Illinois welcomes Rutgers to Champaign this Saturday. Here are some of the key matchups we are looking out for this week. This is only the fourth meeting ever between these two schools. The Illini lead the all-time series, 2-1.
Illinois forcing fumbles vs Rutgers low-scoring offense
Which team prevails? Someone has to win, right? According to the Big Ten’s official statistics, this game between Illinois and Rutgers features the two lowest scoring teams in the conference. Illinois and Rutgers have combined for just 23 offensive touchdowns through five games. To put that in perspective: Iowa, Maryland, Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State have scored at least 23 offensive touchdowns through five or six games by themselves.
The Illini defense has given up a ton of yards and points to opponents. That’s what playing against players like Akrum Wadley and Quinton Flowers will do to a young defense trying to find its way.
The Illini are good at one particular defensive stat, however. They force fumbles. Lots of them. Their nine forced fumbles is tied for fourth-best in the country. Call it Lovie-ball. Call it positive influence from the Chicago Bear puncher himself, Charles “Peanut” Tillman.
This game won’t be pretty. Illinois and Rutgers have struggled moving the down the field and putting the ball in the endzone. Turnovers are likely to be the difference.
Illinois QB Jeff George Jr. vs Rutgers QB Kyle Bolin/Johnathan Lewis
College football games in general often comes down to which team has the better quarterback. Fans of both Illinois and Rutgers will say it’s impossible to legitimately compete in the Big Ten Conference without a Big Ten-quality quarterback.
While it’s still early and changes can be made during a week of practice and game prep, it appears Jeff George Jr. is the likely starter for Illinois and Kyle Bolin for Rutgers. Bolin is a transfer from the University of Louisville and actually held an Illini offer when he was in high school.
The numbers are awful. George Jr., in his first start of the season, threw three interceptions and no touchdown passes last week against Iowa. Rutgers’ Bolin has thrown three touchdown passes and six interceptions already this season. Scarlet Knights fans are hoping to see more of true freshman quarterback Johnathan Lewis, a bigger and more mobile quarterback than Bolin.
Head coaches Lovie Smith and Chris Ash are at the point halfway through the season where all preconceived and preseason notions of who can play and who can’t should go out the window. Mid-season adjustments must be made in order find that elusive first Big Ten win of the season.
X Factors: Illinois WR/Returner Mike Dudek vs Rutgers WR/Returner Janarion Grant
Will one of these two go off in Champaign on Saturday? Neutral and ambivalent Big Ten fans might not know of most of the players on either of these two rosters. Two players that are pretty well-known at this point on each side are Illinois’ Mike Dudek and Rutgers’ Janarion Grant. Dudek and Grant are the top wide receivers for Illinois and Rutgers and both play roles on special teams, too.
Anyone remember Janarion Grant pulling off moves like this?:
Injuries have not been kind to either Mike Dudek or Janarion Grant. Grant appeared in just four games in 2016 and missed the Illinois win in Piscataway last season. In 2015, few players in the country were as good as Grant was on special teams. That season he had three kick return touchdowns and one punt return touchdown. Janarion Grant missed the last two Rutgers games this season because of a head injury and as of now it’s unclear whether or not he will play against Illinois. Rutgers was on bye last week so perhaps that bought Grant enough time to get healthy ahead of the game this week.
The offensive woes are well-documented for both of these teams. Mike Dudek, essentially a non-factor against Iowa, and Janarion Grant are the best players on their respective teams. Both are experienced and have been around the Big Ten block enough to know that this game is critically important for the psyche of these programs moving forward. Will either Dudek or Grant jump off the screen come this weekend?