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Staff Predictions: Illinois @ Rutgers

IT IS #ILLINUTGERS EVE. MAKE THE PROPER PREPARATIONS.

Kent State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Michael Berns

Here we go down this road again. Last season I was extremely confident the Illini would handle Rutgers at home. Of the 10 losses in 2017, the Rutgers game struck me and paralyzed me the most. Here’s what I see: Illinois’ offense is light years better than it was a season ago, whereas Rutgers has taken a significant step back on offense with turnover/interception-prone freshman QB Artur Sitkowski. This game is mistake-filled and ugly, but the Illini get their first Big Ten win since November 2016. Book it. Illinois 24, Rutgers 17

Matt Rejc

The Illini are coming off a bye week and a relatively strong first half against PSU, but Illinois is still building its identity on defense and I don’t think they figure it out this week. The Scarlet Knights certainly don’t look like world beaters, and have more than their share of problems, but I think they pull this one out and leave the Illini beleaguered. Rutgers 35, Illinois 31

Austin Jabs

I will gladly be the one here that drinks all the orange kool aid. Rutgers can not stop the run, and that also happens to be the Illini’s greatest weapon, other than golden leg kicker Chase McLaughlin. Epstein, Corbin, and even Rivers/Bush will spend the day running all over Piscataway. I predict 300+ yards on the ground, I predict a frustrating day for Rutgers, and Illinois will get their first Big Ten win since 2016. In the words of Stephen A. Smith, you can book it. Illinois 35, Rutgers 14

Kyle Huisinga

We should be able to run roughshod all over this defense. The problem is, will our defense be able to stop Rutgers from repeating last year’s pulverizing rushing effort? Hopeful, but not guaranteed. For now I say Bobby Roundtree and Tymir Oliver have season-best performances, and Mike Epstein goes wild with three rushing touchdowns. Illinois scores the most points they’ve scored in almost 2 years, and Lovie gets his first Big Ten win since Michigan State in 2016. Illinois 31, Rutgers 20

Stephen Cohn

Both of these offenses are fairly awful in my mind. There are obviously some bright spots for the Illini (the running game), but neither one really stands out that they’ll come to play. Thus, it’ll either be a high-scoring shootout or a low-scoring battle. I’m going with the latter, and the Illini squeak one out. Chris Ash is on the hot seat. So is Lovie. I guess. Illinois 21, Rutgers 10

Tristen Kissack

Alrighty folks, it’s about time Lovie Smith got another Big Ten win. It’s been almost two (!!!) years since Illinois beat Michigan State, so the Illini are due. I’m anticipating MJ Rivers starting with this score, but if AJ Bush is good to go, then expect that number to shoot up a little more. I don’t see how Rutgers can stop Corbin and Epstein, but then again, how many expected Rutgers to beat Illinois at home last year? Illinois 27, Rutgers 20

Mark Schaer

I am very, very nervous to watch this game, but I will watch just the same. After last year’s debacle, where the run defense looked particularly atrocious for the Illini, there’s no way things can get worse, right? Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin should have a nice day on the ground — building on a strong pair of games against USF and Penn State — and they will combine for 3 TDs and 200 yards. AJ Bush will be a welcome addition back to the offense as well, creating a bit more space with his legs and (hopefully) making some good throws. The defense will still give up points, but Bennett Williams will bounce back and get a turnover. Except Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs to shut down Sitkowski for the Scarlet Knights. Illinois 31, Rutgers 21

Thumpasaurus

I get so sick of the unwarranted negativity around this program. What do Illini fans even have to complain about at this point? I don’t understand why we have to always be so negative and have such a bad attitude. If I squint hard enough, this offense looks like 2007 and 2010 had a baby with Chip Kelly Oregon, and I know this defense is good because Lovie Smith is the coach. Rutgers lost to Kansas, so I have no reason to believe this will be anything other than a walkthrough. You people need to get a grip and find a new team to root for if you can’t be POSITIVE for a change. We don’t need fans like you! Illinois 55, Rutgers 0

For real though, their offense was pretty bad last year so it’s not like they’ve gotten a whole hell of a lot worse on that side. Our defense, in the meantime, has taken a SUBSTANTIAL step backwards, especially with the defensive line play. I’m very worried that Rutgers will tee off on the run and load the box to try and force us to beat them over the top. I’m basically saying they’ll use the Steelers strategy from that Tim Tebow playoff game where they played 9 or 10 guys on the line and said “betcha can’t hit a guy 15 yards downfield.” The good news is that strategy failed in that case; the bad news is that we don’t have Demaryius Thomas. If they can make a schematic adjustment to sell out against the run, I’m concerned that will be a low-risk proposition because our line hasn’t held up well enough in pass protection to give the quarterbacks time to throw a 15-yard post. I’m also worried that Rutgers will use a combination of delayed handoffs up the middle, halfback screens and downfield passing because only Roundtree will apply substantial pressure in the backfield and we can be beaten in the middle AND the edge. This could turn into a shootout; if this was at home, I’d like Illinois, but I have a bad feeling about the Illini traveling for this one. Bush starting does SUBSTANTIALLY increase our odds; I don’t think we have a chance in this one without him. Rutgers 31, Illinois 27

Ben Ford

I think this is when we see the turnover advantage pay off (i.e. when Illinois wins the turnover battle AND does not get outgained by 100 plus yards in the same game). Illinois grabs a lead, late first half and grinds down on Rutgers with the run game to seal it. Illinois will continue to win the field position game and points battle on special teams, which will prove to be the difference in the end. Illinois 23, Rutgers 17

Jacob Rajlich

In a must-win game for both teams, I expect to see Illinois pull out the win. A win here would mark an improvement, no matter how small, with a third win on the season and their first Big Ten win since 2016. While a win could swing the momentum in the Illini’s favor for the next game against Purdue, I can’t help but think that a loss here would completely derail the Illini’s season, leading to another unimpressive 2-10 performance. Illinois 28, Rutgers 14

Brandon Birkhead

There is really only one thing Rutgers has going for it in this game; this game is being played in New Jersey. No matter how bad Rutgers may be, the home field advantage will be even bigger for a team when they are playing an opponent that has to travel across half the country. It’s not easy. Illinois is coming off a bye-week which should limit this advantage some, but 800 miles is still quite a ways.

Rutgers has good special teams play, but so does Illinois. Rutgers can’t defend the pass well. Rutgers is dreadful at run defense. Rutgers offense is hot garbage and they commit turnovers at a very high rate. They rank 122nd overall in S&P. This is a terrible team.

Illinois is in a similar situation. They rank over 20 spots higher in the S&P, but are still a team in the 100s. The Illini can’t defend the pass well — this hopefully can change with the suspended players returning, but without a pass rush I’m not sure it will help too much. The run defense is worse than Rutgers. Illinois’ passing attack suffers from struggles from WRs to get open and poor pass blocking. The most effective passing play Illinois has is screens, but that is even not an efficient play for Illinois because of poor blocking from wide receivers and our offensive linemen struggles blocking in space.

However, Illinois can do one thing well, while Rutgers so far hasn’t done a single thing well. Illinois can run the damn ball, and with the likely return of AJ Bush, that running game can only get better. That alone gives Illinois a huge advantage. Based simply on that, Illinois should be favored, which they are.

Rutgers will take Illinois much more seriously than Penn State did. Penn State overlooked Illinois to plan for Ohio State, there is no doubt in my mind, and in all honesty, they should have. Penn State was a team that could simply out-talent Illinois — which they eventually did despite a poor start — even if they weren’t fully prepared tactically. Penn State’s goal was to win the National Title, and beating Ohio State would have made them favorites to make the College Football Playoff. Now that they lost, they no longer control their own destiny and will probably need Ohio State to lose two conference games (which won’t happen). If Penn State’s head coaches weren’t overlooking Illinois to help gameplan for Ohio State, I’d argue they weren’t doing their jobs.

That will not be the case with Rutgers. This is, for all intents and purposes, Rutgers’ Super Bowl. Many Rutgers fans see this as the last chance for a win on the year, and with a November schedule of Wisconsin, @ Michigan, @ Penn State, and Michigan State, they may be right. Chris Ash is probably not on the hot seat given his large buyout — which is the same situation for Lovie Smith should he lose this game — but he is starting to feel the pressure. Illinois has their full attention this week.

Artur Sitkowski has been struggling yes, but if Illinois can’t get any pressure on him as they failed to do in its last two games, Sitkowski still is a division one QB that had offers from Miami and Florida. If he is given a clean pocket he can throw strikes, and it could turn into a 7-on-7 type of game for him. I do also fear that Rutgers may be able to key in on the run, and if they are able to stifle the Illini running attack, they may be able to shut down the Illinois offense. If they do that, this game can be a very low scoring, sloppy, coin-flippy game that can come down to pure luck in the fourth quarter.

I think Rutgers does that to an extent, but they won’t fully shut down the Illini offense. AJ Bush’s running ability and the Rod Smith hurry-up system should keep Illinois moving to score enough. I think Sitkowski will make some plays down the field, but also makes a few mistakes as he has been prone to do. This will be a sloppy, uncomfortable game for both teams, but because of the running game, and the return of AJ Bush, and Rod Smith, and the fact that I can’t predict this Illini team will lose to this Rutgers team that was murdered by Kansas (KANSAS LOST TO NICHOLS STATE AT HOME BUT BEAT RUTGERS 55-14 WTF BUTTGERS), I say Illinois prevails in the end and ends the 13-game conference losing streak. Illinois 24, Rutgers 20

Raul Rodriguez

This game is the butt of a lot of jokes from the CFB media. Yes, they’re right that it’ll be sloppy at times but a lot them miss the point that a game like this presents an opportunity for both programs to get some mid-season momentum and have a week to feel good about themselves. I think Illinois has shown enough improvement on Offense to punish Rutgers porous Defense. I think Rutgers moves the ball at some points in this game but gets overwhelmed enough by Illinois’ Defense to keep this game from being close. Illinois scores early and often. Rutgers scores intermittently. Illinois 45 Rutgers 24