Preview & Pick: Illinois at Rutgers

Illinois rarely enters back-to-back conference games as a favorite. It enters Saturday's game in Piscataway with the chance to lose back-to-back games as the favorite.

Illinois (1-4, 0-2) at Rutgers (2-4, 0-3)

Time: 11 a.m. CT

TV: ESPNews -- Mike Couzens (play by play) and Dan Hawkins (analysis)

Series: The series is tied 1-1. The two teams played a home-and-home series in 2005 and 2006 with Illinois winning the former 33-30 in overtime in Champaign and Rutgers winning the latter 33-0 in Piscataway.

Vegas betting line: Illinois (-6)

Last week: Illini lost at home to Purdue 34-31 in overtime; Rutgers lost at home to Michigan 78-0


Minus-21.8: Average margin of defeat for Rutgers this season, which has losses to three top-five teams: Ohio State, Michigan and Washington.

0: Wins by Rutgers over Big Ten West opponents since joining the conference in 2014.

7: Margin of defeat for Rutgers in its Big Ten opener against defending Big Ten West champion Iowa, a 14-7 loss.

136: Combined margin of defeat for Rutgers' two games to No. 2 Ohio State (58-0) and No. 4 Michigan (78-0).

75.0: Penalty yards per game for Illini, which ranks last among Big Ten teams.

117.7: Passing yards per game for Rutgers, which ranks last in the Big Ten and 124th of 127 FBS teams.

182.2: Rushing yards per game for Illinois, which ranks sixth in the Big Ten. The Illini finished last in the Big Ten in rushing last season.

134.4 and 140.8: Passing efficiency defense for Illinois and Rutgers, respectively, which rank 13th and 14th among Big Ten teams.

Scarlet Knights to watch

Rutgers is averaging just 18.2 points per game in its new spread offense under 28-year-old offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer, the youngest play caller in the power-five conferences, and it's obviously been a rough transition. The senior starting quarterback is a big reason for the struggles.

Laviano ranks last in the FBS in completion percentage (47.4), 114th of 118 qualified FBS quarterbacks in pass efficiency and 115th of 118 FBS quarterbacks in yards per pass attempt (5.16). Laviano is a threat to run for some short to intermediate gains but isn't a great runner.

Rutgers' best offensive weapon, the 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior has 420 yards on 81 carries (5.2 ypc) in five games. He totaled just 62 yards on 23 carries the last two weeks against Ohio State and Michigan, but those are elite defenses. Marin had 358 rushing yards (6.2 ypc) during his previous three games, including an 80-yard touchdown in a win over New Mexico.

Following a season-ending injury to Jernarion Grant, Rutgers' best offensive playmaker, Harris has shown flashes of big-play ability. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound sophomore had three catches for 94 yards and a 75-yard touchdown against New Mexico.

The senior defensive tackle is a three-time team captain, has 25.5 career tackles for loss and was named to the preseason Outland Trophy watch list.

The 6-foot-1, 198-pound sophomore was one of the few bright spots against Michigan and one of the few Scarlet Knights who looked like he belonged on the same field as the Wolverines, deflecting three passes. He has eight PBUs this season.

Keys to the game

1. Don't shoot yourself in the foot: Illinois wins against Purdue if it cuts out a few of its 12 penalties (for 125 yards). It has a chance to win at Nebraska if it doesn't commit two bad penalties that prolonged Nebraska's 10-plus minute, go-ahead scoring drive. Simply, Illinois is killing itself in some of these losses with undisciplined football. Ilinnois simply is not good enough to make up for those errors -- even against teams like Purdue and Rutgers. 2. Do your job, defense: Illini Inquirer Micheal Young broke down the Illini defense's Achilles' heel: remaining gap sound against angle blocking. It's not just one group or one player. The Illini have struggled to disrupt the backfield on the interior, have struggled to contain the edge and the second- and third-level defenders have struggled to make tackles in space. Simply, there are too many individual breakdowns in run fits that result in huge plays. Rutgers runs a lot of zone-read option, which has given the Illini so many fits. Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson told me it even took him about half a season to learn and play well in this defense during his first season under Tony DungyWell, it's about the midway point. The staff has had plenty of time to teach the job, so now it's time for the Illini defense to follow Tom Thibodeau's advice and DO ... YOUR ... JOB.

3. Some WR other than Turner make a play: Malik Turner is good. Really good. The junior wideout is averaging 5.8 receptions (2nd B1G) and 81.8 receiving yards (3rd B1G) per game. He's coming off a career-best performance of 129 yards against Purdue. But no other Illini receiver is averaging more than 21.0 yards per game. The Illini need somebody, anybody to step up and make a play down the field. Zach Grant has been a solid contributor, mostly as a blocker, but has struggled to get open against power-five DBs. Justin Hardee has dropped too many passes. True freshmen Zarrian Holcombe and Dominic Thieman expectedly have been unreliable. Sophomore Des Cain is expected back from an apparent knee injury soon and could give Illinois the boost it sorely needs.

Illini in the spotlight

Chayce Crouch was sensational in relief of injured starter Wes Lunt against Purdue. He ignited the Illini offense by giving it an extra dimension (the running quarterback) to help cover up the Illini's huge issues at receiver and tight end. He ran for the fourth-most yards by a quarterback in Illinois history (137 yards, 2 TDs) and was surprisingly strong in the passing game (10-for-14 for 142 yards). But Purdue knew little about Crouch and took a few series to realize Crouch's best weapons are his legs. Kudos to Crouch, though. When Purdue finally sold out to stop the run, he made some plays with his arm. Lunt is doubtful for Saturday's game, so Crouch should get his first start -- giving Illini fans probably the best reason to watch this game. But Rutgers has film on Crouch. They now know some of his tendencies. With a week to prepare with Crouch, will Garrick McGee add more wrinkles to the offense? Will Crouch be smarter and take fewer big hits? Should he or should he just play his tough brand of football? Will he be able to duplicate his passing effort from a week ago? Illinois is searching for next year's starting quarterback on the JUCO and grad-transfer market. On Saturday, Crouch has another chance to make his case to be next season's -- and maybe the rest of this season's -- QB1.

Redshirt freshman Jamal Milan's absence may have gone under the radar against Purdue, but he definitely was missed by his team. With Milan sidelined due to an injury, Purdue gashed Illinois -- which started true freshman Kenyon Jackson -- up the middle. Milan played well against Nebraska and Western Michigan and at times has looked like the Illini's best defensive tackle. The Illini hope his return will help clear up some issues in the front four.

Senior Taylor Barton has struggled greatly this season, so much so that true freshman Stanley Green -- who wasn't even on the two-deep earlier this season -- took his place for several series. Don't be shocked if Green sees more playing time on Saturday. The Illini are looking for someone who can be a reliable last line of defense. Turning to an 18-year-old, it's obvious they're desperate for it.


Despite the excitement of Lovie Smith's hire, most honest Illinois observers knew the Illini would have their struggles in 2016. But even the most impartial analysts thought Illinois was a three- to five-win team. Few thought the Illini -- with several NFL prospects -- would be in the conversation for the Big Ten's worst team.

That conversation likely ends on Saturday. This game deserves a nickname: the B1G Basement Bowl, the Bottom of the B1G Barrel Bowl the MegaBowl or my favorite submitted name for this game:

But it's simply the game that determines the worst team in the Big Ten.

Illinois has more talent. It's offense, especially now with Crouch, is more dynamic. Its defense, despite its deficiencies, has several players with pro potential. Its staff is more experienced. Illinois has the edge, even if slight, in almost every category.

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But the same was said last week heading into a home game against an inferior Purdue team. Illinois rarely enters back-to-back conference games as a favorite. It enters Saturday's game with the chance to lose back-to-back games as the favorite.

This game won't mean much in the long run. Recruiting matters more than wins this season (though, as I keep repeating, they aren't absolutely mutually exclusive). But a culture change has to start somewhere. If Illinois loses, the Illini likely head to the wolverine's den at the Big House with little fight left. Win and the Illini have some renewed life and focus that can be sustained for a final five stretch of games (after the Michigan game) in which they can be competitive.

The Illini staff made some good adjustments following an embarrassing loss to Western Michigan that allowed them to be very competitive at Nebraska. If they repeat that effort in New Jersey on Saturday, Lovie Smith will earn his first Big Ten win.

Illinois 23, Rutgers 17

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