In a game that many believed was Illinois’ best chance at a Big Ten win this season, the Illini (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) were listless and lifeless for long stretches on Saturday in a 35-24 loss to Rutgers in Champaign.
Rutgers (2-4, 1-3 Big Ten) entered Saturday’s contest with an offense that ranked 109th in the country in scoring and 122nd in yards per game and moved the ball at will. If not for three fumbles, the Scarlet Knights easily could’ve done even more damage.
Rutgers ran the ball 45 times at over six yards per clip, as the Scarlet Knights racked up nearly 300 yards on the ground. Illinois was without key run stopper Patrick Nelson, as well as starting nickelback Tony Adams, and their presence was missed Saturday.
Rutgers earned its first Big Ten win in nearly two years, and Illinois’ season-long struggle at the quarterback position continued. Jeff George Jr. was 18 for 35 for 292 yards and two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter and two interceptions.
Here are a few things we learned Saturday:
Illinois lost much of its big play threat without Mike Epstein ...
It was announced this morning that the freshman would miss the rest of the season with a lower body injury. Running back is probably the one position that Illinois has the depth to sustain injuries, but Epstein provides a big play element that his replacements do not.
Ra’Von Bonner is a battering ram that is usually good for three yards at a time and Dre Brown picked up his first career carries after missing two consecutive seasons with torn ACLs.
I thought that the Illini might use more of Reggie Corbin and Kendrick Foster, as both have shown the ability to turn even the tiniest slivers into big plays. That wasn’t the case as Corbin earned just one carry and no catches, while Foster didn’t even play.
The Illini were held to 86 yards rushing, which is not going to win many games in the Big Ten.
... But it might have found a home run hitter in Ricky Smalling
It was a coming out party for the freshman, who tallied career highs with five catches and 111 yards and a touchdown.
More importantly, Smalling was able to help out George Jr., whose accuracy was hit or miss for much of the game by climbing the ladder and making acrobatic catches in traffic.
It’s no secret that Illinois is hurting for points. Entering Saturday, the Illini were 123rd in total offense and 119th in scoring offense. If Smalling can become a deep threat that teams fear going forward, it will give Illinois’ offense an added dimension.
Lovie continues to tinker with the defense...unsuccessfully
The Illinois defense used plenty of substitutions as usual, but to no avail.
The Illini started the game with Dele Harding, Jimmy Marchese at linebacker and Dawson DeGroot at free safety, and on Rutgers’ first touchdown, Marchese and DeGroot couldn’t make tackles as Raheem Blackshear powered his way to the end zone.
Lovie has always subbed extremely often but his changes have been more and more radical as the season has gone on. I would have thought Tre Watson and Del’Shawn Phillips were two of the best players on the defense — at the very least some of the best tacklers — and yet Smith opted to use other players at the position.
The Scarlet Knights didn’t throw the ball all that much, only 12 attempts for the game, but their rushing attack was potent enough to put points on the board in a hurry.
So yes, today’s game was about as bad as it could’ve been against another bad team but hey! At least there’s an open scrimmage for the basketball team today :)