Rutgers goes winless in 3-week homestand after suffering 38-17 loss to Illinois
The ship is sinking fast for the Rutgers football team and its running out of things to throw overboard.
A week after the Scarlet Knights (1-5, 0-3) were an offsides penalty away from a potential fourth quarter comeback against Indiana, they came into this week feeling good about themselves and their test against Illinois — a team, like Rutgers, that has struggled and who the Knights beat last year on the road.
This year, the Fighting Illini (3-2, 1-1) returned the favor with a decisive 38-17 win over the home team.
“Heartbroken to be honest. That’s all I can really say about it. Heartbroken,” said graduate student running back Jonathan Hilliman.
Although mired in a five-game losing streak, this one felt a little more demoralizing than the rest for Rutgers, if just because after last week’s fourth quarter, the Knights finally began showing signs of life both offensively and defensively.
Things started well on offense for the Knights who took a 7-3 lead on a 32-yard touchdown run from Hilliman in the middle of the first quarter.
Even true freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski looked good early on, despite throwing an interception on his first throw of the day and the first play of the drive. After that, he settled down for the most part and went 29-46 and threw for 267 yards with 1 touchdown. Although, he did add two more interceptions later in the game for a total of three on the day and 11 in his early career.
“I felt like we had a lot of momentum coming in from Indiana going into Illinois. Anytime you start the gate throwing two interceptions, you don’t give your team a good chance to win,” Sitkowski said.
Despite the interceptions, the biggest problem of the day was the defense.
A week after holding the Hoosiers scoreless in the second half, the defense reverted back to its old ways and let up 38 points, including 24 in the first half.
“Depth is a concern on defense. One of the things I do know that cures a lot of problems is competition, and we're missing a lot of defensive scholarship players and that's not an excuse, but that's reality,” said head coach Chris Ash.
Illinois did most of its damage on the ground as Rutgers' defensive line had no solution for running backs Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein and quarterback AJ Bush Jr. who rushed for a combined 316 yards and 4 touchdowns, including Corbin’s 73-yard run that iced the game.
On the other hand, Rutgers’ top two running backs Hilliman and sophomore Raheem Blackshear only combined for 110 yards and Hilliman's touchdown.
“Just keep fighting,” Hilliman said. “Unfortunately I’ve been in this situation before, just gotta keep fighting, all you can really do. Negativity at this point, it’s not really beneficial, just gotta keep fighting. I know it’s not what people want to hear, I don’t really like to hear myself say it but that’s the truth.”
But the Knights had opportunities to get back in the game. On two occasions late in the fourth quarter Rutgers had a 1st and goal opportunity. On both tries Rutgers threw the ball on every play, resulting in a field goal and an interception.
“If you look at how we were running the ball, we weren't running the ball very good. Simple as that,” Ash said when asked about his thought process on both series.
Despite the modest numbers on the day from the backfield, Hilliman leads the team with 5 touchdowns and has proven to be able to get a short yard gain when needed. In fact, most of his touchdowns this year have been short runs that were set up by either Blackshear or Sitkowski.
In short, he’s the guy the Knights would want in those situations.
“It’s not my place to answer that,” Hilliman said when asked if he was surprised by the call not to run the ball.
In spite of his three interceptions, Sitkowski did a good job spreading the ball around, even connecting on 11 straight pass attempts at one point.
Six players had three or more catches including sophomore tight end Travis Vokolek who finished with five catches for 47 yards and a touchdown — the first of his career.
“With (senior tight end) Jerome (Washington) being down, I saw an opportunity out there so I tried to go out there and make some plays and help this team win,” Vokolek said.
After going 0-3 on its homestand, Rutgers will go back to the drawing board before it hits the road next week to play Maryland.
“I mean, no one likes the feeling of losing,” said fifth year senior defensive lineman Kevin Wilkins. “It’s hard, but we gotta go back to work and correct the mistakes that we’re making week in and week out. We have no one to blame but ourselves.”
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