Oh poor Rutgers, we know how you feel. Especially since this game was almost the reverse of last season’s ILLINUTGERS match-up when, in 2017, Rutgers beat Illinois handily on the road behind a great rushing performance. Illinois also won this game with less than 90 passing yards, while Rutgers barely crossed 100 in 2017.
We are either returning to normalcy or entering the twilight zone. You decide.
As always, I’m not going over every single stat. You can do that yourself here.
Team Stats of Note
Illinois had 419 total yards compared to 386 for Rutgers. When first looking at the total yards I was a bit shocked it was that close. Sure, Illinois had three interceptions which helped, but there is no way that Rutgers was that close to us on offense, and it turns out they weren’t.
Illinois gained 6.8 yards per play, compared to Rutgers at 5.1. Rutgers just had the ball for much longer in this game. They ran 76 plays compared to 62 for Illinois. However, Rutgers barely won the TOP battle (30:57). Illinois slowed the pace down a lot in this game. The Illini’s usual fast-paced offense ran a play every 28 seconds on average, below the usual pace. Perhaps this was because Illinois had the lead, or maybe ball control as a strategy for this game. Either way, it was notable for Rod Smith’s offense.
Rutgers also happened to have more first downs than the Illini (25 to 17). Rutgers was able to move the ball some, but a lot of that was taken right way.
Yeah, Art Sitkowski is kinda bad, but he still had some success
Sitkowski had three interceptions in this game, all which were on bad throws stemming from poor decisions. He tried to throw an impossible ball into tight coverage which Jartavius “Quan” Martin was able to get to for his third interception of the year. Del’Shawn Phillips also later picked up his third interception on a ball thrown right to him. Nate Hobbs picked up his first of the year late in the fourth quarter.
Illinois is now one of only three teams with multiple players with three or more interceptions.
Illinois, Oregon and North Texas are the only teams in the nation with multiple players with 3+ interceptions.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) October 7, 2018
Illinois (Jartavius Martin, Del'Shawn Phillips) and Oregon have two and North Texas has three.
Illinois’ defense deserves credit. They played good coverage down the field and didn’t make mistakes to get these picks. However, Sitkowski wasn’t heavily pressured on these throws. He had a clean pocket on many and just made a boneheaded throw. It can happen with freshman.
Illinois has 10 interceptions this season. Holy crap, that’s amazing for the Illini. Luck plays a role as it always does with turnovers, so thanks to the turnover fairy, but also thanks to Phillips and Martin.
Illinois needs to figure out its pass rush — and soon
At times, Sitkowski found ways to move the ball. He finished 29/46 (63%) for 267 yards and 1 TD. His touchdown came on a drive late in the second quarter for Rutgers where he went 9-9 for 79 yards. He was under absolutely no pressure and was essentially allowed to run a 7-on-7 two minute drill.
There is bend-but-don’t-break, and then there is letting a team easily march down the field on you. Illinois needs to find a way to be more disruptive going forward. Illinois only had one sack in this game from Tymir Oliver, and three QB hits. Isaiah Gay was ineffective only making one tackle. Roundtree was quiet though he did get 1 TFL. Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson were unremarkable.
This just needs to get better. Illinois can’t expect to give better QBs — especially ones who are threats at running the ball — this much time and have any success on defense. There have been calls from fans for more blitzing, but that isn’t going to happen for two reasons. One, Lovie doesn’t do it. Two, Del’Shawn Phillips and Jake Hansen are not good blitzers.
This is quite frankly a situation where Illinois just needs the defense line to step it the hell up or teams like Purdue may put up some crazy numbers against the Illini.
Born to run
Illinois only threw for 89 yards in this game, but it didn’t matter because the Illini running game was cooking. Illinois ran for 330 yards at 7.7 yards per carry and 4 TDs. That is pure domination on the ground that we haven’t seen from Illinois in a long time. The player of the game for me, Reggie Corbin, only needed 11 carries to get 137 yards.
Bush was the key to this. I’ve long said that this Rod Smith system needs a QB who can run, and Bush did more than just that. He led the team in carries with 18 for 116 yards including sacks. His threat kept Rutgers’ from selling out on the handoffs, and opened up some huge plays. Illinois had three TDs of 40 yards or more from three different players (AJ Bush 41 yards, Reggie Corbin 73 yards, Mike Epstein 41 yards). Reggie Corbin also had a 52 yard run as well.
The improvement of the running game cannot be overstated.
Illinois rushing stats— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) October 7, 2018
2018: 1,304 yards, 242 attempts, 5.6 yds/carry, 260.8 yds/game, 11 touchdowns (5 games)
2017: 1,267 yards, 386 attempts, 3.3 yds/carry, 105.6 yds/game, 11 touchdowns (12 games)
Illinois may not be able to pass well, but they can run, and that is helping the Illini finally establish an offensive identity. Build the Rod Smith statue now.
Can anyone besides Trenard Davis please get open?
Trenard Davis had an ok day with 5 catches for 59 yards, but he was the only Illini WR to make a real impact on this game. Ricky Smalling caught the touchdown, but only caught one other pass on the day. Carmoni Green dropped what may have been a touchdown catch.
In total the WRs combined for only 10 catches for 89 yards and the Ricky Smalling TD. This isn’t all their fault. The pass blocking is still lacking. Bush was sacked twice despite only throwing the ball 18 times, but he was also forced to scramble on many a pass play. Bush’s slow, funky release doesn’t help much either, but right now Illinois doesn’t have someone that can do what Mike Dudek could do, get open quick.
Perhaps a big bodied TE like Lou Dorsey could help, but he didn’t play a single snap in this game. He appears to be in the doghouse of the coaching staff right now, but if Illinois wants to get something out of this anemic passing attack in order to move the ball against the far superior defenses left on their schedule, they may need to take him off the leash.
Nice rebound game for the Run Defense
Illinois only let Rutgers gain 119 yards on the ground at 4.0 yards per carry. Besides the early 32-yard touchdown from Jonathan Hilliman, the running game was effectively held at bay.
How much of this was the return of Jamal Milan? How much was real improvement? How much was it that Rutgers is just terrible, flat out awful on offense? We’ll find out soon.
It still is only Rutgers
We’ll have to wait and see what this good performance has to say about the rest of the Illini season, but if S&P is right on this, it won’t be much. Illinois only jumped up one spot in the S&P rankings this week (now 100, were 101 out of 130).
Illinois may still be a bad team, just not the worst in the Big Ten.
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