Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.
Oh God, it’s time to talk about the...
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers has exactly one claim to fame: participating in the first recognized college football game in 1869, however dubious that claim may be…
You could be forgiven for thinking that was their last win for over a century. There is literally nothing of note in the entire history of Rutger football until 2005 or so.
To give you an idea of how little Rutgers mattered, they posted an 11-0 season in 1976 as an independent and finished #17 in the AP poll behind 8-4 Colorado. In 1978 they lost the only bowl game they played in during the first 134 years of their program’s existence.
Somehow they ended up in the Big East, where they served as a doormat of epic proportions until Greg Schiano’s fifth season at the helm saw them reach the Insight Bowl in 2005.
In 2006, Rutgers had their only Great Football Season in the modern age, going 11-2 and finishing 12th in the AP poll. Somehow, they only finished 3rd in the Big East.
That conference had so much instability and turnover that in 2012, Rutgers won a share of the damn title…along with Syracuse, Cincinnati and #13 Louisville. Among the four teams that DIDN’T win the Big East in 2012 was the Connecticut Huskies.
The Big Ten added Rutgers for the 2014 season in order to get the Big Ten Network added to cable packages in the New York/New Jersey metro area. They had a hilarious 8-5 debut season before Kyle Flood’s regime fell apart and was fatefully replaced with Chris Ash, a coach so bad that Lovie Smith went 2-1 against him.
Schiano was brought back for 2020 and is trying to get the band back together.
History vs Illinois
One word comes to mind when talking about Illinois vs Rutgers.
The High Voltage Rivalry will have at least one year off (barring a Big Ten Championship matchup), but it’s been a fixture of Big Ten football since 2016.
Read more about this legendary rivalry here:
Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 conference titles) is 5-3 against Rutgers (0 national championships, 1 conference title).
The 2021 edition of The ‘Gers was very B1G in that they played good run defense and didn’t throw the ball very well. A 3-0 non-conference (albeit against poor competition) sputtered out into a 5-7 regular season. Nevertheless, the Scarlet Knights were competitive with Michigan early in the season and blew out Indiana. They defeated our Illini in Champaign to deny them a 6-6 season by controlling the line of scrimmage and leaning on star punter Adam Korsak.
Due to COVID-related chaos, they ended up going to the Gator Bowl, where they kept Wake Forest’s high powered offense in check for a quarter before losing 38-10. But, on the whole, it was a step forward from the abyss of the Chris Ash era. With one exception:
Somehow, they found a way to lose to Northwestern by two touchdowns.
Coaching Staff & Identity
Greg Schiano returned to Rutgers for his second stint in 2020. The Jersey native spent time at Penn State and with the Chicago Bears before becoming the defensive coordinator of a couple of legendary Miami Hurricanes units. He then became the head coach of Rutgers in 2001 and slowly built to a 7-5 campaign in his fifth year. I’ve already covered Schiano because he represents Rutgers’s only substantial history, but his specialty is defensive backs and his Rutgers teams used to send quite a few to the NFL, in particular New England.
Schiano’s offensive and defensive coordinators are both Jersey natives as well, with OC Sean Gleeson having most of his background at Princeton before moving up to coach the Oklahoma State offense in 2019. He took over for Mike Yurcich and expanded on his offense, running a lot of inside and outside zone out of the spread to set up the occasional deep pass.
DC Joe Harasymiak was formerly the head coach at Maine. It remains to be seen if Schiano will be calling the shots with the traditional 4-3 or if they’ll go to a 4-2-5.
Dudes To Watch
The key for Rutgers will be their totally retooled offensive line. Can they open up that deep playbook for Sean Gleeson? If so, then redshirt freshman quarterback Gavin Wimsatt has a chance to shine. He’s arguably Schiano’s biggest recruiting win since returning to Rutgers, a 4-star dual-threat QB, but he hasn’t been able to make an impact yet.
The ‘Gers has had strong safety play and veterans Avery Young and Christian Izien will look to continue that trend.
Season Prediction & Fan Expectations
If you’re a Jerseyite, it’s all coming up Rutgers lately. Like Maryland, this is a fanbase that wants to see at least .500 to really prove they’ve grasped a foothold above the Big Ten basement.
Unlike Maryland, they haven’t seen it in the Schiano 2.0 era, but Rutgers fans have more hope than they’ve had since 2014.
This team will go as far as the offensive line will take them. The ceiling is probably 6 wins, but the aggregate talent is growing.
Illinois Game Prediction
As glorious as an ILLINUTGERS Big Ten Championship would be, I don’t see it happening this year.
Why Rutgers Suck(s?)
Illinois has spent a lot of time as the caretaker of the Big Ten’s basement, and they’ve occupied the role with dignity, quietly taking two-score losses to Indiana or what have you.
Rutgers, on the other hand, decided in 2016 to lose conference games by scores like 39-0, 49-0, 59-0 and 78-0. In 2018, they suffered the indignity of losing by 41 points to David Beaty’s Kansas Jayhawks. They gave Lovie Smith 4 wins to artificially inflate his record and in doing so they extended his tenure longer than it had any right to go.
I’m the one who came up with ILLINUTGERS. Why this turn of phrase? Because we were locked into playing Rutgers, The State University Of New Jersey (that is the actual name of the school) every year from 2016 through 2021—we were terrible, they were terrible and somehow this was taking the place of our traditional Big Ten rivalries. Therefore, I could only get excited about it by shouting a really stupid-sounding word. ILLINUTGERS, BABY!
Alex Orr: Two words: Paul Mulcahy.
WhityRemarks: I have no opinions on Rutgers. Why would I have an opinion about Rutgers?
He Was A High School Quarterback (Off Tackle Empire): What is the greatest rivalry in the history of the world? USA vs USSR? Hatfield vs McCoy? Ali vs Frazier? Alexander Hamilton vs Aaron Burr? ANNHHH! Wrong answer. It’s Illinutgers of course. Obviously, Art Sitkowski sits at the epicenter of this titanic rivalry.