Rutgers' first Big Ten road game was quite the welcome for the Scarlet Knights, and it doesn't get any easier this week as they head to Memorial Stadium to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers. After being over 20-point dogs to the Buckeyes, the Knights find themselves as 17-point dogs against the Huskers. Numbers alone suggest that Memorial Stadium is a tough place to win, but Rutgers doesn't necessarily need a win to build confidence and credibility heading into the tail end of the season. Here are the keys to the Saturday's matchup:
The defensive gameplan hasn't changed since the first game of the season: stop Ameer Abdullah. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is decent at quarterback, and he's actually second in total offense in the B1G. His success is significantly helped by Abdullah's Heisman campaign season, and if you can somehow stop Abdullah from gaining yards and force Armstrong to beat you through the air, you have a good chance at stopping the Huskers. The problem is, it's extremely hard to stop Abdullah. Every defensive coordinator he's faced has gameplanned against him to make Nebraska one-dimensional, yet he's still the nation's third-leading rusher through seven games. Only Michigan State has been able to stop Abdullah (24 rushes for 45 yards in a loss to the Spartans), and I don't think Rutgers is quite at the same level as MSU defensively.
Rutgers brought a top five rush defense into the B1G stemming from 2013, but the results from this season have been disappointing after two straight years of excellence at stopping the run. The Scarlet Knights currently sit at 10th in the conference, giving up a generous 162 yards per game (including a six-yard performance by Wazzu). Sometimes it has been a horror show for Rutgers defending dual-threat quarterbacks, and Armstrong can certainly run, as he's the second leading rusher on the team. Tackling fundamentals, which was a sore spot against the Buckeyes, better be up to par against the Huskers.
Early NFL mock drafts had Nebraska DE Randy Gregory going as early as sixth overall, with Dan Kadar of Mocking the Draft saying he is "the type of talent to go first overall." Recent drafts have noted he's still a bit raw, but Gregory is still within the realm of a top-10 pick. He has certainly proven himself through seven games with 4.5 sacks on the season, and that means the Rutgers offensive line will have another challenge this week keeping the pocket clean for Gary Nova.
The line struggled against Ohio State, which has arguably the top defensive line in the conference. Nebraska is mostly dependent on the skills of Gregory, so if they can contain him, Nova should have time to find his receivers considering he played fine in the face of the Buckeyes' pass rush. If Nova is rattled, he might have one of those games where he completes the ball to the other team a few too many times, specifically to defensive backs Josh Mitchell and Nate Gerry. The Nebraska secondary has picked off opposing QBs eight times this season.
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A dramatization of live game action at Memorial Stadium. -Courtesy rvc73
Nebraska is a team with the tradition, the pedigree, and the hardware. Rutgers played a similar team away from home just last weekend, and it looked as if the Scarlet Knights were in over their heads. Will they fall into the same trap, or have they learned from the experience? This isn't a must-win game, but staying competitive can be the difference between finishing strong and limping to the finish line.