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ILLINUTGERS VIII: Wake Up, Big Ten. Wake Up, College Football. It’s Illinutgers Week.

The only game that ever matters is almost upon us.

Stephen Braun

I can’t believe it’s Tuesday of Illinutgers Week and the ever-expanding miasma of College Football Internet still has no Illinutgers Week content. Could it be that people just don’t understand what’s on the line every time the Illinois Fighting Illini face off against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights?

Time to fix that. People are really spending their time talking about other college football games like they don’t know Ohm’s Law.

Can you think of anything more electric than the High Voltage Rivalry on Halloween weekend? Greg Schiano’s resurgent ‘Gers are favored by a point and a half on the road, but Bret Bielema’s boys have done some resurging of their own lately with a road win at #7 Penn State. Two head coaches who have spent time in the NFL will battle it out on what should be a misty late October Saturday in Champaign with swirling winds gusting up to 20mph.

Are you not entertained?

A Tough Act To Follow

I’m sure I don’t need to remind everyone of Illinutgers history, but football Illinutgers games 1-5 are chronicled below.

Illinutgers VI proved to be a ho-hum affair as Rutgers’ early firing of Chris Ash denied the world a fourth Smith-Ash matchup and Lovie’s Illini got out to an early lead they never relinquished to push their record to an unthinkable 5-4.

Illinutgers VII, on the other hand, was a masterpiece.

Bo Melton set the tone early with a touchdown from Noah Vedral en route to a 10-0 Rutgers lead before Isaiah Williams, playing quarterback for the Illini, responded with a touchdown run. After each team traded field goals, Melton found the end zone again on a 66-yarder to open up another 10 point lead that was quickly cut to 7 by Mike Epstein’s touchdown run. A James McCourt field goal early in the fourth quarter set up an offensive duel resulting in no points until his game-winner as time expired.

Melton totaled 150 receiving yards, while Williams would pass for 100 and rush for 192. The wildly divergent offensive styles showed in the stats, as Rutgers got most of their 422 total yards by passing and Illinois got 338 of their 442 total yards on the ground. The game featured three 100-yard rushers, with Isaiah Pacheco contributing 133 for the ‘Gers and Chase Brown joining Williams with over 100 for the Illini.

Look at this fourth quarter. If you thought Penn State at Illinois was exciting, this game was made for you.

Virtually every major contributor from that game is back.

Illinutgers Runs Deep

It’s more than just how competitive the rivalry is and how important it is to fans.

Let’s be clear about how important it is to fans, though: this is the one conference game that every Illinois and Rutgers fan circles on their calendars every year, adding a note that says “well okay even if we’re really bad we should be able to at least win THAT game, right?”

No, Illinutgers runs deeper than that. The most obvious example is right there in the header picture: Illinois quarterback Artur Sitkowski, formerly known as Chris Ash’s prize recruit at Rutgers.

Tragically, Sitkowski will be unable to suit up on Saturday after suffering a broken arm at Penn State. His teams are 0-3 in Illinutgers. Can he experience a win in this legendary rivalry?

Everyone knows P.J. Fleck was on Greg Schiano’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff (as was Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley), but did you know that Bob Ligashesky was the special teams coach for Schiano’s 2012 Buccaneers?

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the Fighting Illini special teams coordinator. It was he who trained James McCourt to assassinate his former boss Schiano with a game-winning dagger last year.

Schiano also employed Ben McDaniels as an offensive assistant in Tampa. His brother Josh McDaniels coached with Bret Bielema in New England from 2018 to 2019.

Of course, Schiano would get his first NFL gig as a defensive assistant for Dave Wannstedt’s Chicago Bears back in the 90’s before taking the helm at Rutgers and starting eventual Illinois OC Ryan Cubit at quarterback in a 38-17 loss to an FCS school.

Illinutgers runs deep.

Changing Fortunes and One Last Hurrah

The thing is, after 2021 neither Illinois nor Rutgers fans will look at their schedule and see ILLINUTGERS as the only Big Ten game they should be expected to win.

There’s two reasons for that.

One is that new coaches at each school have provided some hope that things can change. Greg Schiano led Rutgers to a dramatic improvement in his first season, actually competing in Big Ten games against teams that weren’t Illinois. He has yet to win a conference game this year, but the team is substantially more competitive than it’s been since at least 2015 and his recruiting is poised to elevate the talent level significantly in the coming years.

Meanwhile, Bret Bielema appears to actually have a coaching staff that knows how to gameplan. DC Ryan Walters had proven himself throughout this season, but OC Tony Petersen just had the best-schemed game I’ve seen at Illinois in many years and as a whole the Illini program is poised to get a huge boost from such a high profile victory in Bielema’s first year. That game alone was so foundational to what Bielema wants to do at Illinois that I believe he’ll have success recruiting from that recognition alone. What offensive lineman DOESN’T want to run block?

The second reason is sadder, and that is that Illinutgers VIII is the last time that Illinois and Rutgers are guaranteed to meet every year. That’s right, this is the sixth and final installment of this protected annual crossover. The Big Ten has seen fit to stick Rutgers with Iowa and Illinois with Penn State for the next six seasons. If the second of three straight Illinois games at Penn State was any indication, a little bit of that old Illinutgers magic might seep into those matchups, but it’s just not going to be the same.

One More Time

It’s possible that the aggregate sum of how good Illinois and Rutgers are has never been greater in the history of this series. With each program showing some signs of hope for the future, it’s going to be a hell of a note on which to leave off the Illinutgers series. I give the edge to Illinois here simply because I think they can win a battle for turnovers and field position, although in Adam Korsak, Rutgers has one of the few punters in the country who can stand up to Blake Hayes.

But you can throw out the record books, throw out all reason, throw out the numbers and all the predictions, because this is ILLINUTGERS and there’s no telling what can happen.

I’ll make my best effort to be there. Will you? If not, hope to see you at ILLINUTGERS IX

Who do you think wins the most historic prize in college football (Illinutgers bragging rights)?



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