17. The Scarlet Knights enter this game having lost 17 straight in Big Ten play.
Rutgers at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Network: Big Ten Network
Spread: Illinois -21
When Rutgers Has The Ball
An offense that was truly sputtering the last few weeks came alive against Liberty. It will be interesting to see if the Scarlet Knights are able to maintain their new-found offensive creativity.
The aforementioned Johnny Langan and Isaih Pacheco had big games against Liberty, and will be the focus of an Illinois defense that has been successful the last two weeks against Wisconsin and Purdue, two of the better offenses in the Big Ten. Langan may have to replicate his dual-threat capacity as a thrower and runner against Illinois, in order for the Scarlet Knights to have a chance at pulling off the upset.
One of the key areas that has been instrumental in the Illini's improvement has been creating turnovers. Illinois is second in the nation in takeaways with 19. That's not by accident, according to head coach Lovie Smith. "We work on it. We stress it. Our guys understand that. They understand that we can't rely on the offense turning the ball over. It's a part of our DNA. We think this is what we have to do to win football games."
When Illinois Has The Ball
While the dreadful weather in West Lafayette, Indiana, last week was the preeminent factor in Illinois only throwing the ball seven times against Purdue, the Fighting Illini have concluded that running the ball is the safest and seemingly most effective method for offensive success. Illinois running back Dre Brown had a career game, rushing for 131 yards on 18 carries. As a team, Illinois was able to gain 242 yards on the ground against Purdue and will probably try to continue this success against a Rutgers defense that has been giving up 198.0 rushing yards per game.
While certainly not prolific, quarterback Brandon Peters has done his part when asked to throw the ball. He's completing 56 percent of his passes for 142 yards per game with 12 touchdowns, but he's only thrown four interceptions. This ball security is a big reason why Illinois is eighth in the country in turnover margin (+9) and needs just two more wins to become bowl eligible.
Rutgers is savoring its win over Liberty, but Illinois is playing with a rare degree of confidence that has not been experienced since Lovie Smith took over the program. At 4-4, Illinois can sense a possible bowl berth is within their grasp, and a win over Rutgers is just one more step towards what appeared to be a longshot goal at the beginning of this season. It may not be sizzling, but Illinois will look to control the game with a solid running game and will look to earn a fifth win for the first time under Smith's watch.