It's a Big Ten matchup between two teams that have reached crucial points in their seasons on Saturday when the Illinois Fighting Illini host the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Memorial Stadium.
The Illini (3-5, 2-3 Big Ten) got a new lease on life last week when they went to Penn State and upset the Nittany Lions, who were ranked seventh in the country at the time, 20-18 in a nine-overtime marathon. It was Illinois' first win over a top-10 team since beating No. 1 Ohio State back in 2007 (Illinois went to the Rose Bowl that year) as well as the longest game in FBS history. Bret Bielema's team has won two of its last three games, and he was named The Dodd Trophy Coach of the Week for his efforts.
As for the Scarlet Knights, they're hoping to pick up the pieces as they've lost four straight after a 3-0 start. They've had struggles on both sides of the ball, and they are one of just two Big Ten teams (Indiana is the other) that have yet to win a conference game (0-4).
These cross-division rivals have met each of the last five seasons, with Illinois winning three straight and four of five. Illinois looks to inch closer to bowl eligibility, while Rutgers wants to keep its own postseason hopes alive.
Rutgers at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Rutgers -1.5
When Rutgers Has the Ball
Senior quarterback Noah Vedral has performed well enough to keep his job during the Knights' recent woes. During this four-game skid, Vedral has completed 68 of 118 passes for 668 yards and three touchdowns. But he's also thrown three interceptions, taken nine sacks, and averaged a little more than five yards per pass attempt during the same span. He's been able to move the ball, but scoring points has been the challenge for this offense (outscored 124-46 during losing streak).
Vedral's top target over these last four games has been wide receiver Aron Cruickshank (10 rec., 172 yds., 2 TDs). The running game produced a total of 481 yards in this same span, going over 100 in three of the games, albeit with no rushing touchdowns. Leading rusher Isaih Pacheco has accounted for 177 of these yards.
Meanwhile, Illinois' defense is coming off of its best effort of the season, holding Penn State to 227 total yards in a game that lasted nine overtimes. Prior to last week's game, the Nittany Lions were averaging close to 400 yards per game. The Fighting Illini did this even though they were without senior linebacker Jake Hansen, who is done for the season because of a knee injury. Illinois limited PSU to one touchdown, three field goals (two of those during the overtime periods), and a two-point conversion (in the eighth overtime). The Illini sacked Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford four times, gave up a total of 62 rushing yards in the game (only 2.1 ypc), and surrendered just two plays that covered at least 20 yards (both were passes).
When Illinois Has the Ball
While Penn State was having trouble running the ball last week, that wasn't the case for the Illini, who piled up 357 yards on a whopping 67 carries (5.3 ypc). Chase Brown set a single-game record for a visiting player at Beaver Stadium with 223 yards on 33 attempts. Brown not only out-rushed the Nittany Lions by himself by a wide margin (223 to 62), he averaged nearly seven yards per carry and scored Illinois' lone touchdown. The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, Brown is now sixth in the Big Ten with 637 rushing yards and third with 6.8 yards per carry. Joshua McCray also had a good day running the ball, picking up 142 yards on 24 carries (5.9 ypc). If it weren't for a few ill-timed penalties, the Illini might not have needed nine overtimes to win the game.
It certainly wasn't all positive on offense, however, as Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski got the start at quarterback and struggled mightily. He was just 8-for-19 passing for 38 yards with two interceptions. He also fumbled the ball away twice, took four sacks, and finished with -8 rushing yards on 10 carries. Adding injury to insult, he suffered a broken left arm when taking a hit during the fourth overtime and will be out for the season and likely spring practice.
While Sitkowski misses a chance to play against the team he started 15 games over three seasons for, the Illini will turn back to Brandon Peters, who has missed time this season after getting hurt in the opener against Nebraska and then again on Oct. 9 against Wisconsin. He too has struggled, completing just 49 percent of his passes while averaging 5.0 yards per attempt. But he did toss the game-winning two-point conversion against Penn State.
Given the upheaval at quarterback, Bielema would be wise to continue to pound the rock. The Scarlet Knights are 11th in the Big Ten in rushing defense (149.0 ypg) and have fared even worse in this department against conference teams (176.0 ypg).
Illinois owns a 5-2 all-time record against Rutgers with three straight wins and clearly enters this matchup with more momentum after last week's upset of Penn State. The Scarlet Knights have played better in head coach Greg Schiano's return but haven't gotten over the hump against Big Ten competition. It won't happen on Saturday in Champaign, as the Illini lean on their ground game and make enough key stops on defense to post back-to-back wins for the first time this season.
Prediction: Illinois 23, Rutgers 21
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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.