The Illinois Fighting Illini won last week. Rutgers won last week. Now, the two teams that typically find themselves at or near the bottom of the Big Ten West and East divisions are getting ready to square off in Champaign this Saturday.
The Illini are 4-4, riding a two-game win streak after back-to-back Big Ten West wins over Purdue and Wisconsin. A win against Rutgers, a team the Illini are favored to beat by 20 points, would push Lovie Smith’s team one win closer to bowl eligibility.
Rutgers is 2-6 and 0-5 in Big Ten play. The Scarlet Knights are seeking their first Big Ten Conference win since Nov. 4, 2017, and their first Big Ten Conference road win since... yeah let’s choose not to remember that one. Remember that Rutgers fired their head coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator John McNulty last month post-Michigan loss. The interim head coach is Nunzio Campanile, a coach with decades of high school coaching experience in Rutgers’ state of New Jersey.
When Rutgers Has The Ball
Yeah it was against Liberty, but Johnny Langan is scary and can run
Entering the season, Rutgers’ depth chart at quarterback was 1. Art Sitkowksi — the turnover machine, and 2. McLane Carter, a senior transfer from Texas Tech. Sitkowski is redshirting the rest of this 2019 season, and McLane Carter (how Texas of a name is that?) announced he’s medically retiring from the game of football as of a few weeks ago.
Since then, the Rutgers quarterback has been the 6-foot-3, 232 pound redshirt-freshman Johnny Langan. The transfer quarterback from Boston College is coming off of his best performance against Liberty, and the different ways in which he led Rutgers to a win last week is something Illinois has to be wary of.
Against Liberty, Langan completed 15 of 21 passes for 192 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for 118 yards and a touchdown. The key to success last week were designed quarterback runs, and Rutgers O-line just dominated at the point of attack. It was the first time since the 1960s that a Rutgers quarterback rushed for over 100 yards in a game.
Yet... it was against Liberty. The week before against the undefeated Minnesota Golden Gophers, Langan’s numbers were not so juicy: 9 for 19 passing for 48 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. The week before that against Indiana was not much better.
The Illini have to force Langan to throw. If he gets comfortable running the football out of the zone-read quarterback keeper, his life becomes easier and the game slows down for him. He has ability, sure, but he’s still very inexperienced as a college quarterback. The Illini have to expose that inexperience by having one of their linebackers (perhaps Jake Hansen) spy him all game long.
Running back Isaih Pacheco is pretty good
The true sophomore and New Jersey native is having himself a nice season. His 124 rush attempts is fourth most in the Big Ten behind Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin, J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State, and Rodney Smith of Minnesota. His 547 rush yards are good for sixth best in the conference. He has two 100+ yard games this season — although both were against weak opponents in Liberty last week and UMass in Rutgers’ season opener.
He’s not exactly a workhorse back — he’s only cracked 20 rush attempts once in a game this season, and he’s not too much of a threat catching passes out of the backfield, but he’s still a solid player and one of the best weapons Rutgers has.
Passing and receiving issues galore
Rutgers is the second-worst Big Ten team at passing the football, both in total yards and in average yards per game. Northwestern is the only Big Ten team worse at passing the football than Rutgers.
Rutgers’ leading receiver — and really its best all-around player — is athlete/running back Raheem Blackshear. Blackshear is redshirting and has not appeared in a game since the Michigan loss on Sept. 28, and he still leads the Scarlet Knights in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns even though an entire month has gone by.
Bo Melton is really the only receiver the Illini have to wary of, and even then he’s not overly fast or big. Melton is one of the few 4-star recruits on this Rutgers team and he is the biggest downfield threat for an offense that really struggles passing the football. Melton, a New Jersey native, had offers from Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Oregon and others — but chose to stay home to play for Rutgers.
When Illinois Has The Ball
To the benefit of Illinois, Rutgers is the worst defensive team Illinois has left on its schedule — and it’s not even close. The Maryland Terrapins (not on the schedule) are similarly bad as far as Big Ten teams are concerned, but Rutgers is woefully horrible in every defensive category: Pass defense, run defense, scoring defense. The Scarlet Knights have trouble stopping anybody, especially Big Ten opponents.
Minnesota scored 42 points on them. Indiana 35. Maryland 48. Michigan 52. You get the picture. Rutgers gives up an average of 36.5 points per game. That ranks 122nd out of 130 Division I teams.
No player on Rutgers has more than two sacks on the season. Linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams is a big, experienced linebacker, but on the Big Ten stage and compared to his peers in his conference he’s nothing really special. Fellow junior linebacker Tyshon Fogg is the defensive captain of the team and he leads the Knights in total tackles. His 63 total tackles are sixth most in the Big Ten.
In the defensive backfield, the only real playmaker Illinois has to take special care to not throw his way is cornerback Damon Hayes. The senior already has two interceptions this season. He had two last season and one each in his sophomore and freshman seasons. Hayes started his career playing safety, so he understands and is pretty good at locating the long ball in the air and making a play.
Rutgers Special Teams Notes
True freshman Aaron Young, a player from Pennsylvania who was coveted by in-state program Penn State, is the primary kick and punt returner for the Scarlet Knights. He can be dangerous once he gets the ball, but he has yet to score this season.
Kicking and Punting
Justin Davidovicz is a (pretty) reliable Big Ten kicker. He’s a perfect 14-for-14 on his extra points. He’s made 8 of 11 field goal attempts, including a perfect 3-for-3 against Liberty last week.
It should be noted that in Rutgers’ last two Big Ten games, Davidovicz was off. He missed a field goal against Minnesota and he missed both of his field goal attempts against Maryland.
Adam Korsak is one of the Big Ten’s better punters. He led the Big Ten in punt yards a season ago.