Illinois 2-3 (0-2) will host Rutgers 1-4 (0-2) this week in what represents their best shot at winning a Big Ten game this season. We asked site manager Aaron Breitman from On The Banks some questions about Rutgers and their progress so far in their rebuild, and what we can expect out of this game.
1. After a shutout at Ohio State, there has been a lot of debate with Rutgers fans over who should be starting for the Knights. Who do you think should be taking the snaps this week?
I firmly believe Johnathan Lewis should be named the starting quarterback for Rutgers and wrote in detail about it here. Lewis is a true freshman and former 3-star recruit who is a legitimate dual threat quarterback. I love what Illinois is doing by letting their freshmen play from day one, while it's never ideal, it makes perfect sense in the long run during a rebuild and it's exactly what former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano did when he built the program from nothing over a decade ago. Lewis has played a decent amount in two games and a couple of snaps in two others. While he struggled against Ohio State, it was a great experience for him to go through. He is physically ready at 6'3" and 240 pounds, making him tough to tackle in the open field. Granted his best game came against Morgan State, an FCS School, when he ran for four touchdowns and threw for another. However, it's obvious he has enormous potential and is the future of the program. There is no reason not to hand him the keys now, so he can gain valuable experience ahead of next season. This team needs something to rally around and believe in. Anointing Lewis the starter can change the narrative in the locker room and hopefully will re-energize this team coming out of a bye week.
In terms of what will actually happen, it seems certain that Louisville grad transfer Kyle Bolin will no longer be the starter this season. He has underwhelmed through five games and the Rutgers offense has not improved after being the worst in college football last season. Former starter Gio Rescigno was taking at least some of the first team reps this week and may get the call instead of Lewis. He established himself for the first time in his career last season against Illinois, as he started the second half and provided somewhat of a spark for the offense. He can run and throw, although he has unorthodox mechanics. Gio is a gutty player and competent, but I still hope we see Lewis get the opportunity to start on Saturday. My guess is we will see a combination of Gio and Lewis, which will give Rutgers two mobile quarterbacks for Illinois to deal with.
2. How's the Chris Ash era starting? Is Rutgers starting to gain momentum in recruiting in a very talent rich state?
The honeymoon was officially over when Rutgers lost to Eastern Michigan at home the second game of the season. It's clear Ash inherited a severely depleted roster after a few bad recruiting cycles, as well as a good portion of those recruits leaving the program for various issues. While the 2017 recruiting class was the highest rated in five years for the program, it's clear Ash needs to add another two classes equal and preferably better to really upgrade the talent on the roster. While bringing in two 4-star recruits from New Jersey with the 2017 class, Rutgers has struggled in-state in this cycle. Coming off a 2-10 season did them no favors, but the coaching staff has done a pretty solid job assembling a 2018 class with 18 3-star recruits. It's an athletic class with a lot of potential, but after having two decommitments so far this season, it's imperative they keep the current commits through signing day. Rutgers has done really well in New York state this cycle, as six of the top 15 have committed. Of course, Ohio State has verbal commitments from the top two players in the Empire state and speaks to a longtime problem Rutgers has had in keeping the top local talent home. Whether that changes under Ash remains to be seen.
3. Who are the players the Illinois fans should be aware of going into this game?
Janarion Grant is the best playmaker on the roster and brings Rutgers instant offense whenever he touches the ball. He is versatile and explosive. He is tied for the NCAA record with 8 touchdowns on kickoff or punt returns combined, but has been limited this season after missing the past two games due to concussion protocols. Grant was cleared for this week and I expect him to be heavily involved in the offense. His importance cannot be understated and gives fans hope Rutgers can win this week.
Gus Edwards and Robert Martin are the top two running backs. Both have had their moments, but have lacked consistency. My preference is to give more carries to Martin, who can put together large gains on consecutive carries and can wear down defenses if he gets into a rhythm. However, Edwards has gotten the majority of the carries and is a more speedy back. Expect to see a healthy dose of both backs as Rutgers will most likely have a run heavy gameplan.
Jerome Washington is a big, bruising tight end that has great hands and can be a real force in the passing game. He is the leading receiver on the team and is a big target in the middle of the field. Washington has been underutilized and I'm hoping he is more of a focal point coming out of the bye week.
On defense, Kemoko Turay is the best pass rushing threat off the edge for Rutgers. He has been inconsistent throughout his career and dealt with shoulder issues in the past. He has been just okay so far this season, but if you see him generating pressure in the Illinois backfield early in the game, it will be a sign he could be a big factor on Saturday.
Deonte Roberts is the quarterback of the defense at middle linebacker and has improved in his second year as the starter. He is a solid tackler and has gotten better in pass coverage, an area that's still a weakness for the linebackers as a group. Roberts is also a captain and will be key in keeping the defense together on the road for this game.
Kiy Hester is the strong safety and leads the defense with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown against Nebraska. He is a big hitter out of the secondary as well and will need to have a big game against the passing attack of Illinois. He left the Ohio State game with a minor injury but has been cleared for Saturday and has practiced in full.
Ryan Anderson is a name you hopefully don't hear a lot of in this game, as he is the Rutgers punter. However, he has been a real asset this season and has a big leg. He will be crucial to winning the field position battle in this game.
4. Which program gets back to a bowl game fastest, Illinois or Rutgers?
Good question and a very tough one to answer as well. While Rutgers has had 13 freshmen play this season so far, I think Illinois will see quicker development from their young players because they have so many playing significant time already. They also have an easier Big Ten schedule playing in the West than Rutgers, who are guaranteed to play Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State every season. In looking at 2018, which may be too soon for either team to have a real shot at a bowl game, Illinois has Maryland and Rutgers, two of the best matchups they could ask for in the crossover games. They do play Penn State also, but on the flip side, Rutgers has Wisconsin and Northwestern next season with Illinois. I do think both programs are in similar shape right now and multiple seasons away, but due to Rutgers being in the tougher division, I'll officially say Illinois will get back to a bowl game faster.
5. How has progress been for the Rutgers defense? I thought the defense showed some flashes in week one against defending Pac-12 champs Washington.
They have improved a lot from last season, especially against the run. The concern now is they are starting to lose impact starters due to injury. They lost starting linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams in the preseason and now in the secondary, considered the strength of the defense, they are without two starters for an extended period. The best player on the defense, cornerback Blessuan Austin, was lost for the season with an ACL tear during the Nebraska game. Free safety Saquon Hampton left the Ohio State game injured and his return this season is in question. Depth is obviously an issue for a program in full rebuild mode and they just moved receiver Jawuan Harris to the secondary last week. I am concerned that Jeff George Jr will have a lot of success in the passing game this week. Overall, you can see Ash's blueprint coming into focus and the defense is certainly improving. The offense needs to sustain drives longer to prevent the defense from wearing down in the second half, something that cost Rutgers dearly in close games against Washington and Nebraska.
6. Prediction for the game?
This should be a hard fought game between two teams that face each other's best chance for a win in conference play this season. I think it really comes down to whether Rutgers can stop the Illinois passing attack and conversely, are the Illini able to stop the running game of the Scarlet Knights. Obviously, both teams have made their fair share of mistakes this season, so the team that plays the cleanest will have a big advantage. Rutgers will want to grind things out on the ground and control time of possession. I think they will have some success there and I believe the difference maker in this game will be Janarion Grant, who Illinois didn't face last season and will be the best player on the field Saturday, in my humble opinion. Rutgers 27 Illinois 24
Thanks again to Aaron Breitman for taking the time to answer our questions.