Illinois exorcised the Big Ten demons with a 38-17 road victory at the State University of New Jersey on Saturday. A solid performance across the board calls for a largely positive report card, though this review committee still sees room for improvement in several areas.
A.J. Bush: B
The grading pencil may have written in and erased both a plus and a minus next to this mark before settling on the solid B for the generally above average performance. While 89 yards passing, with 4.9 yards per attempt, don’t typically draw much praise at the quarterback position, Bush added 116 yards on the ground and three total touchdowns to balance out his score sheet.
Many of his biggest runs came on third down, including his electric 41-yard scamper in the first half that put the Illini up two scores.
Bush will need to calibrate his pocket clock moving forward, and practice with some hot potatoes this week, as he held the ball too long on multiple occasions. But his third and long, back-shoulder strike to Ricky Smalling sealed the victory for the Orange and Blue (not to mention that he had a long, accurate touchdown pass dropped on him late in the first half that would have effectively buried the Scarlet Knights before the break).
Bush may be more of a game-manager than game-changer, and the early lead solidified this status Saturday. However, his size, toughness, athleticism and patience as a runner make him a perfect game closer against bruised, tired defenses.
Rushing Game: A+
Another week, another impressive effort for the Illini backfield behind an equally impressive effort by the offensive line. No need to overuse the lightning and thunder backfield duo cliche with Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin, as both continue to show individual flash and boom. A clean, combined 200 yards on an even 20 carries with a touchdown a piece will keep the Illini combo near the top of the Big Ten in yards per carry.
No big plays in the passing game, you say? No need against Rutgers, as the run game hit for big plays of 73 (Corbin), 41 (Epstein), and 41 (Bush). If #LovieBall is the subject, Rod Smith is at the top of his class, creating dynamic scoring plays sans the turnover risks of throwing the football downfield. Certainly, M.J. Rivers has looked to have the stronger, more accurate arm this year, but the coaching staff knows that this offense makes its money on the ground, leaving little doubt that A.J. Bush was the right call under center following the bye week.
Another good—not great—mark here for a unit that was largely successful executing the Lovie game plan of waiting back, rallying to the ball, and forcing turnovers. The pressure on Art Sitkowski was inconsistent and the group tackling sharpness briefly departed the Illini during the long, end of first half Rutgers touchdown drive. But Illinois contained the Scarlet Knights’ run game, forcing Sitkowski into several long yardage throws on third and fourth down.
The Illini were opportunistic, and took advantage of wayward throws from Rutgers’ true freshman signal caller to the tune of three interceptions.
Individually, Del’Shawn Phillips and Jake Hansen flew around the field, making constant contributions against the run and pass. Owen Carney, Jr. shined up front, providing much needed heat on Sitkowski, right as the Rutgers QB appeared to be getting into a throwing rhythm. Carney finished with a pair of quarterback hurries to go along with a pass deflection and two individual tackles.
The defensive backfield limited big plays, allowing only two completions over 20 yards, one of which being the fluky, deflected 28-yard grab by Bo Melton late in the second half. Moreover, the Illinois defenders averaged more yards per reception (9) on three picks than Rutgers pass-catchers (5.8) on 29 attempts.
Special Teams: C+
When you’re used to excellence, you cannot be surprised to get a slightly disappointing grade when mistakes are made. Chase McLauglin split his field goal attempts, with his miss coming from a deep 48 yards. But Illini nation has come to expect near perfection from the kicker who led the FBS in makes from 40 plus and 50 plus yards entering Saturday’s contest. It also came as a shock to see kickoffs actually returned by an opponent for positive yardage.
Additionally, a missed chance to down a punt and pin Rutgers at their own goal line could have stopped the late first half Scarlet Knights’ scoring drive before it even began. And the Illini caught a break when Carlos Sandy fell on his own muffed punt, which could have shifted momentum back to Rutgers had they recovered. To his credit, though, Sandy has otherwise been mistake free, playing a massive role in the Illini return game as a true freshman.
With Illinois winning both the total yardage and turnover battles against a struggling Scarlet Knights group, the special teams could afford to play hooky in this one. However, with winnable games against more competent opponents upcoming, the Illini’s best unit will need to win special teams on a regular basis moving forward.
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