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TCR Staff Predictions: Illinois vs. Rutgers

It’s time for another Illinutgers.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Thumpasaurus: Illinois 19, Rutgers 16

This is gonna be a weird one. The Rutgers defense is not on the same level as Penn State’s defense, but they’re still top 30 in the country and did a good job to contain Michigan’s rushing attack well enough to keep Rutgers in that game. Their offense had several chances to tie the game at 20, but couldn’t get it done. Now yes, yes, I know the Illini ran the ball very effectively last week, but that stuff is all on tape now. Greg Schiano proved last year that he adapts and gameplans well for each opponent both before the game and at halftime. It’s also hard to get maximum effort, intensity and performance out of college football players every week. For those reasons, I think the Illini will actually face an uphill battle in running the ball on Rutgers.

That being said, they should still stick with the run early and often. Even if it’s not as effective, the game management plan from Penn State was to grind down the opponent and keep the defense fresh by eating up the clock. In a tie game, this can be more important than scoring in the early going. Brandon Peters cannot throw the ball more than 20 times or Illinois will lose.

The Fighting Illini defense has made massive strides, all the way up to #60 in SP+. This is still the worst in the Big Ten, but it’s good enough that against Rutgers’ ponderous offense we can absolutely lean on that unit and win the game with special teams and turnovers. Bo Melton is a threat at receiver and can beat you for a big play, but not to the level of the Penn State tandem Illinois just faced. I think a lot of drives both ways will sputter in the red zone and Illinois wins a kicking contest. If Illinois falls behind by more than 10 in the second half and then loses the ball, they will probably be unable to respond. This Illini team has lived in tie games and one possession games. If they’re confident in their identity and get the ball with the lead at any point, Illinois should be able to assert enough control of the game to come out victorious.

Matt Rejc: Illinois 24, Rutgers 14

College football teams tend to be streaky, although not quite to the same extent as in college basketball. Think back to the 2019 season when a dismal stretch of football was completely turned around by one improbable win. I expect the same to more or less happen here.

Going against Illinois will be the fact that we’ve shown our hand against Penn State. Rugters has almost certainly been practicing against heavy sets all week, and will be ready to stack the box. That said, I don’t think they’ll be able to stop the Illinois offense this week. Part of the reason the Illini ran so much last week was because the elite Penn State secondary wasn’t giving Illini receivers a chance to get open. That changes this week, and I foresee a healthy Brandon Peters running plenty of play action and finding Daniel Barker or Isaiah Williams in the endzone.

Quentin Wetzel: Illinois 17, Rutgers 16

Illinois football has scored 20 or more points in four games this season. One was last week against Penn State, but the Illini only scored 10 points in regulation. Two were against Group of 5 teams. The only time Illinois scored 20 points in regulation against a Power 5 team was in the season opening win over Nebraska. But the Illini offense only scored 21 points that game, as nine of Illinois’ 30 points came on a safety and a scoop and score. Simply put, Illinois’ offense is bad.

The good news, though, is that the Illini defense might just be pretty good. Against Rutgers — who is averaging just 12.6 points per game against Power 5 competition — that should be enough. Make no mistake here, this isn’t the Rutgers of the past half-decade that would just roll over; behind their stout defense, the Scarlet Knights are competitive now. It could be a rock fight, but I think Illinois pulls out the win in the final Illinutgers until 2024 (unless the two teams meet in the Big Ten Championship, of course).