Two weeks ago, this article had the potential to have a very positive and optimistic tone. However, following what was probably Rutgers most disappointing loss of the season, it’s very hard to remain positive. To add to the equation, Rutgers is facing a team coming off one of the biggest upsets of the entire college football season. Last week, Illinois walked into Happy Valley and upset the #7 Penn State Nittany Lions by a score of 20-18 in the first FBS game in history to go to 9 overtime periods.
This week, Rutgers will travel to Champaign, Illinois, where they will take on the Illinois Fighting Illini. Before the season, and especially early in the season, most people would’ve highlighted this matchup as a fairly easy Rutgers victory. However, as Rutgers seems to be collapsing and the Illini coming off their best game in recent memory, this game appears to be the epitome of a toss up.
Illinois sits at 3-5 on the season, as they have definitely had quite a lackluster season up until last week. They opened their season with a strong performance against Nebraska, picking up their first win of the season by a score of 30-22. After that, they lost four straight before picking up their second win against Charlotte. Since then, they’ve lost to Wisconsin and beaten Penn State.
The Illini’s biggest struggle to this point has been throwing the ball. They sit at the bottom of the Big Ten in passing yards per game with just 139.3, including 38 yards vs Penn State and 67 yards vs Wisconsin. They’ve also managed to complete less than half their pass attempts, as they have a completion percentage of 48.7%.
However, no team can beat Penn State with just 38 yards through the air if they don’t have a solution on the ground. With 1510 yards, Illinois sits at fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards this season. The Scarlet Knights, on the other hand, have yet to crack four digits as they have accumulated just 914 rushing yards this season. Clearly, Illinois has the upper hand in the rushing game, something that Rutgers will have to work hard to manage.
On the other side of the ball, Illinois has allowed 403.9 yards per game and 190 total points so far this season. Both numbers rank 3rd worst in the Big Ten. In both statistics, Rutgers ranks 5th worst in the conference with 368.9 yards per game and 158 total points allowed. While Rutgers is statistically better, Illinois is coming off a game where they held Penn State to just 18 points, 8 of which came in the nine overtime periods.
This game is a must-win if Rutgers expects to play in a bowl game this year. To meet bowl criteria, Rutgers must finish this final stretch of the season with a 3-2 record. Illinois is still the worst team Rutgers has left on its schedule, so a loss to the 3-5 Illini all but guarantees that Rutgers’ bowl drought will extend to 7 years.
Last week Illinois may have hit its stride. They also could have expended their efforts and have nothing left in the tank. As of right now, there’s no reason to believe last week was anything but a fluke for the Illini. They’ve been quite bad all season, and Penn State was clearly not the same dominant team we’ve seen most of this season. One great game for Illinois is not enough to prove that a bye week was enough to completely turn their bad season around.
I believe Rutgers should win this game, but the score will be much closer than any Knights fan would like. Being that Illinois has been awful throwing the football and Rutgers has been solid stopping the run, there’s no reason to believe Illinois will put together much of anything offensively. However, Rutgers is yet to score more than 13 points in a Big Ten matchup, proving this game will likely be low scoring.
I predict a Rutgers victory by a score of 17-13. I have a hard time believing that either of these offenses will score more than a few touchdowns, as neither of them have done much of anything well as of late. Illinois has struggled to get the ball in the endzone once they enter the red zone, so the Knights defense will manage to hold them to two field goals and just one touchdown. Rutgers will have their receiving corps at full strength for the first time since the Ohio State game, so they should be able to find the endzone a couple of times.
Tune into Big Ten Network on Saturday 10/30 at noon to watch the Rutgers Scarlet Knights take on the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.