Keys to the Illinois Game

New Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook assumed control of a floundering Illini program in Dec 2004 but inherited a deplorable talent level. Meanwhile, Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano has at his disposal a veteran team. Rutgers has three swing games on the road, which could be the difference between a five- and eight-win season. Therefore, a win in Champaign is virtually mandatory if Rutgers is to receive a bowl invitation this year. Here are my five keys to the Illinois game.

KEYS TO THE ILLINOIS GAME


Rutgers (4-7, 1-6 Big East in 2004) and Illinois (3-8, 1-7 Big Ten in 2004) have not met in the 135 years since Rutgers played the very first football game against Princeton in 1869.  Until 1980, Rutgers played primarily private northeastern colleges.  As those private schools dropped down to lower divisions, Rutgers moved up in class.  As such, Rutgers has not played many of the large state universities that comprise Division IA football.  In fact, Rutgers has played only three Big 10 teams in its long history – Michigan State (3-2), Northwestern (3-0), and Penn State (2-22).  And most of those games occurred against Penn State before the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1991.  Rutgers and Penn State played all but two years between 1977 and 1995, but only five times since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten.  The Scarlet Knights played a home-and-home series with Northwestern in 1989 (38-27, W) and 1991 (22-18, W).  Rutgers also played a two-for-one series with Michigan State in 1988 (17-13, W), 1990 (34-10, L), and 1991 (14-7, W).  The Scarlet Knights just completed a home-and-home series with the Spartans in 2003 (44-28, L) and 2004 (19-14, W). 

Many parallels exist between Rutgers' visit to Champaign and the trip to East Lansing two years ago.  Both Illinois and Michigan State had new head coaches replacing predecessors who had been fired.  Both coaches inherited programs in disarray.  Both coaches were former defensive coordinators.  And both implemented spread offenses.  However, new Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook inherited a much less talented team than did Spartan Head Coach John L. Smith in 2003.  Zook assumed control of a floundering Fighting Illini program in December 2004.  The talent level was deplorable for a team that played in the Sugar Bowl following the 2001 season.  Second year players recruited off a 1-11 season in 2003 are pushing off the depth chart two recruiting classes signed off that BCS bowl appearance.  Something is very wrong with that picture.  Zook must leverage his highly respected recruiting skills to restock a Fighting Illini roster short on talent.  But recruiting won't help Zook significantly this year.  He must make do with the talent he inherited.  And Zook is not exactly known for maximizing the talent at his disposal.  Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano enters his fifth season looking at a make-or-break campaign.  His job is likely not in jeopardy because Athletic Director Bob Mulcahy is not big on accountability with regards to underperformance.  And have no doubts about it.  Although Schiano inherited a train wreck from former Head Coach Terry Shea, Schiano has blown nearly as many games as he has won (12).  Another losing campaign against a soft schedule will seal Schiano's fate at Rutgers.  He will be a lame duck coach playing out the string.  Schiano has at his disposal a veteran team – 16 returning starters plus two kickers – stocked with five All-Big East players (and possibly five more who will earn honors this year).  Talent is no longer the issue with the program.  Rutgers has talent to compete in the upper division of the New Big East.  However, the faulty application of that talent on game day has been the problem.  Rutgers has three swing games on the road, which could be the difference between a five- and eight-win season.  The last two swing games become much more difficult with a season-opening loss for a program that has not played well on the road.  Therefore, a win in Champaign is virtually mandatory if Rutgers is to receive a bowl invitation this year.  Here are my five keys to the Illinois game.


TEAM KEYS

1.  Turnovers Committed.  Based upon my preseason review of Illinois, I am not very impressed with the talent level on the Fighting Illini roster.  Especially the defense.  The Scarlet Knight offense, with eight returning starters from the nation's #40-ranked offense (394 yards per game) should torch an Illini defense returning seven starters from the 97th ranked defense (424 yards per game).  Rutgers may face few worse defenses all year.  However, turnovers have been the biggest problem with the Rutgers offense.  The Scarlet Knights ranked #116 (of 117 Division IA teams) in TOs committed.   And TOs were a big contributing factor to an offense that scored points far less proportionally than it gained yardage.  Rutgers should hang at least 30 points o the Fighting Illini.  If the Scarlet Knights don't kill themselves with TOs.  Rutgers must not commit more than two TOs.  And not throw more than one INT. 

2.  Big Plays Allowed.  Fighting Illini QB RS Jr Tim Brasic has attempted only one pass in the past two seasons.  Prior experience with a no-huddle spread offense in high school gave Brasic an edge in the battle for the starting QB job.  But that experience was at a much lower level.  Brasic has not played against Division IA competition before.  He is inexperienced and will be attempting to lead his teammates in a new system while simultaneously trying to find his own way.  That's a tall order for a rookie QB not surrounded by a lot of talent.  Rutgers must force Brasic to execute the Illini offense efficiently in the face of defensive pressure.  And not just a pass rush.  Last year, the Scarlet Knights allowed an average of six plays of at least 20 yards per game.  Rutgers must not give up the big play and allow Illinois to score quickly.  In the 2004 season opener, a more experienced Michigan State backup QB, operating a spread offense, could not drive the field against the Scarlet Knight defense and could not hit enough big plays.  Rutgers must similarly deny big plays to Illinois and force the Illini to patiently negotiate the field with accurate passing, reliable catching, strong running, and no penalties.  Rutgers must not allow more than three gains of at least 20 yards. 
 
3.  Disguised Defenses.  Last year, Rutgers tended to telegraph its defensive schemes and allowed opponents to successfully counter.  New Hampshire operated a no-huddle spread offense similar to that expected of Illinois.  The Wildcats would align over the football and the offensive coordinator, up in the coach's box, would quickly analyze the defense and authorize the play or initiate an audible, which would be relayed to the QB via the sidelines.  Rutgers repeatedly broadcast a six-man blitz (with both OLBs) in long yardage situations.  And New Hampshire repeatedly audibled into a WR middle screen and ripped off big gains into the open middle of the defense.  Schiano is facing a rookie QB.  This calls for less balls and more brains.  Schiano must mix his defenses – alternate between seven- and eight-man fronts, man-to-man and zone defense, press and loose coverage, blitzing and dropping back into coverage.  He also must camouflage his defenses.  Don't tip a blitz; time it.  Advance a safety into an eight-man front during the QB cadence.  Show one defensive scheme and execute another.  Zone blitz. Illinois Offensive Coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher is likely to use a lot of screen passes – bubble screens, WR middle screens, RB screens – to create easy throws for his green QB.  Schiano must mix in a healthy dose of zone blitzes to take the WR screens out of the Illini playbook and force Brasic to throw beyond the line of scrimmage, into coverage.  Schiano must not let Brasic get into an early rhythm of pitch-n-catch with his receivers. 

4.  Ball Control.  A spread offense is most effective when it operates in a rhythm.  A team must have the ball regularly in its possession to establish a rhythm.  Especially with young players at the skill positions.  Since the arrival of Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg two years ago, Rutgers has shown the ability to control the ball when it mixes an effective running game with an efficient passing game. Last year, against Michigan State, Rutgers held the ball for 40 minutes.  The Spartan offense never found a rhythm and struggled to score 14 points.  The Rutgers OLine has been a tremendous concern because three starters departed from a unit that performed poorly last year and the replacements are young and inexperienced.  New OLine Coach Kyle Flood has worked diligently to remold an OLine that was effective in 2003.  Rutgers must be able to run the football against an Illini defense ranked #94 last year (194 yard per game).  If Rutgers can run effectively, that will put the offense into manageable (<5 yards) third down situations where short passes will move the chains.  If Rutgers can convert first downs, the methodical Scarlet Knight offense can control the ball and the clock.  And force a rookie QB to keep pace on each possession, knowing he won't get many of them.  Rutgers must have a +15 edge in offensive plays and a 10-minute advantage in time of possession. 
 
5.  Powder Puff Police.  Under Schiano, Rutgers has played a very passive pass defense. The Scarlet Knights offer generous cushions underneath and allow opposing receivers to run unmolested through the secondary.  As a result, opponents can easily stretch the Rutgers defense and create huge gaps into which passes can be completed.  The pass defense was so soft that Rutgers fans instantaneously puckered every time the bells at Rutgers Stadium announced a third down defensive situation.  Opponents converted 3rd-n-10+ situations with comical ease.  Rutgers must play pass defense more physically.  In man-to-man coverage, Rutgers must mix physical press coverage with looser cushions.  The Scarlet Knights must jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of their routes.  If opposing receivers beat man-to-man coverage with double moves, the CBs must turn back into the receivers and hit them – risking a pass interference penalty – rather than turn away and concede big plays.  In zone coverage, the CBs must sit down in their zones and hit the WRs, forcing them inside, before yielding ground.  The SLB must not give the TE a free release off the line of scrimmage.  And all LBs must hit receivers venturing into their zones.  Such physical play will disrupt the delicate timing of a spread offense designed for quick throws.  It will force a rookie QB to find his secondary receivers and will give the pass rush time to pressure the QB. 


KEY INDIVIDUALS

1.  Sr QB Ryan Hart.  For two years, Hart has been a mainstay on this list for two reasons.  First, a QB is the single most important player on a team that operates the west coast offense.  In order to move the offense, the QB must complete a high percentage of passes (>60%).  And, in order to score, he must minimize his INTs – a TD-to-INT ratio of 2:1 is typically the standard of performance.  Second, Hart has not been an efficient operator.  Although he has completed 59% and 65% of his passes each of the past two years, Hart has thrown 18 INTs each year.  Of those 36 INTs, seven were returned for TDs.  His TD-to-INT ratio has been less than half of what it should be.  As a result, Rutgers has struggled to score despite being able to move the football. 

Reducing Hart's INTs was obviously a big focus during the off-season.  Although Ryan did not throw any INTs during the Spring Game, defenders dropped two INTs.  During summer camp, Hart threw three INTs, including a pick-six, in two scrimmages.  The INTs continued through the final week of summer camp.  If Hart continues turning the ball over, Schiano must try backup QB Mike Teel.  Schiano has been intolerant of TOs from his RBs.  He must enforce similar discipline on his QB.  Hart must not throw more than one INT.  And it cannot be a pick-six.  If he does throw a second INT, Schiano must, at the very least, platoon Teel with Hart.  Hart must complete at least 65% of his passes for at least 250 yards and 3 TDs.  He must hit his deep passes to push the safeties deeper.  And he must find his safety valves rather than forcing throws into tight coverage. 

2.  RS So LT Pedro Sosa.  Pedro played in only five games last year as the backup LT.  He played one snap against Michigan State when starter Ron Green briefly left the game with an injury.  When starting LT RS Sr Sameeh McDonald injured his knee against Syracuse, Green slid over to RT and Sosa replaced Ron at LT.  Two consecutive illegal procedure penalties put Sosa back on the bench.  For the rest of the season, then freshman utility reserve OL Jeremy Zuttah played ahead of Sosa at LT.  As did then RS So backup RT Cameron Stephenson.  With the departure of Green, Sosa earned the starting LT job in spring camp.  As the LT, his primary responsibilities are (1) protecting Hart's blind side on passes, (2) combination blocking the DT and WLB on Power G Right, (3) sealing the backside DE on Inside Zone Right, and (4) combination blocking the DE and SLB on Inside Zone Left.  Sosa, one of the more athletic OL to play at Rutgers in recent years, should not have a problem executing the combination blocks but he must make the correct reads.  Pass protection will be more crucial.  Sosa struggled against the outside speed rush in the Spring Game.  Pedro must commit no more than five blocking miscues (beaten, blown-up, or missed blocks) and two penalties.  And he must not allow more than one sack of Hart. 

3.  Sr WLB Will Gilkison.  I don't understand Schiano's infatuation with Gilkison.  Will reads plays too slowly.  He gets sucked into the line of scrimmage too readily and gets caught in traffic, limiting his pursuit.  He can't fight off blocks and make tackles.  He tackles poorly.  And he blows too many pass coverage assignments.  Yet Gilkison will be in the starting lineup on Saturday.  Only a few years ago, Scarlet Knight fans were touting Rutgers as the next Linebacker U.  But the LB corps performed poorly last year.  And a player written off as a career backup two years ago is starting.  Gilkison exemplifies Schiano's fascination with athletes who aren't necessarily football players.  Gilkison must prove that he deserves the starting job.  He will be backstopping an inexperienced crew at DT.  Gilkison cannot afford to be missing in action.  Will must locate the ball, get to the ball, and stop the ball.  In the zone pass defense, he must play his hook zone more physically.  In man-to-man coverage, he must cover the RB in the flats and on screens.  As the WLB, Gilkison will also have a lot of blitz responsibilities.  Blitzing is Gilkison's strength.  He has made most of the big plays in his career on blitzes, where his speed is an asset.  Gilkison must record at least 8 tackles, 2 TFLs, and a sack.  And he must not yield any big plays as a result of blown assignments or missed tackles. 

4.  So FS Ron Girault.  Ignore the program.  Ignore the TV lineup.  Girault is the SS in name only.  He looks like a FS.  He quacks like a FS.  He is a FS.  When Schiano deploys an eight-man front or moves the other safety (the WS) up to cover a 3WR (or 4WR), Girault will be the deep safety playing centerfield.  That's a FS.  Girault quite possibly is the best player on the Scarlet Knight defense.  He has a nose for the football and is a sure tackler.  Girault missed most of summer camp with a hamstring injury.  He apparently is ready to play.  Ron absolutely must be healthy enough to play.  His immediate backup is true freshman Glen Lee. Girault will be the last line of defense.  He must keep the ball in front of him.  If a RB breaks into the second level, Ron must level the RB.  If a CB or LB misses a tackle in pass coverage, Girault must pick up the slack.  Girault must not let opposing receivers get behind him in the middle of the field on pass routes.  And Ron must inflict punishment on Illini receivers channeled towards him.  Girault must record at least 10 tackles and must force at least one TO – fumble or INT. 

5.  RS Jr P Joe Radigan.  Radigan has a terrific leg but has been terribly inconsistent.  He will follow a 50-yard punt with a 30-yard punt.  And he has a nasty habit of shanking punts from deep in Rutgers territory, giving the opponent a short field.  Joe's punting must be consistent.  The punting game is the final link in the chain that must contain the Illini spread offense.  In those instances when the Illini defense stops the Rutgers offense, Radigan must push Illinois back with his punting. When on Rutgers side of the field, Joe must boom his punts to put more distance between Illinois and the end zone.  When on Illinois' side of the field, Radigan must pin the Illini inside the IL20.  Radigan must average at least 40 yards per punt (barring a lot of punts inside the IL49) and have no more than one touchback. 


Coming Next:  Illinois Game Balls.   A look back at the best performers and best plays in the Illinois game. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net.  I just noticed an error in my email address hyperlink.  I apologize to those of you who have been trying to email me, to no avail.  The link has been fixed.  Drop me a line at my Comcast address.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback, even if I make it hard to do.  And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the spring camp with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.


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