CHAMPAGNE – A week after outliving Penn State on the road with an NCAA record nine overtime, Illinois has the opportunity to show the program is finally taking shape under the guidance of freshman coach Bret Bielema.
This week, it’s Rutgers (3-4, 0-4 Big Ten), who is visiting Bielema’s supercharged team on Saturday.
“Really excited about the opportunity this week,” said Bielema. “I think the best thing we can do is keep taking this program and pushing it forward.”
Bielema understands that Illinois (3-5, 2-3) can’t rest on their achievements against Penn State, who was then ranked No.7.
“We got the game to bed very quickly (Sunday) night,” Bielema said. “And we moved on to our Rutgers prep, a team that is obviously 3-4 and won their first three games and faced a pretty intimidating Big Ten schedule and played very, very well against them.”
Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano sees an opportunity to reset his team’s season against Illinois.
“We are now entering our eighth week and we still have the chance to write the history of the 2021 season,” he said. “But the arrow of this program is up. We will continue to move forward. But we need our fans to stay with us. I guarantee you our players will continue to work hard, our coaches will. It will turn.
The Illini will be without quarterback Art Sitkowski, who left the Penn State game with an arm injury. Medical tests confirmed he was broken and he is out for the remainder of the season following Wednesday’s surgery.
Sitkowski transferred from Rutgers to Illinois this offseason. He was 74 of 148 passes for 698 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in five games this year.
Brandon Peters, who lost the starting position earlier this season to Sitkowski, is the likely start against Rutgers with Matt Robinson as a backup.
Peters has 40 of 82 (48.8%) passes for 410 yards, one touchdown and one interception. During his career with Michigan (two seasons) and Illinois (three seasons), Peters totaled 3,403 yards, 26 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and an overall completion percentage of 52.8 percent.
Running back Chase Brown, who left with an injury in the Penn State game, is expected to be cleared for the game against Rutgers with offensive tackle Vederian Lowe.
Rutgers senior wide receiver Bo Melton returned to the lineup after being sidelined with a shoulder injury and tied his career high with eight catches for 101 yards and one touchdown against Northwestern two weeks ago. .
Last year, he had a career-high 150 yards with 29 touchdowns and 66 yards in a loss to the Illini. Running back Isaih Pacheco rushed for 133 rushing yards in the game. It was the third time Rutgers had a rusher and a 100-yard receiver in the same Big Ten game (2014 and 2015, both against Indiana).
Quarterback Noah Vedral, who leads the Rutgers offense with 1,274 passing yards and 194 rushing yards, will pitch at Melton.
The guy to watch in defense for the Scarlet Knights is Olakunle Fatukasi. It wears the number 3, hence its nickname, “O3”.
Fatukasi averages 10.1 tackles per game and is ranked seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten. He had a high 13 tackles in the 21-7 loss to Northwestern. He needs 16 tackles to become the 12th player in school history with 300 career tackles.
Illinois managed to rack up 357 rushing yards on a strong Penn State defense. If Illinois can get Brown involved early and often – he ran for 257 yards against Charlotte and 223 against the Nittany Lions – it’ll be a good step to beat Rutgers.