Pundits put down the option play as some kind of anvil tied to a fan’s pleasure-meter. But most college football teams now run some type of Read-Option or Speed Option as part of their bread and butter. RPOs and outside run-and-catch gambits distribute the ball to be carried in space, expanding the scope of what an improvisational team can do with the rock. Whatever else you want to say about it, the Spread-O leads to a lot less blow-outs.
Deceptive 11-on-11 running games allow underdogs lacking in efficient downfield passers to move the sticks and mount some kind of challenge vs a heavy favorite. In the old days of circa 1987, a Purdue or an Illinois would run a meek variety of NFL offense vs Notre Dame, and passes would fall incomplete while runs off-tackle went nowhere for 4 quarters. That’s what was really boring to watch.
Illinois and Rutgers have each used run-heavy playbooks in 2019 trying to keep up with the best of the Big Ten. But it’s been a far, far more successful run for this Saturday’s host Illini than for the visiting Scarlet Knights, who eked-by Liberty in a shoot-out last weekend for only their 2nd win of the season.
Lovie Smith’s surprising 4-4 squad is a 3-score favorite to beat Rutgers in Champaign.
Who: Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Illinois Fighting Illini
When: Saturday. November 2nd, 3:30 PM EST
Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
Lines: Rutgers (+21) at IL (-21) / O/U Total: (48.5)
Rutgers played reasonably well in the 44-34 defeat of Liberty. Sizable QB Johnny Langan has received high praise for a smart, tenacious performance in which his combined running and passing yards accounted for close to 70% of the Scarlet Knights’ overall yardage production.
But there’s no getting around the fact that Rutgers has lost badly in every single game vs Big Ten competition. The team’s lone decent showing against the Power-5 came late in summer in a 2-TD loss to Boston College. Since then the Scarlet Knights have amassed 5 games against Big Ten foes…and scored exactly 2 touchdowns the entire time. Langan has been taking snaps since the Maryland game (a 48-7 loss) and his offense hasn’t looked competitive against any respectable conference foe in 5 straight tries.
The question of whether Illinois is a “respectable” Power-5 opponent should have been answered in the past couple of weeks. As if to prove that the victory over Wisconsin was no fluke, an Illini defense which had sleep-walked through games against several league rivals visited Purdue and held the Boilermakers to almost zilch in a 24-6 snoozer.
There are only 2 factors keeping Illinois from giving even more points to Rutgers in Champaign, and 1 of those is the injury bug:
The big one to start the year was Marquez Beason. Illinois’ pass defense has been better as of late, but could you just imagine how good the pass defense would be with Beason? This kid was wanted by everyone in the country. He would give Lovie more flexibility with the secondary. Illinois isn’t playing with a full backfield either. We saw Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown and Ra’Von Bonner run wild against Purdue. But let’s not forget, arguably, are second-best running back Mike Epstein is out for the season with an injury. We could have a four-headed monster running the ball instead of three. The Illini were a little short-handed against Purdue on the defensive line. A player we could have used this season is Bobby Roundtree. He suffered a tragic accident before the season started that keeps him in the hospital today.
(We) haven’t even mentioned the recent injuries or injuries that have plagued single games. Trevon Sidney is out for the season with an injury. Isaiah Williams, Delano Ware and Wole Betiku all missed the last game.
The other factor (which I’ve seen less handicappers blogging about) is that Lovie Smith has to be battling nerves. Here he was on the hot seat for years, now coaching a team which has seized the “ON” button and is a short-order contender in the Big Ten. And voila – here’s a game at home that you’re supposed to win and will be mocked and derided if you don’t. Illinois is having a great rebound, but is still on the precipice of national ignominy.
Smith knows how desperately Champaign wants, needs a 5-4 record. With the weak Northwestern Wildcats on the docket for late November, the Rutgers game is a crucial stepping stone to what would surely be a bowl-bid as at least a 6-win Power-5 season.
That could make the ex-NFL coach extremely cautious in his game-management tactics on Saturday.
Rutgers is like that High School team which loses to everyone in its conference by 37 points each, then hosts Smallville on Homecoming and wins 53-6. The quarterback, who dashed for several TDs in the game, is praised as “leading a turnaround” for the offense. Except the mirage is merely a quirk in the team’s schedule, and the following week newspapers phone-in more stories about how the offense “regresses” vs Metropolis Prep.
Liberty and UMass are not quality wins, giving Rutgers a goose-egg season as far as handicapping is concerned. Langan will fail often in a noisy stadium filled with giddy believers.
Illinois, meanwhile, is likely to ground-and-pound and spend every moment of play-clock while leading Rutgers. Lovie Smith will punt on 4th-down-and-millimeters at midfield and win by a pair of safeties if he has to.
Scarlet Knights could cross the < 21-point loss boundary with a garbage-time TD once Illinois is content to run the clock out. That much is unpredictable, but I’m taking the Under (48.5) with a much-higher % chance to pay off.