Head coach Greg Schiano, armed with a new seven-year contract signed back in December, produced the school's first winning campaign since 1992 and its first bowl appearance since Jimmy Carter was President. Schiano began his sixth season at the State University of New Jersey with a 21-16 victory at North Carolina last Saturday, which was only their second season-opening road win since 1988. The Knights, however, have been a tad more successful in home openers as they aim to make the Illini their fourth consecutive victim. Overall, they have a 93-34-10 mark in home openers, including a stunning 19-14 win over Michigan State in 2004. The Illini had a cakewalk 42-17 win against Eastern Illinois a week ago, so this marks their first true test of the 2006 season. Considering they have lost 14 consecutive road tilts, this game looms large for their fortunes this fall. A win could propel them to a trip to lovely Detroit in December, which, for long-suffering Illini fans, would be the best Christmas gift they've received in quite some time.
When the Scarlet Knights have the ball
Illini fans remember RB Brian Leonard well. His leaping 83-yard TD scamper last year drew gasps from the stands as it was as spectacular a run as anyone had seen. It showed Illini fans what kind of player this kid is. With blazing speed and fullback power, Leonard is destined to play on Sundays. Only Michael Bush of Louisville (41) has more touchdowns among active players than Leonard's 40. He also has amassed 2,377 career rushing yards and 173 receptions. All this and he may not even be the star of the show. If last week's performance is an indicator, sophomore RB Ray Rice is a star in the making. He shredded the Tar Heel defense for 201 yards and 3 TDs a week ago after running for 1,120 yards last year. The left side of the line, led by tackle Pedro Sosa and guard Mike Fladell, along with center Darnell Stapleton opened gaping holes all afternoon, and should give the Illini front seven fits.
Mike Teel will be making his home starting debut at QB this week. Last week he threw for a meager 145 yards, but more importantly, he avoided throwing it to the fellas in powder blue jerseys. Last year Teel struggled with an abominable 10 interceptions (compared to 2 TD passes) in only 101 attempts. Along with Leonard, his top target is once again TE Clark Harris, who is the nation's active leader in receptions and receiving yards for tight ends. He only caught one ball for 16 yards last week, but has 110 catches for 1,538 yards for his career. Dennis Campbell and Shawn Tucker lead the WR corps which could be bolstered by the debut of former Illini commit Kenny Britt.
When the Illini have the ball
The Illini should be able to control the ball on the ground as the Knights defense surrendered 193 rushing yards (5.3 yards per rush) to the Tar Heels last week. The defensive line is full of new faces after DEs Ryan Neill and Val Barnaby, who accounted for 20 sacks a year ago, left for greener pastures. However, DT Eric Foster returns to anchor the middle. He had eight tackles and two TFL against the Illini a year ago before a knee injury ended his season in week two. He'll be paired with fellow captain Ranel Meekins who registered nine sacks a year ago. The deep and talented LB corps is led by seniors Qunitero Frierson, Brandon Renkart, and Devraun Thompson, while the backfield is led by twins Devin and Jason McCourty along with CB Manny Collins who had two interceptions, including the game-sealer with 1:59 left a week ago. These two picks were more than the Knights corners had in all of 2005.
The Knights are among the smartest football teams in the nation, at least according to the NCAA Academic Progress Rate, which measures a schools success (or failure) towards moving student-athletes towards graduation. Rutgers was the fourth best in the nation a year ago, behind only Stanford, Navy, and Duke.
Rutgers also has two sets of twins suiting up for them in 2006. The above mentioned McCourty brothers are joined by the Rudanovics, DE Milan and OL Mitar. Their younger brother Chris, a TE, is sitting out this fall after transferring from Indiana.
Illini Head to New Jersey to Take on Rutgers
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