Illinois vs Rutgers: Big Ten matchup of rebuilding teams
By Matt Sugam
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Coaches Lovie Smith of Illinois and Chris Ash of Rutgers are in the third year of trying to rebuild programs. Both sense an opportunity.
“Two teams that feel like they have to have this game. That’s what we’re concentrating on as much as anything,” Smith said. “And all of our thoughts are going in to Rutgers. This is as big of a game as we’ve had in a long time as we see it.”
Smith is 7-21 at Illinois, including 2-2 this season with a 0-1 record in the Big Ten. The former NFL coach could match his season high of wins from a 3-9 campaign in 2016.
Ash is 7-22 but this has been a down year after a 4-8 mark last season. Rutgers (1-4, 0-2) was blown out three weeks in a row before losing 24-17 to Indiana last weekend. The toughest part of the schedule is still ahead with four games against Top 25 teams.
“For us, the margin for error is very, very small, and your success or failures lie in the details of what you do and in everything you do,” Ash said. “Those details matter in your ability to be successful and win games or not being successful, and we’ve got to clean up the details.”
Ash said the Scarlet Knights have practiced well, but some of the things that happen on game day have let him in disbelief.
For both teams, a win could restore some belief.
“Right now, the one thing that can help our program is to get a win against a Big Ten opponent this week,” Smith said. “That’s the best thing we can do right now to help our program.”
Both teams are playing a lot of underclassman.
Rutgers has 28 freshman and sophomores (16 on offense, 12 on defense) on the two-deep depth chart. Illinois is one of the youngest teams in the country with eight seniors and 16 juniors.
Illinois’ offense has improved. It has moved up at least 50 spots in the national rankings from last season in rushing offense, turnovers lost, first downs, total offense and scrimmage plays of 10-plus yards. Junior running back Reggie Corbin has gained 327 yards and scored four touchdowns, while sophomore Mike Epstein has run for 324 yards and two more TDs. The Illini are averaging almost 138 yards more in rushing than last season.
HIT THE ROAD
The Illini come off a bye and are playing their first road game this season. The Scarlet Knights are ending a three-game homestand.
Rutgers’ offensive line has struggled, notably its pass protection. Freshman Art Sitkowski took a lot of big hits last weekend against Indiana.
“Offensive line is not playing where I want it to play. I mean, it’s simple as that,” Ash said. “They know it, I know it. We all know it. …. We’re having too many mental errors in protection.”
THROWING THROUGH A FOREST
Along with his pass protection, Sitkowski will have to worry about throwing through the line of scrimmage. The Illini defensive line has batted 10 balls. Sophomore end Bobby Roundtree is tied for the FBS lead in pass breakups by a defensive lineman with five.