CHAMPAIGN — It’s “Must Win Saturday” at Memorial Stadium.
Must win for Illinois. Must win for Rutgers.
When a football program is struggling, there are only a couple games where the opponent is struggling just as much and those games are circled in red and labeled “must win” by coaches, players and fans alike.
Saturday is that kind of game for each team (11 a..m, BTN).
This would appear to be Illinois’ best chance at a Big Ten Conference victory for a number of reasons. For openers, the game is at home. Illinois (2-3 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) appeared to jump-start its offense last week with a new quarterback (Jeff George Jr.) and a revamped offensive line. And Illinois beat Rutgers 24-7 in New Jersey a year ago.
Add to it the fact that Rutgers has lost 16 Big Ten games in a row and Illinois should have its best chance to win since league play began.
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson wants his group to get back to taking the ball away. He has reminded them that they won at Rutgers last season in large part because the Illini defense forced five turnovers.
“When we talk about playing hard, we’re talking about all 11 guys getting to the football,” Nickerson said. “We’re talking about creating takeaways, getting the ball out.
“When we have those opportunities we don’t want just one guy to be on the football at the point of attack. We want all 11 guys ideally to be there ripping and yanking at the football. And we’re seeing more of that.
“We’re seeing more gang tackles. We’re seeing more guys getting their helmet on the ball and getting it out.”
Kyle Bolin, a transfer from Louisville, has started all five games at quarterback for the Scarlet Knights (1-4, 0-2). But that seems likely to change this week with Giovanni Rescigno getting most of the snaps with the No. 1 offense in practice.
While Illinois has used two quarterbacks (Chayce Crouch and George), Rutgers has used three in a rotation orchestrated by new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill, the former head coach at Minnesota, Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois.
Rutgers hopes to get a lift from the return of wideout Janarion Grant, who has missed the last two games due to injury. Grant is a dangerous kick and punt returner and the Scarlet Knights have had a hard time getting the ball into the hands of its wide receivers.
Illinois, meanwhile, may improvise at running back. Freshman Mike Epstein is leading the Illini in rushing yards and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. But he was hurt in last week’s game at Iowa and Illini coach Lovie Smith was vague this week when he said, “we don’t know how long the injury will last.”
If Epstein can’t go, most of the carries will be shared by Ra’Von Bonner and Reggie Corbin and perhaps it will finally mean more action for Kendrick Foster, who led the team in rushing last year but who has become a forgotten man this season.
Illinois gained a season-best 446 yards last week at Iowa. But George threw three interceptions and lost a fumble as Iowa blew open a close game.
Rutgers only victory is a 65-0 romp past Morgan State. The Scarlet Knights are coming off a bye week after falling to Ohio State 56-0.
Illinois goes back on the road next Saturday to take on Minnesota before returning to Memorial Stadium Oct. 28 for its homecoming game against Wisconsin.