SOC - Rutgers 2020
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I'll be at the game tomorrow. Staying in Pennsylvania tonight, then the game tomorrow, then back here tomorrow night, then back to Champaign on Sunday. Had a lot of time to think on the drive today and I have to say - I feel pretty good about this game.
Calm down. Take a deep breath. Let's talk this out.
First off, we'll get The Roommates back tomorrow. Brandon Peters' roommates and Griffin Moore's roommates. They all had to miss the last two games due to contact tracing. Peters and Moore are still out - the Big Ten's rule about myocarditis screening means that anyone testing positive is out for 21 days - but contact tracing is only 14 days. So that meant The Roommates could return to practice Wednesday.
That means we get QB Isaiah Williams, LB Shammond Cooper, DE Keith Randolph, C Doug Kramer, and K James McCourt back for this game. That's a positive. If nothing else, tomorrow is the "OK Isaiah Williams, let's see what you can do" game.
But I also feel fairly good about this game just based on Rutgers' season. It just feels like they have an "oh, right, this is going to be difficult" moment coming. They did win their first game over Michigan State, but Michigan State turned the ball over seven times. They then lost to Indiana and Ohio State (but they looked pretty good in the second half against Ohio State). They're certainly improved, and they're seeing a transfer bounce like we saw a transfer bounce last season. Still... feels like they're going to have some yakkity sax moments. And since they haven't had that game yet, it might be tomorrow, right?
Let's just look at some stats. These come from TeamRankings.com, and they do all of their stats on a per game basis. Rutgers first, then Illinois, then we'll talk about it.
Here's what jumps out at me:
- Yards per play, obviously. Rutgers: 4.0 YPP, 120th out of the 123 teams playing football this fall. That includes 4.6 yards per pass, which is 122nd (only Utah State is worse through three games). So the thing we really, really struggle to stop (opponents getting chunk yards in the passing game), Rutgers struggles to do.
- Sticking with yards per play, the rushing numbers are interesting as well. Rutgers defense: a surprising 3.5 yards per play allowed (29th nationally and that includes two top-10 opponents). Illinois offense: maybe an equally surprising 4.7 yards per rush (45th nationally and that includes Wisconsin's defense plus two games with a fourth-string QB). So we can run the ball a little better than we think and Rutgers can stuff the run a little better than we think. Interesting matchup there.
- Neither team can stop passing attacks. In fact, if you look at opponent's completion percentage, Rutgers is #121 nationally, only ahead of Nebraska and... Illinois. Brandon Peters would be licking his chops - can Isaiah Williams do the same? And you know the Rutgers QB won't sleep tonight as he dreams of a 350-yard passing day.
- Another "something's gotta give": Rutgers only converts 34.8% of their third downs. Illinois gives up conversions on 60% of all third downs (!!!). Maybe Illinois helps Rutgers' numbers improve in that category, and maybe Rutgers helps Illinois' numbers improve.
- Rutgers somehow gives up more passing yards than Illinois this year. So just think of our opponents throwing the ball all over us the last three weeks - Rutgers is somehow worse.
I get the emotional side of everything here - believe me, I do. We suck, the players have obviously quit, season is over - all of that. Maybe I should just stick to that when making these predictions and play it safe.
And I get how any "I think Illinois wins" will be treated when it's me. You'll think it's just the hope shining through once again, refusing to face reality. Beileve me, my brain goes into "you idiot, just play it safe and protect yourself from criticism" overdrive at times like this.
But there's just so much here that hits my trip wires - Rutgers has recovered 85.7% of their opponents fumbles so far this season, a number that will always work its way back towards 50% - that I can't help but think there are some corrections coming to "you know, Rutgers isn't half bad". Like, if they were playing Kansas this weekend, and Twitter was alive with "I just bet on Rutgers as a 19 point favorite what is life", I'd still be saying things like this even though Kansas was the opponent. This is based very little on our potential and very much on "Rutgers is going to lose a game 52-6 soon because these per-play stats (and the takeaway stats) aren't sustainable". Instead of Michigan State turning the ball over seven times, leaving Rutgers +4 in turnover margin, there will be a game where their opponent turns the ball over zero times, leaving Rutgers -3 in turnover margin.
I've written four of these. I said that Wisconsin would cover (they did), that Purdue would cover (the line was 7, so that was a push), and that Minnesota would cover big (and they did). This week, I'm saying that Illinois will cover. In fact, I think Illinois will win.
Illinois 30, Rutgers 20