Illinois football returns to Memorial Stadium, looks to continue momentum against Rutgers

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Cameron Krasucki

Head football coach Bret Bielema walks onto the football field before the homecoming game against Wisconsin Oct. 9. The team hopes to continue their momentum against Rutgers this Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois football will host Rutgers at Memorial Stadium in its Dad’s Day matchup this Saturday at 11 a.m.. The Scarlet Knights are 3-4 on the season and are on a four-game losing streak heading into the game. 

The Illini find themselves coming off their biggest win so far this season after upsetting No. 7 Penn State 20-18 in nine overtimes. While the win was monumental for the program, head coach Bret Bielema made a point of looking onward and focusing his team on this week’s matchup.

“We put that (Penn State) game to bed a little bit early,” Bielema said. “Yesterday, I wanted to move that behind them for two reasons. First off, a lot of respect for the victory and what they earned, but I also wanted them to put that behind them because there hasn’t been a great amount of success over a period of time. These guys haven’t learned that the expectation is what happened Saturday, not the exception. Like congratulations, you did your job. Now, let’s go forward.”

Last season, Illinois edged by the Scarlet Knights, 23-20, on the road. But with Illinois’ new coaching staff, there’s no guarantee the matchup will play the same. 

Rutgers boasts a balanced offense, with a strong passing attack that averages 205.1 yards per game. The Scarlet Knights are led by quarterback Noah Vedral, who is in his second year as the established starter. So far this season, he’s completed 63.32% of his passes for seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

Vedral is also a dual-threat quarterback and has 66 rushes on the year for 286 yards. Aside from Vedral, Rutgers’ top running back is Isaih Pacheco, who has 358 yards on 95 attempts this season. In total, the Scarlet Knights average 130.6 rushing yards per game.

For the Illini, the biggest storyline heading into the matchup is undoubtedly the quarterback situation. After spending much of the season switching between Artur Sitkowski and Brandon Peters at quarterback, the Illini will have to go with Peters alone moving forward after Sitkowski broke his arm in overtime against Penn State. 

Unfortunately, this eliminates the ability for Sitkowski to face off with Rutgers, the team he used to play for. Sitkowski had started for the Scarlet Knights in 2018 but had a rough season and was benched for the next two years prior to transferring.

“This game means a lot to (Sitkowski),” Bielema said. “Because of who he is and what he represents, the outside world is going to think, ‘Oh, I feel bad for Art Sitkowski because he doesn’t get to play against Rutgers.’ If we were playing reversed order and if we were playing Minnesota this week and Rutgers next week, he would be equally devastated to not play against Minnesota. Rutgers has nothing to do with it. He enjoys the spirit of the game. He enjoys the spirit and intensity of what it means to play the game, and that’s what makes him special.”

The Illini will march on with Peters at the helm, but the question of who falls behind him will remain prevalent. In his weekly press conference, Bielema listed off a handful of players that could play quarterback on the roster, but the team may be lacking a clear number two option going forward. 

Fortunately, Rutgers has one of the weaker run defenses in the Big Ten, allowing 149 rushing yards per game. Bielema expects star running back Chase Brown to be healthy for the weekend despite getting hurt against Penn State. 

Last week, Illinois had 357 rushing yards against Penn State with split carries between Brown and Josh McCray. If they can put up a remotely similar performance, the Illini will be in a good position. Regardless, Illinois will have its hands full come Saturday with a hungry opponent ready to end an extended losing streak on the other side of the field.

 

@WesHollenberg

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