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Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Preview and Prediction

Janarion Grant

Janarion Grant

Coming off a bye week, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights travel to Champaign, Illinois, to try and build some positive momentum for the second half of the 2017 college football season. This will mark the fourth time Rutgers has played Illinois, with the Fighting Illini leading the series 2-1.

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A healthy Janarion Grant would be an excellent addition to the Rutgers offense. The all-purpose dynamo had been expected to play against Ohio State on Sept. 30 when the Buckeyes traveled to New Jersey but did not see any action.

Illinois is coming off a tough loss at Iowa, 45-16. After winning the first two games of the season, Illinois has lost its last three games by at least 20 points. A home Big Ten win would help Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith's rebuilding efforts.

In a move that called back to some of the glory years of Illinois football, Smith started Jeff George Jr. at quarterback in the loss at Iowa. George, the son of former Illinois quarterback Jeff George, was 22-of-45 for 246 yards and three interceptions.

Rutgers at Illinois

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 14 at 12 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Big Ten Network

Spread: Illinois -1.5

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Three Things To Watch

1. Illinois' passing game vs. Rutgers' pass defense

As mentioned, Jeff George Jr. had a rough game at Iowa, with three interceptions. Illinois is averaging only 178 yards per game through the air and simply needs better production from its passing offense. Rutgers ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense, allowing 214 yards per game, although the Knights' Kiy Hester is among the conference leaders in passes defended, as well as interceptions. Keep an eye on which unit gets the upper hand in this matchup.

2. Rutgers' running game vs. Illinois' run defense

Lovie Smith's reputation from his coaching days in the NFL was that of a capable defensive coach. So far, that reputation has yet to translate into results for the Fighting Illini run defense, which ranks last in the Big Ten, allowing 182 yards on the ground per game. Rutgers, which is under the offensive tutelage of Jerry Kill, is in the middle of the rankings, averaging 154 yards per game on the ground. Look for Rutgers to try to control the clock with running backs Gus Edwards and Robert Martin.

3. Special teams could be the difference for Rutgers

If Janarion Grant can play for Rutgers, this could be a big advantage for the Scarlet Knights. Grant is one of the most dangerous return men in the Big Ten, if not the nation, and has scored eight touchdowns in his career on punts and kickoffs. Will Illinois try to avoid kicking to Grant if he is in the lineup for Rutgers?

Final Analysis

Both programs are trying to rebuild and are looking to gain an elusive victory in Big Ten play. Rutgers has the advantage of being better rested, coming off a bye week after a crushing 56-0 loss at home to Ohio State. The memories of the strong showings in the season-opening loss to Washington and the close loss to Nebraska are still fresh in the minds of the Scarlet Knights. The Illini will try to end their losing streak at three, but Rutgers may have too much defensively for Illinois.

College football rankings: Rutgers

Prediction: Rutgers 24, Illinois 19

— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is writing and podcasting for Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.