Craig has the Scout - Rutgers 2018
Who: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
When: 11:00 am - October 6th, 2018
Where: HighPoint Stadium, Piscataway, NJ
How: BTN (I feel sorry for the announcing crew on this one)
Side note: This is Rutgers' annual blackout game, so the players will be in all black, but the bleachers will be filled with aluminum.
Head Coach: Chris Ash. Ash took over the Rutgers job after a two-year stint at Ohio State as the defensive coordinator. Ash was considered a high flyer when he took the role and was known as a recruiting guru. Time sometimes exposes things for what they really are. Ash played at Drake, then joined as part of Dan McCarney's Iowa State. He left there to join Brady Hoke in San Diego State, before coming back for a single year to Iowa State. He then joined the Wisconsin staff and was made the DC by Bret Bielema. He followed Bielema to Arkansas for a year before joining Urban Meyer in Columbus. In retrospect, Ash's primary claim to fame was as defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, and that role has changed over plenty of times since with no dropoff. He also has struggled to have any stability on the offensive side of the ball and has allowed apathy to set in. This might be the last preview for Chris Ash.
Offensive Style: Pro Style. What's old is new again in Piscataway. John McNulty is calling plays for the Scarlet Knights, the third man to be Offensive Coordinator in the last three years. Ash hired Drew Mehringer to install the Urban Meyer Power Spread his first year, but Mehringer bailed to join Tom Hermann at Texas. Last season is was Jerry Kill, but Kill was unable (or unwilling) to continue this season. Now, John McNulty is back roaming the sidelines. McNulty was Greg Schiano's play-caller during the height of the Schiano era. So far, he has led the Scarlet Knights to the 122nd best offense in the country and looking at it give me flashbacks to Garrick McGee and 2017.
Defensive Style: Jay Niemann has been with Chris Ash since he came to Piscataway. Niemann comes from the same Alvarez defensive tree as Ash, and was at Northern Illinois as DC before joining the Scarlet Knights. The defense on paper is a base 3-4, but has morphed similar to the Charlie Strong defense where they have 4 up front with frequency against the spread teams.
Specialists: This is a game that might devolve into a special teams affair Rutgers is 5th (S&P+) for special teams, while Illinois is 14th. Rutgers and Illinois both lead the conference in opposition punting. Rutgers advantage is blocking kicks. They have blocked three so far this season.
Three Things to Watch
Artur Sitkowski vs. the Illini pass defense. Sitkowski is a true freshman, and has not had a lot of support as the year has started off. Sitkowski has thrown a Jeff George-esque eight interceptions so far through five games, and is averaging 4.2 yards per pass. The Illini defense has forced 7 interceptions so far this year.
The Illini OL vs the Rutgers DL. Kansas shredded Rutgers at the point of attack. There is no reason the Illini interior (Green, Kramer, and Allegretti) should not be able to generate creases for the Corbin and Epstein to roll through. The secondary is the strength of the defense, the defensive front struggles to stop rushing attacks at the point of attack. Last week they loaded up to stop Indiana, and were shredded in the secondary instead.
The Illini DL vs. the Rutgers OL. Sitkowski struggles to read coverages quickly. The Illini need to generate a rush on Sitkowski, and that means the entire OL needs to up their game for the pass rush.
Scouting Review - Offense
The quarterback situation at Illinois last season was painful. There was the senior who many felt would lead a moribund offense to some next level, and had promising stretches off the bench. There was a gunslinger who turned over the ball too often, but still had the chance to make the offense move. Finally, the true freshman who was a raw talent.
Piscataway has something similar at play this season. Gio Rescigno is the 5th year senior who had moments last season, and many were hoping might help move the mark for Rutgers. The gunslinger and the true freshman are the same in Rutgers' case though, and that turnover machine is Artur Sitkowski. Rutgers has used Gio as the reliever when Sitkowski gets too far out of sorts.
John McNulty is not playing the talent game in Piscataway, so he does what he can to create opportunities for his team to win on plays. This is most evident in the extreme number of formations used by Rutgers. The offense looks like something Joe Gibbs designed, and it is designed to confuse keys and assignments of the defense. Gibbs had a philosophy that if you were always variable on offense, the defense could not key on anything. McNulty has taken this advice liberally.
McNulty will use a bevy of formations, and then utilize a great deal of pre-snap motion to complement it. With a freshman quarterback this can be nausea inducing, but McNulty has been using the motion twofold: first to create an advantage point of attack in the run game; second to force defenses to call out coverages for Sitkowski to generate a read.
Illinois has really struggled defensively in two areas. First, the Illini are being shredded in the run game. Against P5 type talent, they are giving up over 5 yards/carry. Second, the Illini are struggling to get penetration with the front four. Opposing QBs are getting plenty of time in the pocket to dissect the Illini pass defense.
Rutgers is going to motion quite a bit in this game, and they will motion to create run opportunities against select Illini DEs. For this reason, Owen Carney should see more snaps this weekend. Against Western Illinois, the Illini did not bump the front four against motion, and what it did was pin the weak side DE under the TE to his side. Rutgers did it a few times against Ohio State, but not to great success. McNulty likes to work the edges of the defense with Raheem Blackshear (#2). The sweep is first way he will attempt it.
On this play, McNulty chose which DE to run this toward (he chose Bosa), and used the secondary motion as a crack back block. The Ohio State edge did not respond well and Rutgers ran this for some success.
Against Indiana, they ran a similar play, and pinned the weakside DE
The Illini DEs are going to have to hold the edge, and the LBs will need to scrap cleanly. Gay has been susceptible to being beat in the run game this year, so this will be something to watch in personnel matchups.
Another way of utilizing Blackshear on the edge is with a flare pass.
McNulty has shown this in both games I watched, and Blackshear is a really solid back in space. Illinois runs something similar to this with Corbin to similar results. The play will require the Illini safeties to fill he lanes as the OL is releasing as if this is a screen to get to the 2nd and 3rd levels.
Speaking of screens, to keep opponents honest while giving some easy throws to Sitkowski, Rutgers runs a great deal of WR screens. Against Indiana, they ran a dual screen and let Sitkowski choose the side pre-snap based on the defense.
This play is an OC's nightmare, as the call was perfect and the execution was trash.
They ran a similar WR screen against Ohio State. Again, the decision for Sitkowski was made pre-snap, and it was to the motion side.
In both these cases, the defenses played them pretty well. South Florida had some success against Illinois with the WR screen game, and I'm positive McNulty noticed.
McNulty is going to work the interior as well. The Illini have not been exactly stout stopping the run game, and have failed to really create any penetration or disruption. Luckily, Rutgers has really not generated any push off the line, but it will not stop McNulty from taking every opportunity to pound the rock against Illinois. First on the interior will be a pure inside zone.
Once again, the Scarlet Knights motioned away from the strength of the defense and left Bosa exposed. They then ran to the weak side DE. Gay, Shogbonyo, and Carney will all see this run coming their way. Additionally, it gives the center and back side guard an easy double. The motion to Bosa freezes him long enough to prevent him crashing down on the play.
Here is another zone run, but this time without the motion to change the defensive strength.
Here, there is not push at the point of attack and Indiana blows up the play.
Sitkowski struggles to check down through his options, and quite frankly has been assaulted by every opponent so far this season. The result is a lock in on a receiver. To help him, Rutgers runs a set of hitches or crosses to beat linebackers in coverage and give Sitkowski easy passes. Here Rutgers ran a set of crossing routes against Indiana.
Against Ohio State, they ran a set of dig routes and let Sitkowski get the ball out quick.
The Rutgers OL has been abysmal so far this season, and they struggle to keep a clean pocket. Sitkowski has only been sacked 8 times, but he is running a simplified offense to allow him to get the ball out and stay upright. Rutgers really has not got much going in the run game year to date, but also have played against two of the better run defenses in the B1G. At this point, if the Scarlet Knights had not had their doors blown off by Kansas, most of their season is explainable. Kansas though forced them to make plays and forced a bevy of turnovers, something Illinois should also be able to accomplish.
Scouting Review - Defense
Niemann runs a 3-4 as mentioned before. The Wisconsin tree went to the 3-4 years ago, and found that they were struggling to recruit high level DL talent, but were able to recruit hybrid athletes they moved into the DE and LB positions. It inherently led to a very aggressive play calling from the defense, and means Rutgers is a blitz happy defense.
Additionally, it means that the front is consistently outmanned in pure play formations. In order to make up for a severely undersized defensive front, Rutgers will stunt the DL often. The Illinois RPO game will put a great deal of pressure on the play side DE and the safeties to slow down the Illini attack. Rivers (or Bush) will read the DE, and if the DE is not playing the read option cleanly, the Illini will roll up yards in the run game. If the DE is playing it cleanly, but the safety is cheating, Illinois is going to hit the RPO and have quick hitters on slant routes.
The Rutgers base D will look like this.
Rutgers has a relatively experienced secondary, and will use press man and a Cover 2 shell. Illinois will look to utilize the slot in the pass game with flare screens, and in the RPO game with slants.
In obvious run downs, Rutgers likes to move the line. Here is a line stunt they did play side against Ohio State.
In obvious passing downs, the Scarlet Knights are going to blitz and bring pressure in the face of the Illini QBs. Illinois has struggled when there has been pressure up the middle of the OL. As a result, the inside LBs will be more active than usual. Here is that look against Ohio State
Indiana did a nice job of making the LBs of Rutgers move side to side. Illinois has had some success with Corbin doing it this year as well. The Rutgers LBs are pure run stuffers and do not move well side to side
Indiana sprung the RB into the flat here, and Illinois should be able to do the same with Corbin. Epstein in the screen game should be even more devastating.
In passing downs, they will bring the heat. Rutgers blitzes about ? of the time, and will bring any of the LBs. They like to bring the LB and overload a side of the OL. Illinois has struggled in slide protection this year, and it could lead to a few sacks. Illinois has allowed 11 sacks this year, while Rutgers has generated only 6. Whoever wins this battle up front has a clear advantage in the game.
What does it mean?
Finding Rutgers games in the wild is a tough task. I was bewildered in my attempt to find them, and more bewildered after watching them. Rutgers is a team that lacks talent, and when things get tough show a curious lack of effort. Ash appears to have started to lose the team.
Indiana struggled to put away Rutgers early last week, and the Scarlet Knights were in the game until the end. And they did it with less than 300 yards of total offense.
Illinois on the other hand has been the cure for a struggling offense this year. While Rutgers is putting up less than 300 yards per game, the Illini are giving up over 500 yards per game.
Illinois has yet to face an offense as inept as Rutgers (although Kent State was close), and Rutgers has faced a defense this inept once (Texas State). While Illinois may give up more yards than Rutgers is used to, Rutgers lacks to the playmakers to continually string together the 8-9 play drives Illinois will force them into. If the Illini can defend the flats, the Scarlet Knight become limited in a hurry, and the Illini corners have been extremely strong in that regard this year.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois needs to get into a rhythm running the ball early. Against both Kent State and Western Illinois (similar teams to Rutgers), Illinois struggled in the first half getting the offense on track. They cannot afford to let Rutgers stay in this game which means they need to stay out of 3rd and long situations and have WR who get themselves open.
Defensively, the Illini need to defend the perimeter and force Sitkowski to beat them. Sitkowski and the Scarlet Knights are averaging 150 passing yards per game. I don't expect the Rutgers pass game to win this game, so Illinois must stop the Rutgers run game.
For Rutgers to Win:
Primarily, don't beat themselves and make this a man on man game on the perimeter. Illinois has struggled to stop the run this year, and the read option has really burned them. Neither Rutgers QB is very active in the run game, so the Scarlet Knights will need to use jet sweeps and motion to isolate the Illini DEs. Illinois is playing its first true road game of the sesaon though. If Rutgers can establish a run game it will allow them to string together drives and put up points on the Illini. Additionally, they cannot lose the turnover battle. When it went awry against Kansas, it went completely off the rails. They cannot afford that again.
The line opened at Illinois -2. That line is an indictment of the Lovie Smith regime right here. Illinois is the better team, and would win 6 games out of 7 against Rutgers. The inability of Illinois to show consistency had the oddsmakers playing this one close, but money moved the line. Illinois should win by double digits and control this game with the rushing attack. Due to the close to the vest play of Lovie though, this has a better shot of being a one possession game. I'll still take Illinois to cover in this one.
YTD Against the Spread: