While a 2-2 record may not seem like a step forward, the Illinois Fighting Illini can hang their hat on their improved play and highly improved offensive numbers in 2018. Despite a fourth quarter against Penn State where the wheels fell off, Illinois has showed the ability to compete with Big Ten caliber teams.
Following the USF loss, the narrative was being pushed that the near win had less to do with the Illini and more to do with mistakes made by their opponents. Following another near victory, Illinois is trying to flip the script and show that this squad may have what it takes to notch some Big Ten wins in 2018, something they failed to do in 2017.
With a road trip to Rutgers on Saturday looming, what do the Illini need to do in order to come out on top?
Run The Ball
Through five weeks in the 2018 season, Illinois ranks 18th nationally in rushing yards per game. In 2017, the Illini sat at 122nd. That is an unreal improvement.
With the two-headed monster of Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein, who both average 6.8 yards per carry, the Illini offensive line has been able to create space and capitalize on their raw talent.
In 2018, Rutgers has allowed an average of 208.8 yards per game to opposing runners at a clip of 5.27 yards per carry. Rutgers has not shown the ability to stop the run and Rod Smith should hand off every single down. I’m not joking. I don’t care if Rivers and Bush combine to go 0 for 0. Run the ball. It is Illinois’ strength and Rutgers’ greatest weakness.
Limit Raheem Blackshear
For a team that has struggled to put up offensive numbers, Raheen Blackshear has proven to be an asset for Rutgers. Averaging 5.2 yards per carry, Blackshear has proven to be an effective runner for the Scarlet Knights.
The Illinois rushing defense is actually worse than Rutgers, giving up 212.8 yards per game. Granted, these numbers went sky high after the 387 yards Penn State put up against Illinois, but the task remains the same.
If Illinois wants to leave Jersey with a win, the defense will have to play better.
Play Four Quarters
Illinois had the lead against both USF and Penn State late in the game. Both contests were losses at the end of the day.
With blown coverage against USF that resulted in a 55-yard touchdown and a fourth quarter to forget about against Penn State, Illinois has not shown the ability to play a whole four quarters yet this season. You can get away with that in non-conference play, as your level of opposition is less than that of the Big Ten, but if you expect to win games in the Big Ten, you better find a way to not make those mistakes.
Lovie Smith and Co. will need to find way to rotate guys in and out, to keep players fresh, and ensure this team has what it takes to play a whole four quarters Saturday.
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