Illini get chance to end 3-game skid with Rutgers in town

FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2017, file photo, Illinois running back Mike Epstein (26) runs the ball during an NCAA college football game against Ball State at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. The Illinois offense is ranked last in the Big Ten, but not because of the run game. Illinois piled up 200 rushing yards in a loss at Iowa last weekend, using primarily three running backs to do it. The Illini are hoping to ride the run to a win at home against Rutgers this Saturday.
(AP Photo/Bradley Leeb, File)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Something has to give when Illinois and Rutgers square off in a game matching two of the worst teams in the Big Ten.

Both are looking for their first conference victory after dropping their first two. The Illini have lost three straight overall, and Rutgers has lost two in a row, including a 56-0 rout by Ohio State before last weekend’s bye.

Despite the lopsided defeat, Illinois coach Lovie Smith says his team (2-3) shouldn’t underestimate the Scarlet Knights (1-4) and their new offensive coordinator on Saturday.

”I’ve known Jerry Kill for a long time,” Smith said. ”I know he’s added something to their offense.”

Kill’s offense has been led by senior Kyle Bolin, although coach Chris Ash said that he may start a different quarterback against Illinois. Bolin spent four years at Louisville before becoming the starter for the Scarlet Knights. So far this season, he has three two-interception games and just three passing touchdowns. He has yet to record a 200-yard passing game at Rutgers and the team is averaging just 149.2 passing yard, second-worst in the Big Ten.

Illinois has its own problems at quarterback. Smith started Chayce Crouch through the team’s first four games, but switched to Jeff George Jr. after a lack of passing production. In his first start of the year against Iowa, George had career highs with 22 completions and 247 yards, but he also threw three interceptions in the 45-16 loss.

Over the past two seasons, George has thrown 10 interceptions and just five touchdowns. He knows he will need to be better to pick up a win.

”As a quarterback you can play 72 great snaps,” George said. ”And then you have three or four bad plays that are game shifters.”

Still, George praised his offensive line after he was sacked just once by the Hawkeyes. Illinois also rushed for a season-high 200 yards against Iowa, its highest total since the Rutgers game last season.

However, Rutgers’s run defense has been a lot more formidable through five games than it was last season. The Scarlet Knights are allowing 150 rushing yards per game as opposed to 264.2 last year. If Rutgers can keep Illinois’ rushing attack in check, it could help Ash and his squad snap a 15-game losing streak in the Big Ten.

”Coming out of the bye week, I feel like we’re in pretty good shape mentally and physically right now other than a couple spots,” Ash said.

INJURED ILLINI

Defensive back Tony Adams (shoulder) and running back Mike Epstein (leg) were both injured against Iowa and their availability against Rutgers is uncertain. Adams has started in every game this season and Epstein leads the team with three rushing touchdowns and 346 rushing yards.

OFFENSE TO DEFENSE

In the past two weeks, Ash has moved two of his wide receivers over to the defensive side of the ball. Rashad Blunt and Jawuan Harris will play at defensive back against Illinois. Ash believes both players’ athletic ability can add depth to his secondary.

NEW COORDINATOR

Kill, a former head coach at Minnesota, is in his first year as the offensive coordinator at Rutgers. He is trying to turn around an offense that was ranked last in the Big Ten last year at just 283.2 yards per game.

TAILBACK DUO

Rutgers has two running backs this season that have already eclipsed 200 yards, and they could cause problems for the Illini’s young defense. Gus Edwards leads the team with 302 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Robert Martin has 209 yards and a TD, and last week he became the 14th player in program history to amass 2,000 rushing yards.

ALTERED ROLES

Running back Dre Brown made his college debut against Iowa, but it was not in the backfield. Since Illinois already has a few running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, Brown was featured on special teams and will most likely remain in that role against Rutgers. Former QB Crouch caught one pass for seven yards against Iowa and Smith is likely to use him in different ways as the season goes on.

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