Rutgers likes, dislikes: Absent run game, penalties come back to bite in Illini football’s loss to Scarlet Knights

Chase+Brown+carries+the+ball+during+Illinois+20-14+loss+to+Rutgers+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday.+The+Illini+never+got+the+run+game+going+despite+a+solid+performance+from+quarterback+Brandon+Peters.

Cameron Krasucki

Chase Brown carries the ball during Illinois’ 20-14 loss to Rutgers at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The Illini never got the run game going despite a solid performance from quarterback Brandon Peters.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Well, the Illini’s trip to football paradise ended just about as quickly as it started. Last week’s upset win over Penn State was a lot of things — miraculous, exciting and unexpected — but the one thing we learned this week is that it wasn’t sustainable. Illinois might have a football team ripe with bright spots, but at the moment, all they seem to be are just spots. This weekend, that rang true as the Illini were unable to overcome Rutgers in a 20-14 home loss.

I’m back again to talk about what I liked and disliked from the Rutgers matchup, so let’s dive right into it. 

Likes

Brandon Peters, but only in the first half 

Given the score, it’s clear the Illini struggled to put points on the board. In the second quarter, however, the Illini briefly looked like an entirely different football team. On the first play of the second quarter, Peters loaded up and landed the Illini their first first down of the game on a 21-yard pass to Daniel Barker. He even got moving on the ground, rushing for six yards on the next play. 

That drive ended soon after with a punt, but it was a sign of things to come. On the next drive, Peters set up for a deep strike and landed it for the first time this season, connecting with Isaiah Williams for a 52-yard touchdown to put the Illini on the board. That arguably wasn’t even Peters’ best moment of the quarter, as he went on to lead a 80-yard touchdown drive later that quarter that took all four plays in 44 seconds. 

A nice wrinkle Peters has incorporated is using his legs more often. He ended the day with 25 rushing yards, his most of the season. Briefly, it looked like we might have been witnessing the birth of the Peters revenge tour, but the offense stalled in the second half on the back of penalties. It doesn’t erase that Peters played like the type of quarterback the Illini could win with in the second quarter, which means the Illini might have hope of the offense turning into form before season’s end. 

The defense is still solid

Heading into the season, it seemed the special teams might be Illinois’ best unit by a wide margin. The first few weeks suggested that assumption was correct, but then the Illini defense quietly began to transform into an incredibly stout unit. Since game four, Illinois opponents are only averaging 16.8 points per game in regulation, which would place them at second in the Big Ten. 

Having such a strong unit makes losses like the one to Rutgers sting a bit worse. The biggest killer for the Illini has been the time of possession battle, which has often left the defense on the field for long stretches with little help from the offense in creating time to rest. Rutgers won yesterday, having possession of the ball for 35 minutes to Illinois’ 25. In spite of it, Illinois held Rutgers to just 20 points, including a key stand late in the game in which they held Rutgers to a field goal deep in Illinois territory, which kept the Illini in striking distance.

Dislikes

Penalties, penalties, penalties

It’d be easy to look at the second half shutout and blame it all on offensive execution, but that wouldn’t be the full story. While Peters wasn’t as good as he was in the first half, he did go 5/7 for 37 yards. So, if his individual numbers were OK, what was it?

Penalties. Illinois incurred a penalty on each of their first three drives of the half, setting them back big time. The Illini offense simply is not constructed to get large chunk plays all that often, which is what’s required after getting pushed back by a penalty. 

Illinois only had one three-and-out drive in the second half in which it didn’t have any penalties, with its only other drive being an end-of-game situation in which the Illini got it all the way down to the Rutgers 37-yard line before failing to convert on fourth-and-1. If the Illini had been a bit more disciplined and avoided the penalties, the game might have played out quite a bit differently. 

Where did the ground game go?

If there was one statistic that explains the loss best, it’s the disparity between the two teams in rushing offense. Last week, Illinois put up upwards of 300 rushing yards on the vaunted Penn State defense. This week, they had 107. Meanwhile, Rutgers put up a season-high 230 rushing yards. This disparity is what leads to a gap in time of possession, which creates a vicious cycle of the defense spending more time on the field and giving up even more rushing yards. 

In his postgame press conference, head coach Bret Bielema revealed that Josh McCray was banged up heading into the game, which played a factor in him only seeing four carries. That may have played a role in the weakened rushing attack, but Illinois will need to find a way to produce in spite of injuries like that if it wants to win games. 

As odd as it sounds, the quarterback play wasn’t a major issue this week for the first time in a while. Throughout the season, the Illinois has shown the ability to perform in all aspects of the game. When they can get most things working, like they did against Penn State, the Illini can be a dangerous team that can pull off scrappy upsets. Going forward, Bielema and the Illini will have to find a way to string together consistent performances if they want to prove the Penn State win was by virtue of more than just smoke and mirrors. 

 

@WesHollenberg

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