Illinois @ Rutgers Preview

The Fighting Illini football team celebrated an important victory last week, but they cannot rest on their laurels. The upcoming road challenge at Rutgers this Saturday will be a severe test for a young team. Illinisports discusses Illinois prospects for the game in this article.

The young Fighting Illini football team will find out real fast how much they have improved as they travel to New Jersey to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights Saturday. The Illini defeated Rutgers last year at home in overtime, but the Scarlet Knights have excellent talent and upperclassman leadership and are eager for payback on their home turf.

Coach Greg Schiano has recruited numerous Floridians and has improved the overall speed of his team greatly in recent years. The Scarlet Knights are confident and poised, the result of a winning record and Bowl trip last season. And their fear of the Illini is minimal at best. They defeated North Carolina on the road last week, and they hope to use that victory as a springboard to another successful season. Can the Illini rise up and conquer this strong opponent?

Oddsmakers favor Rutgers by nearly two touchdowns, and it is hard to argue with that. Illinois will be trying to end its long road losing streak with many players who have never before experienced a college away game. The Illini youngsters will have a tough task getting prepared properly for such a monumental task. Playing before a large, hostile crowd will require much poise and team unity. It is an unlikely mountain to climb for such a young team, but hope springs eternal.

Offensively, Rutgers will likely try to drive the ball down Illini throats with a power running game featuring All-Star fullback Brian Leonard and halfback Ray Rice, who gained over 200 yards last week as North Carolina loaded their defense to stop Leonard. Illini fans might remember the 235 pound Leonard hurdling an Illini defensive back on his way to a long touchdown last year. Brian was their leading receiver last year as well, and he will get many flat passes if Illinois emphasizes plugging the running holes.

The Illini defense is improved, but can it stop a power running game? Last year's team was usually unsuccessful at this, so the Illini will need significant improvement to slow Leonard and Rice Saturday. Since Rutgers quarterback Ryan Teel is inexperienced and was asked to throw ball control passes primarily last week, perhaps the Illini will try to stack the linebackers and safeties close to the line to plug running holes and cover the short passing routes. They will also have to pay special attention to 6'-6" All-Star tight end Clark Harris, a load for anyone. Of course, in this scenario Illini cornerbacks will need to cover any deep threat with little or no help from the safeties.

This may not be the Illini's preferred defensive game plan, but at least they must find a way to stop the run and force Rutgers to pass. Have Illini defensive linemen and linebackers improved on diagnosing plays, freeing themselves from "sticky" blockers, and making forceful, secure tackles? If they have, they can give the Rutgers offense a battle. But if they allow frequent long runs, it could be a long day for the Illini.

Rutgers' defense is on the small side, but it is quick. They have a tendency to put 8 defenders close to the line of scrimmage to stop the run and terrorize the passer with blitzes. Quarterback Tim Brasic will need to make quick decisions and not fixate on one receiver to get the ball off before the blitzers reach him. And freshman backup Juice Williams will have to demonstrate poise beyond his years and training to keep a level head and make quality decisions under such extreme duress when he enters the game. It will be up to the offensive line to pick up the blitzers and keep their quarterbacks' jerseys clean.

More than likely, Illinois will continue developing its running game. They overpowered Eastern Illinois with it, but Rutgers will present a stiffer challenge. Pierre Thomas, EB Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall will have to fight for every yard while holding tightly to the pigskin to prevent fumbles. The Illini must be able to sustain long marches by mixing run and pass, keeping Rutgers uncertain and back on its heels. If the Illini allow the Scarlet Knights to get their confidence up, they will blitz incessantly and make the day a miserable one for the Champaign-Urbana contingent.

Perhaps the one thing the Illini did most successfully last year against Rutgers was use a no-huddle, quick attacking offense that wore down the Rutgers players. It is hoped the Scarlet Knights will still have depth problems this year and need to rely on their starters for extended periods. If so, they might tire as the game goes on. If the Illini can keep the game close through three quarters, perhaps they can pull out the upset. Of course, Rutgers has probably emphasized conditioning since last year, so Illinois will have to beat Rutgers at its best to win.

In this writer's view, Illini quarterbacks hold the key to offensive success Saturday. Brasic and Williams will both play, and they must notice where the blitzes are coming from and punish Rutgers by hitting the hot receivers. Brasic found this difficult last season, and a freshman like Juice will have to muster tremendous inner confidence to counter Rutgers without panic. If the quarterbacks can remain in the pocket long enough to locate open receivers, and if the offensive line and backs can provide sufficient protection, they can exploit Rutgers' aggressiveness.

Illinois' punting game must show improvement over last week. They can't give up good field position frequently to an offense as good as the Scarlet Knights and expect to win. Kyle Yelton will be in his first road game, but he will need to put that aside and trust his ability. The Illini need Kyle to pin Rutgers back a few times so they will have to travel farther for points.

Illinois can win this game, but they will need to play their absolute best to do so. Rutgers has been pointing to this game for a whole year, so they will not take the Illini lightly. Illini players will need to study as much film as possible to learn Scarlet Knight personnel and tendencies, and they will then need to play with maturity beyond their years to accomplish their goal.

Illinois played 14 true freshmen last week, and as many as 3-4 more may eventually see the field this year. These freshmen will be truly remarkable if they can play relaxed and full-out despite the travel, strange surroundings, and pressure of the game. We cannot expect them to do this, but we ask them to do so anyway. If they help pull the upset, they will need to be considered one of the best freshman classes in Illinois history. They may be anyway, but it is usually easier to learn and grow with victories than with defeats.

Even if the Illini cannot overcome all the odds Saturday, how they play under adverse conditions will tell us much about their makeup and potential. If they can face their opponents eye to eye and not back down while fighting to the end, we will have a right to be encouraged. All hope will not be lost with a loss, but much optimism will prevail with a victory.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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