Ask Illini fans which of the ten losses in 2017 felt most painful.
A large percentage would say the loss to Rutgers. The final score was 35-24, and the Scarlet Knights managed to put points on the board in each quarter.
This Saturday is the third meeting between Lovie Smith and Knights coach Chris Ash. Lovie got the best of Ash in the first matchup in 2016 with a 24-7 victory in Lovie’s only Big Ten road win so far in his tenure in Champaign. With a week of preparation and rest, some have called this a must-win. Let’s break down how the Illini can break their conference losing streak against the Scarlet Knights.
Mike Epstein & Reggie Corbin vs. Rutgers’ shaky run D
Illinois and Rutgers features the conference’s two worst teams at stopping the run. In fact, the only Power 5 team worse at stopping the run than Illinois and Rutgers is Oregon State, a team that finds itself at the bottom of the Pac-12 North standings.
The Illini rank in the top half of the Big Ten in rush yards, and really it’s a two-headed monster of power (Mike Epstein) and speed (Reggie Corbin) running the show. Just four games in:
- Epstein and Corbin have the exact same amount of carries with 48 apiece and almost an identical amount of rushing yards — 327 for Corbin and 324 for Epstein.
- Corbin has four rushing touchdowns, Epstein has two.
It’s to Illinois’ advantage to control the ball, control the clock and wear down the Rutgers defense. That will open things up for quarterbacks A.J. Bush and M.J. Rivers.
Illinois pass defense vs. Artur Sitkowski head games
Fortunately for the Illini, Rutgers has the most inaccurate, mistake-prone starting quarterback in the Big Ten in true freshman Artur Sitkowski. Sitkowski comes from prep school IMG Academy in Florida, holding Power 5 offers from schools like Michigan, Ohio State, Florida and dozens of others.
Yet, so far in his early career playing for Chris Ash, Sitkowski’s had a rough go at the quarterback position. He leads the conference with eight interceptions to just two touchdown passes. He has completed just 50 percent of his passes and his yards-per-attempt is less than 4.5.
Not only has Sitkowski struggled throwing the football, but he offers next to nothing running the ball. He’s certainly not the type of quarterback to pull the ball down and run when things around him break down, unlike Illinois’ dual-threat QBs.
Illinois’ defense must attack. Send blitzes. Take chances. Don’t sit back and give Sitkowski time to feel comfortable. That’s not really Lovie Smith’s M.O., but for this game in particular it’s vital to keep Rutgers’ offense on edge.
This Illini defense forces turnovers, tied with Purdue and Michigan State for most interceptions in the conference with seven. The Illini struggle against the run (see Penn State game), but if Rutgers is forced into third-and-long and must-pass situations, this Illinois defense is good enough to capitalize.
Critical, Desperate Times For Two Losing Head Coaches
Backs against the wall. That’s what it must feel like for Chris Ash and Lovie Smith as they prepare for this showdown in Piscataway on Saturday.
Smith hasn’t won a Big Ten Conference game since Nov. 5, 2016. He’s gone 4-15 since with wins against Ball State, Western Kentucky, Kent State and Western Illinois. With 15 days between the Friday night loss to Penn State and this game against Rutgers, there’s really no excuse for this team — which is undoubtedly better than last year’s team that finished 2-10 — to lose this game.
Chris Ash is feeling the heat, too. He has some awful losses already this season. Losing 42-13 to Buffalo. Losing 55-14 at home to Kansas. Rutgers closes the season with three sure-fire losses when they play at Michigan, at Penn State and then Michigan State on back-to-back-to-back weekends. A home game against Illinois in early October — for recruiting and perception purposes — is arguably the most important game on the schedule.
To the casual fan looking at the slate of games this Saturday, Illinois at Rutgers is something to scoff at. For players, coaches, boosters and fans of these two programs, this is as big as it gets.
This is our Super Bowl.
This is Illinutgers.
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