Rutgers @ Illinois: A Preview

The Fighting Illini football season opens on Saturday at 11:00 AM when the Rutgers Scarlet Knights travel to Champaign, IL.'s Brad Leshyn breaks down Rutgers in this preview of the start of the Ron Zook era in Champaign, IL.

Rutgers is coming! Rutgers is coming! OK, that strikes fear in virtually no Division I program that does not play its home games in Buffalo, NY, and one wonders if even the inept Buffalo Bulls would be afraid of a program that has not had a winning season since 1992. Keep in mind that this is a program that has had three 10+ loss seasons since then. Yet here they come into Champaign with a potential powerhouse offense and as much optimism as can be mustered about anything involving New Jersey that's not related to Ol' Blue Eyes himself. And now, what you've all been waiting for: a quick look at the State University of New Jersey.

This marks the fifth season of Greg Schiano's reign, and despite unending enthusiasm and relentless energy, he has failed to take the Rutgers program to the next level. Or, in other words, to the point where they can actually compete with non-directional schools on any given Saturday. Since being hired prior to the 2001 campaign, he has compiled a 12-34 record, with a high water mark of 5-7 in 2003. He was most notably, and most recently, the defensive coordinator at Miami from 1999-2000, and he also spent 1996-1998 with the Chicago Bears. He has vowed to play a greater role in the Scarlet Knights defense this fall, and they're going to need it.

Seven starters, including four All Big East performers, return from a 2004 outfit that had the sixth best passing offense in the nation a year ago. Yes, folks, that is not a misprint. The sometimes uninspiring Illini secondary will be busy trying to contain speedy WR Tres Moses, who shredded opposing secondaries for 81 catches, which set a single-season Big East record, and 1,056 yards last fall, which eclipsed the Rutgers single-season record previously held by Marco Battaglia. Mammoth TE Clark Harris also returns, and all he did was catch 53 passes for 725 yards, which is tops in the country among returning tight ends. Starting QB Ryan Hart also returns, but despite the weapons at hand, he must throw fewer passes to folks in opposing jerseys. His interceptable ways continued in a recent scrimmage, and that could open up some playing time for redshirt freshman Mike Teel, who, if nothing else, understands red and white are friendly colors. More bad news for the Illini defense is the return of FB Brian Leonard. His battering ram style is reminiscent of Mike Alstott, and all he did a year ago was lead the Big East in all-purpose yardage with 125.0 per game.

This is where the Illini have a chance to win this game. As with the offense, seven starters also return to this unit. However, they were also large part of a defense that was 104th overall in the nation and 88th in scoring defense. Defensive end Ryan Neill could pose problems for a thin Illini offensive line, as his 8 sacks and 13 tackles for loss propelled him to First Team All-Big East status a year ago. Despite helping rack up 31 sacks a year ago, the defensive line still has plenty of holes. The Scarlet Knights must replace both DTs and, considering they allowed 178 yards per game on the ground in 2004, Pierre Thomas and E. B. Halsey should have plenty of room to run, which, more importantly, would keep the dangerous Rutgers offense on the sidelines. The secondary, a potential strength, is led by junior CB Joe Porter, who picked off 5 passes last fall, and S Ron Girault who is the team's leading returning tackler.

It is shocking to admit, but Rutgers could possibly be in the bowl picture in 2005. Unlikely, but possible. They're dreaming the near impossible dream, but what else can you do in Jersey? The offense is post-season caliber assuming Hart learns to throw passes to the correct team. If the defense can somehow be mediocre, maybe a trip to the eagerly anticipated Meineke Car Care Bowl is in the offing. They did beat Michigan State last year, but followed that with an 11-pont loss to New Hampshire. At home! The Ron Zook era needs to get off to a strong start, and losing the home opener to a perennial college football doormat is not the way to do that. Expect a lot of fireworks as neither defense has proven they are even of Pop Warner caliber, but the hunch here is that the enthusiasm of a new staff will rub off, Pierre Thomas runs circles around the Scarlet Knight "defense," and the Illini pull out a squeaker 31-30.

  • I love the Chief and have since I first saw him perform back in 1976. However, something needs to be done by the school administration. Keep him or retire him. Stop the foot dragging and make a decision already.
  • Dear Coach Zook. Give the ball to Pierre Thomas 25 times a game. Aside from Minnesota's Laurence Maroney, I'm not convinced there's a better pure runner in the Big Ten.
  • Upsets of the week: Wisconsin loses at home to Bowling Green as does Georgia to Boise State. Don't be surprised if Boise State is this year's Utah. The Smurf Turf rocks and they return 8 starters from an offense that averaged almost 49 points a game in 2004.
  • With Ismail Abdubafi the Illini would have had a decent front four. Why can't we ever get a JUCO recruit to actually set foot on campus? I love Josh Norris' heart and motor, but he'll get engulfed if he has to play DT even on a semi-regular basis.
  • My guess is Tim Brasic has a solid year. He's well suited for the spread offense, but it's too bad Kisan Flakes blew his shot. Moral of the story: Don't smoke pot, or at least don't have a big bagful in your car when you get pulled over.
  • I'm already looking forward to the start of the 'Juice' era. We likely will still struggle this fall, but things are finally looking up.
  • Many, most notably Matt Hayes of The Sporting News, take shots at Ron Zook every chance they get. Keep in mind Steve Spurrier didn't leave the cupboard as full as many believe when he left and Zook played a lot of underclassmen the last two years at Florida. Yes, he had some bad losses, but don't forget the ol' ballcoach never once beat Florida State in Tallahassee. Not once. Zook will certainly upgrade our talent level. He also has no pressure here. If you win 7 a year you're a hero. In Gainseville, you're a goat.

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