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Rutgers welcomes Illinois for its annual blackout game

Last year, almost to the day, the Rutgers football team waltzed into Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. and captured its first Big Ten win of the season against Illinois. Tomorrow, the Scarlet Knights (1-4, 0-2) hope they can do the same thing, this time on their home field.

Going into the season, especially after last year’s win on the road, this was one of those games already pegged to go into the win column. Now, not so much.

Rutgers is going to need a complete effort on both sides of the ball if it wants to keep its season afloat for another week and not get voted off the island like an episode of "Survivor," never to be seen again.

“We’re on a streak that we’ve gotta get stopped,” said head coach Chris Ash. “(We’ve) lost four in a row and (we’re) disappointed in it. In the last few weeks it’s gone from disappointment to frustration to … a little bit of disbelief.”

Last week, the main culprits of the loss were the inefficiencies or simply deficiencies of both the offensive and defensive lines. 

The O-line let true freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski take a beating — they practically grabbed ahold of his arms themselves — while the defense let Indiana complete 11 of its 18 third down attempts.

“We want this to be a line of scrimmage football team where we play well on the offensive and defensive lines so we can run the ball, stop the run, protect the quarterback and get after the quarterback,” Ash said. “... None of us here in the program are happy with where we’re at on either side of the ball up front.”

Despite the pressure, hurries and sacks, Sitkowski played well — well better than he had in the past three games. He finished the game going 18-35 for 159 yards with 1 touchdown and an interception. But, perhaps the most important thing was that he finished the game.

The Knights’ wide receivers also finally showed up to a game last Saturday with freshman wide receiver Shameen Jones leading the pack. Jones hauled in three catches for 34 yards and a touchdown — the only touchdown in the air on the day and the first caught by a wide receiver this season.

“I think we’ve really tried hard to identify other guys that can make plays for us. I think you saw that Saturday by some of the receivers that have gotten touches,” Ash said.

Although, Ash isn’t ready to jump the gun on just one game. He needs to see production out of his receivers consistently both in practice and in games to be call it a breakthrough. 

As for the Fighting Illini (2-2, 0-1), who are coming off a bye week, they have had two full weeks to prepare for this matchup, and don’t think they’ve forgotten about what happened last year.

“We got Illinois coming to town and they’re a much improved football team,” Ash said. “They’re coming off a bye week so there’s a lot of unknowns about a football team coming off a bye week but Lovie Smith has done a great job.”

At quarterback, M.J. Rivers II has had most of the reps so far this season throwing for 422 yards with 3 touchdowns. 

But Illinois’ offense goes through its two-headed monster at the running back position in Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein. Combined Corbin and Epstein have rushed for 651 yards and 6 touchdowns. 

“They’re a running offense. They want to run the ball, they’re not a team that’s gonna try and beat you throwing the ball. They throw when they have to. A lot of it's play actions and RPOs and stuff but they’re a running team and we gotta stop the run,” Ash said.

In fact, the Illini’s offense bears a striking resemblance to Rutgers’, with running backs sophomore Raheem Blackshear and graduate student Jonathan Hilliman running the show. Combined, that duo has rushed for 527 yards with 6 touchdowns, as well. 

The key for the Knights will be to be as creative as possible to try and catch Illinois by surprise and to pick their spots like they did last week against the Hoosiers when freshman running back Isaih Pacheco threw a 39-yard pass to senior tight end Jerome Washington that led to a touchdown.

“I think you’ll continue to see different guys in there in different spots,” said offensive coordinator John McNulty.

On Saturday, Rutgers will also showcase its alternate black uniforms for the annual blackout game that will puzzlingly be played at noon — a scheduling blunder perhaps.

Whatever uniforms they wear, the Knights will need to not beat themselves, something Ash has preached all season, yet somehow always rears its ugly head.

“For us, the margin of error is very, very small and your success or failures lie in the details of what you do,” Ash said.

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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