As you’ll hear me say time and time again, Lovie Smith’s Illinois Fighting Illini simply have to win a conference game this year to prove that his tenure has promise. One of the more plausible ways they could do so is by going on the road to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Chris Ash and Lovie Smith have split this series 1-1 since they started coaching their respective schools. The wins for each coach have come when their opponent is fielding one of the worst Big Ten teams in recent memory, with 2016 being as futile a campaign for Rutgers as last year’s was for Illinois. Each coach now enters his third season at the helm and debuts a new offensive coordinator, but Chris Ash will have recruited three classes to Lovie’s two due to the timeline of Smith’s hire.
The secondary, which is generally Chris Ash’s pride and joy, has some experience but lacks depth. However, if Blessuan Austin returns to form after an ACL tear, this secondary can take away opportunities in the passing game. Up front, second-round draft pick Kemeko Turay departs the defensive line, but most of the unit returns, including the fantastically named Elorm Lumor. The defense may take a small step back depending on how healthy the starters stay, as depth is a concern in the backfield.
The offense will be coached by Ash’s third offensive coordinator in as many years, and is not likely to improve much this year. The quarterback depth chart remains a mess, with only Gio Rescigno having any starts under his belt. True freshman Artur Sitkowski has a strong arm and good deep ball mechanics, but struggled so much with accuracy and decision-making that he was benched his senior season in high school. Gus Edwards and Robert Martin have departed in the backfield, but the line returns most of its starters from the beginning of last season, including (the also fantastically named) Zack Heeman. At 6-foot-7 and 308 pounds, he has the power!
Ash took over a Rutgers program that was similarly poised to bottom out like Illinois, only it would happen in his first year as opposed to his second. Like Smith, Ash botched his initial offensive coordinator hire and has struggled to recover as a result. This is a program that could be close to .500, but they would have to convince me they can find a formula for offensive competence, and I don’t believe it’s going to click this soon.
The contest in Piscataway is an opportunity to make a statement against a contemporary on the rise and prove that Illinois belongs in that category of “Big Ten teams that are turning things around.” It’s also the best shot Illinois will have at a road win this year. Capitalizing on this opportunity will reap huge benefits for Lovie Smith’s rebuild here in Champaign.
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