Scarlet Report Game Preview: Illinois at Rutgers

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- A battle of struggling Big Ten teams where the winner gains momentum for the second half of the season, Illinois at Rutgers represents homecoming for the Scarlet Knights and a clash of two first-year coaches. Scarlet Report goes in-depth on the keys to the game and predicts the action.

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

Time – Noon, High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

TV/Radio – ESPNews, 1450 AM WCTC, 710 AM WOR, Tune In App

Series – Tied 1-1

Last meeting – Sept. 9, 2006, Rutgers won 33-0

Coaches: Rutgers – Chris Ash (1st season, 2-4); Illinois – Lovie Smith (1st college season, 1-4)

Projected Starters:

Offense: QB Chris Laviano, RB Robert Martin, WR Jawuan Harris, WR Andre Patton, WR John Tsimis, TE Nick Arcidiacono, LT Zack Heeman, LG Dorian Miller, C Derek Nelson, RG Chris Muller, RT JJ Denman

Defense: DE Darnell Davis Jr., DT Darius Hamilton, DT Sebastian Joseph, DE Julian Pinnix-Odrick, OLB Trevor Morris, MLB Deonte Roberts, OLB Tyreek Williams, CB Isaiah Wharton, CB Blessuan Austin, FS Saquan Hampton, SS Anthony Cioffi

Storyline Central

Delete vs. Decay – Season 2 starts today. That was the message all week from head coach Chris Ash to his players. Does Rutgers delete the last two games from its memory banks or are the last two blowouts too much to overcome from a morale aspect? Rutgers is physically hurt enough as a team before the emotional impact of the worst loss since 1888. It takes some serious leadership and even more coaching to overcome it.

Leap of Faith – Rutgers honors one of its all-time greats Saturday when Brian Leonard headlines the 2016 Hall of Fame class. Leonard was a dynamic offensive weapon for Rutgers during the breakout 2005 and 2006 seasons, and has been a recurring visitor to campus after he retired from the NFL two years ago.

The Little Things – Buried in blowout losses and fan frustration, there are a few special stories and more to come for hard-working Rutgers football players. Greg Jones' multi-stop walk-on journey is well documented but former Hackensack defensive back has a similar story. The senior, originally targeted by Greg Schiano, debuted on special teams last week. It's a long path for a kid that spent 2015 as a regular Rutgers student with a security job to pay his way through school. South African walk-on Ntwademela Perry is also an official on-field player for Rutgers as a member of the kickoff team the last two weeks.

Matchup to Watch

Rutgers Read Option vs. Illinois LB Hardy Nickerson

Second in the conference in tackles per game and fresh off a two-interception game against Purdue, Nickerson is simply a playmaker on the Illini defense. Whether it be Chris Laviano in play action, Robert Martin off tackle or lateral sweeps to Jawuan Harris, Nickerson is the man to beat if Rutgers wants to finally break out of its decaying offensive slump.

Scarlet Knights win if …

Questionable Players Return with an Impact – If Rutgers can get healthy performances from players like Saquan Hampton, Tariq Cole, Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris, it could go a long way. No, a healthy defense does not put the points necessary on the board after back-to-back shutouts. The Rutgers offense, however, needs all of the help it can get. Any turnover and field-position favors go a long away.

Illini Win if …

They Shut Down Big Plays – Nine of Rutgers' 11 touchdown drives (yes Rutgers averages less than two per game) came in no more than three-minute spurts. And 44 percent of those scores came in less than 60 seconds. In many instances, Rutgers is go big or go home as an offensive strike force. A safe Illinois defense that protects against the big plays may be the best strategy. If Illinois struggles – the Illini rank third-to-last in scoring defense ahead of only Purdue and Rutgers – the Scarlet Knights have their best shot.


Impact Player

DE Julian Pinnix-Odrick – This is a perfect example of a senior playing his best football. After the flip-flopping between end and tackle over the last four years, Pinnix-Odrick looks at home on the edge. A team leader in TFLs and sacks, Pinnix-Odrick must be a disruptive force against the questionable Illinois passing game.

Something to Prove

WR Andre Patton – While other receivers rarely beat jams against press coverage, Patton found himself open against some of the top cornerbacks in the country over the last three weeks. The issue? Drops. Seniors need more consistent hands, and it's time for Patton to win more jump balls against Big Ten cornerbacks. Patton has the only touchdown reception (and only touchdown) since Janarion Grant's injury. Rutgers needs more than 1.2 catches per game from its most-experienced receiver.

Looking to Build

CB Isaiah Wharton – Wharton looked like he belonged against Ohio State and Michigan in press coverage. He was far from perfect, but this sophomore isn't afraid of physical play or taking risks. A likely matchup for top Illinois receiver Malik Turner, Wharton should be used to the challenge. His 13 pass breakups are tops on the active roster.

Freshman to Watch

RB Trey Sneed – Sneed showed heart and focus as the only Rutgers player to rush for a first down against Michigan. He gets more opportunities with the move for Josh Hicks, and represents a key player for the spotty special teams unit in scarlet and white.

Behind Enemy Lines with IlliniInquirer's Jeremy Werner

Follow Werner @JwernerScout and on 93.5 ESPNRadio in Illinois

1.) What's the latest at quarterback for Illinois? How does it affect what Illinois does offensively?

Wes Lunt didn't practice Tuesday or Wednesday due to a back injury suffered against Purdue. While Lovie Smith said Lunt is the kind of player that doesn't need to practice during the week to play on Saturday, I would call Lunt doubtful for Saturday. Sophomore backup Chayce Crouch is his replacement, and he actually makes the Illini offense tougher to defend. Lunt has an NFL arm but his a statue in the backfield. With so few weapons around him, he's pretty easy to defend. Take away the run and force his subpar receivers to make plays (which they rarely do). Michigan State would love to have a guy like Lunt right now, and Lunt could really succeed at a place like that. But he really just doesn't have the supporting cast around him to succeed at Illinois. But Crouch is a tough, athletic runner who reminds me of former Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch (who I covered). The question is his arm, which has been inaccurate and wobbly during practice and his  limited game time. But Crouch surprised even the staff with his throwing ability on Saturday. With Lunt, Illinois runs a pro-style offense where the defense has an 11 vs. 10 advantage. With Crouch, Illinois runs a more dynamic zone-read option scheme and Crouch has big-play ability as a runner.

2.) What is life like for Illinois so far under Lovie Smith? What are his biggest changes to the program?

The Lovie Smith hire brought respectability and credibility to Illinois following a tumultuous tenure under the mistake hire, Tim Beckman. He brought a staff with some big names, including Louisville offensive coordinator Garrick McGee (who recruited Lamar Jackson) and former NFL stud linebacker Hardy Nickerson (Illinois' defensive coordinator). Lovie brings an NFL style environment to practices and press conferences. There is some long-term excitement that Lovie can turn this thing around, but the 1-4 start has reminded fans that it's going to take time. Illinois just lacks talent and depth and it will only get worse (next season) before it gets better (2018 and beyond). There have been some growing pains this season (defensive misfits and penalties) as a roster adapts to its staff too. The biggest impact Lovie has made though is on the recruiting trail. The staff arrived late (March) so it's still catching up in the Class of 2017, but they're already landing recruits the previous staff couldn't. They are landing more size, speed and length. Doors that were closed to Illinois previously are now open.

3.) What's your key to the game, and how do you predict this one ends?

Illinois learned last week that it can't show up against the Big Ten's worst teams and expect to win. The Illini are more talented than Purdue but got embarrassed at home. The Illini must stop shooting themselves in the foot with penalties and poor gap integrity on defense. I think Crouch and the Illini running backs should find plenty of success as long as they take care of the ball. But the key is the defense. Rutgers' offense obviously has struggled, and the Illini defensive line is supposed to be its strength. It's time for them to step up and finally slow someone's running attack -- especially given that they can sell out against the run given Rutgers' passing struggles.

I'm expecting a classic, just like the triple-overtime basketball thriller between these two schools. If only we're so lucky! I think Illinois is the more talented team, but they'll likely do something to allow Rutgers to hang around. I'll take Illinois though to pick up Lovie Smith's first Big Ten and first road win with a score of 23-17.


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