Craig Has The Scout - Rutgers 2017
Ghosts of the Football Game Past
I really enjoyed watching the Iowa game. I know the more negative elements would say that that excitement is not justified, and the game was proof that the Lovie experiment is doomed. Illinois put together a competent game plan in the game, and executed large portions of it.
To be fair, the Iowa team this year is not great. They are adequate. Illinois needs to consistently compete with teams of this level going forward. I believe this game fell at a bad time for the Illini, Illinois will continue to improve as the season continues. If they played Iowa in mid-November, the score would have been much closer as the OL gelled, and the QB situation stabilizes.
Who: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
When: 11:00 am - October 14th, 2017
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: Chris Ash. Rutgers and Ohio State are weirdly connected. Chris Ash was a co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2014 and 2015 after being with Bret Bielema for years. His replacement is Greg Schiano, former Rutgers head coach. Ash parlayed his Ohio State success into the Rutgers head job. Ash took over a program that was on probation, and an athletic department that was a bit insane. He won the first offseason, but the bloom started to come off the rose with actual games. He has 3 wins in two years, and a single victory over an FBS opponent.
While Rutgers ended last season incredibly uncompetitive, they have shown flashes this season of being competitive against power 5 competition. They played both Washington and Nebraska tight.
Offensive Style: Jerry Kill took over as the OC in the off-season. Kill is looking to install the power spread attack he ran at Minnesota. Kill has struggled to find a rhythm, partly because of the influx of grad transfers, partly because the pieces are lacking to run the system. Rutgers is going to play ball control offense and try to grind out yards. They will then spread the field and try to exploit opponents for big plays. The QB is going to be a pass first QB who can run, and the RBs are going to be bowling balls who run between the tackles. The OL needs to prevent penetration and get movement up front for this to work.
Defensive Style: Ash has been a 4-3 over front guy, using a Cover 4 secondary scheme on the backend for most of his career. This season, Rutgers is moving to a 3-4 look on the front, and primarily running Cover 4 on the back end. This has helped with stabilizing the defensive front, and so far this year the rushing defense is better. The secondary has been the strength of the Ash defenses. Ohio State shredded this defense though, and it is now on the staff to keep everyone on the same page.
Specialists: Janarion Grant is one of the most electric returners in the history of college football, with 8 return TDs. He has been sidelined off and on by injuries, and missed the last two games. He should return against Illinois, and the Illini will try and punt away from him as much as possible.
I am calling it now that Illinois is going to return a punt for a touchdown this game. Nebraska and Washington both broke big returns, and the Illini are solid in blocking on the punt return team.
Three Things to Watch
How much trust the OCs have in the QBs. The biggest complaint you can make against Jerry Kill is that his offense is pretty mundane, and refuses to take shots. Kill would argue he doesn't have the pieces, and he wouldn't be wrong. He has kept Bolin on a tight leash, and it has resulted in a quarterback controversy in Piscataway as the fanbase is ready for talented freshman Johnathan Lewis to take over. Jeff George Jr. is known to make some bad throws, but the best way to break down the Scarlet Knight defense is over the top.
Laundry on the field. These are two of the most penalized team in college football. Illinois is 110th in penalty yards per game, and Rutgers is 75th. With the offensive woes of both squads, penalties can be backbreaking on offense and gifts to the opponent on defense.
Pulling Scarlet Knight blockers vs the Illini LBs. When the Rutgers offense really clicks, it runs about 65% of the time. Utilizing the bowling ball running backs, Kill wants to pound the rock on the edge, and will utilize the pulling linemen and tight ends to create a mismatch side to side. The Illinois linebackers need to read and flow cleanly in order to prevent the big games on the edge.
Scouting Review - Offense
The last time Jerry Kill was a coordinator in football, Lovie Smith was a college assistant and in his first year as the DB coach at Tennessee. Lovie had yet to coach in the pros. Kill has maintained his offensive philosophy over the years though, utilizing a run to pass scheme, and hired offensive coordinators to reflect that belief. Matt Limegrover, the current OL coach at Penn State, was his OC for 15 years and his OL coach for two more before that.
What Limegrover and Kill brought to the table was a preference for a Wisconsin style running attack, with spread tendencies laid over the top. The result was a statistically average offense that was unable to break big plays, but was very efficient at moving the ball.
Kill has a style of quarterback he prefers, Mitch Leidner was a perfect example. His current stable consists of last year's starter, Gio Rescigno, grad transfer Kyle Bolin from Louisville, and the talented but erratic freshman Lewis.
Kill believes in his system and philosophy, it served him very well in high level football from Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois to Minnesota. Everyone of those jobs was a complete teardown and rebuild, and Kill is building this for the long haul. Which means the critics are out in New Jersey as they do not have the patience for the Kill rebuild.
The system and philosophy method means the playcalling is frustrating as one watches games, and Kill refuses to call plays to beat a defense. He would rather attempt to impose his will and stay in his comfort zone. The approach has ups and downs. It allows Rutgers to hang tight with teams like Nebraska and have the ability to pull upsets. It also allows a team like Eastern Michigan to pull an upset of the Scarlet Knights. It is actually a benefit to the Illini that Kill coaches based on this philosophy. Rutgers is almost incapable of coming back from deficits.
The philosophy is something that will give the Illini fits though. Kill believes in more of a pro-style running attack and creating mismatches. The Illini defensive front will see a steady action of Powers, Counters, and pulling lead blockers. Then they will see the Scarlet Knights go 4 and 5 wide to spread out the defense.
In that vein, Rutgers will start the game by probing the Illini with a simple zone blocking play off tackle. Here is one of a myriad of formations they would use to run this.
The Illini will force the RB to bounce this wider since the DE will be lined up on the TE. The LB will need to force this inside out, but will need to prevent over-running the play. If they do, the RB will cut back and hit the gap. Here is that play against Nebraska.
As you can see in the clip, the Eastern Michigan LB got lost in the wash and failed to fill the hole. The Illini LBs had that happen a little too often against Iowa.
If the Illini are able to win some one on one battles against this look, the Scarlet Knights will move to plays where they give the offensive line an advantage by down-blocking and pulling blockers to lead. Rutgers loves to use motion as well to add to the numbers advantage on the play side.
Against Eastern Michigan, they motion the fullback and pull the play side guard while running the Power Lead to the short side of the field.
The offensive line is the only part of the offense that is not led by graduate transfers, but is more capable in pass blocking than run blocking. That has not stopped Kill from running the ball 60% of the time this season.
Illinois cannot key on the FB motion to give away the play side. Rutgers will run the counter to keep the LBs honest and prevent safeties from crashing on the play.
Although Kill didn't utilize it much, the success Iowa and Nebraska had with crossing or drag routes means Illinois should see the same. The ability of the Rutgers OL to pass protect (they have allowed only 4 sacks all year, never more than 1 in a game) means Kill might pull this play up more often than he has shown in previous games.
The other way Kill tries to open up the running game is by giving lots of reads to the defense to make. Against Ohio State, Rutgers successfully fooled the Buckeye DL by faking a Jet Sweep and running the same standard off tackle zone blocking play.
While Rutgers had very little offensive success against the Buckeyes, plays like this are used by the Scarlet Knights to create mismatches in favor of the offense.
Iowa was able to flip two TE sets around to create mismatches. I would expect Kill to utilize that same philosophy to allow the offense to pound the Illini youth at DE. Here is the same zone blocking run to the edge Iowa ran after motion.
The Scarlet Knights are not particularly strong in the run game, but they are committed to it. The system and philosophy method by Kill will keep him finding ways to make it work though.
The TE is an integral part of the passing game for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers has seen primarily Cover 2 and Cover 3 schemes so far, but the Illini will be primarily a Cover 1 team against Rutgers. This will take away some of the seams that Rutgers would normally work, but also opens up the sidelines where the Illini have been susceptible all year.
Eastern Michigan came with an all out blitz on this, so Bolin kind of lobbed the ball up on this one. The TE abused the LB off the line, but ran a solid route to free himself from the safety. Jerome Washington (#88) is leading Rutgers in both receptions and yards, and Kill will work to isolate him on the Illini LBs or the deep safety. Pat Nelson is a solid enough coverage safety to negate many of the routes, so the key for Rutgers will be to overload formations to isolate Washington away from Nelson.
Jerry Kill loves to run an offensive philosophy straight out of Madison, but he also likes to dabble in pass happy attacks. Since Nebraska hurt the Illini with slants, on passing formations I expect the Illini defensive backs to take inside leverage and force receivers to the perimeter. Given that, Rutgers should work the out routes Iowa used on Illinois
Rutgers runs an offensive set that has given Illinois fits over Lovie's tenure. Rutgers though is doing it with pieces it pulled off the scrap heap, and many of the parts don't quite fit the scheme. Kill is working hard to implement the offensive scheme he has refined over his career. Luckily for Illinois, while the scheme creates problems, Rutgers may not be able to take full advantage.
Scouting Review - Defense
Rutgers has transitioned this year from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4. Ash has continued to maintain his Cover 4 back end scheme by and large, but has started to mix in a single high safety as well. Against a running formation like I believe Illinois will utilize heavily this week, I would expect to see those two defensive alignments to look like this.
And with the single high safety.
Rutgers will run press shadow coverage with the corners. They will be in press coverage at the line, and then run trailing coverage down the field. If the receivers go inside, the corners will release them to either the safety or LBs.
The advantage of Cover 4 is that it prevents explosive plays. Conversely, it also allows for the offense to create a number advantage.
Ohio State lined up 3 receivers on the wide side of the formation, which means that the Buckeyes know they have single coverage on each receiver to that side.
There are a few ways to go after this defense. The defense is extremely solid against the run and allows for safety support in the run game. The first way to attack it is the play action pass. If the safeties are over reaching on run support, the post routes are available from wideouts. Illinois has attempted to spring Malik Turner on this multiple times this year. Expect Dudek to get some looks on this out of the slot this week.
The advantage Rutgers has is an extremely green Illini OL. In order to sow confusion, expect the Scarlet Knights to move the DL around. Here is a stunt they ran against Nebraska.
While this move did not get to Lee on time, it may create more having on the Illini as they attack the Cover 4.
The other two ways Illinois can attack it is in the quick passing game, and levels concepts. Ohio State consistently attacked the Scarlet Knights with the levels concepts.
The secondary had been the strength of the defense this year. Blessuan Austin, a starting corner, was lost for the season though. It is speculated that free safety Saquan Hampton is also out for this game. The losses will allow the Illini to get favorable matchups with their top playmakers. If ever there was a game to feed the studs, this is it for Illinois.
What does it mean?
The grad transfer game is a tricky one. Rutgers loaded up on them in the offseason (similar to Purdue). When it works, it is great. Adding impact players at positions of need can make a big impact. When it doesn't work though, it looks like the Rutgers offense. Kyle Bolin came in from Louisville, and has had Jeff George Jr. levels of turnovers. Gus Edwards (Miami) joined on at Running Back, but has had moderate success and is not a real improvement over Robert Martin. Damon Mitchell (Arkansas) is a starting wideout, and has not had an impact on the offense. Part of the issue is the new offense, part is the underlying weakness of trying to reboot with grad transfers.
The Rutgers defense on the other hand has shown quite a bit of improvement (which one would expect from a Chris Ash defense). The secondary is strong on the short and intermediate routes, and are good at generating interceptions. Illinois has an opportunity to run the ball on the defense, and if George can connect on the deep opportunities in the play action game, this defense will present the Illini multiple opportunities to score.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois needs to feed the studs. If Dudek, Dorsey and Turner are not prominently featured, McGee is doing it wrong. Rutgers struggles to come back, so Illinois needs to build a lead. The Illini are going to struggle to run the ball against Rutgers, so George needs to be smart with the ball. The Illini defense has a chance to generate turnovers this week which will help the Illini win the field position game. While the Illini D is prone to error, and misdirection plays consistently cause problems, the Rutgers O is having similar issues. Illinois needs to prevent the Scarlet Knights from running ball control ball, they can prevent the young D from wearing out late in the game.
For Rutgers to Win:
The Scarlet Knights need a playmaker. Janarion Grant, has missed the last two games with headaches/concussion like symptoms, and should return for the Illinois game. The Scarlet Knights need Grant to return and play at his normal level. Kyle Bolin (I'm assuming he stays on as starter) will also need to protect the football. The OL needs to be physical and create gaps in the running game. If Rutgers can get an explosive play from Grant, utilize the TE in the passing games on crossing routes and not turn the ball over excessively, the offense did its job. On defense, they need to limit the Illini in the passing game. If both of those phases align, Rutgers wins this game.
2.5 points is essentially the home field advantage. Which might come into play with the wind in Champaign. Lovieball has produced the 21st best differential in starting field position for Illinois this year, while Rutgers is 47th. Both offenses are trash though, ranking 103rd (Illinois) and 110th (Rutgers) in yards gained per drive that they could. So, in a game where generating yards will be difficult, starting field position is the game. I think Illinois will generate some turnovers and get a play from the specialists. Illinois covers this one.
YTD Against the Spread: