Phew. What a season it's been already, and it's only been six games. Two sellout primetime games, the first Big Ten win over a storied opponent, and just one win away from going bowling. The most difficult portion of the schedule still remains, but there's plenty to take away from Rutgers' performance at the midpoint of the season.
Ralph Friedgen leads an offensive resurgence
He didn't want to be tabbed as the savior of the program, but we all did it for him anyway. The arrival of "The Fridge" and his forty-five years of coaching experience gave every Scarlet Knight fan hope that the offensive woes would be over, especially for Gary Nova. Outside of a disastrous Penn State game (in which most of the picks weren't his fault), Nova has had a renaissance in his final year of throwing the rock for Rutgers. A formidable running game led by Paul James, Justin Goodwin, and Desmon Peoples has given RU a well-balanced offense that can give opponents fits, whether on the ground or through the air. The Fridge effect passes the eye test, but the difference is palpable statistically as well:
|'13 national rank||'14 national rank|
|Rushing offense||101st (129.54 yards/game)||75th (159.17 yards/game)|
|Passing offense||64th (235.6 yards/game)||43rd (267.5 yards/game)|
|Total offense||96th (365.2 yards/game)||61st (426.7 yards/game)|
To the common fan, those numbers for 2014 may not scream Baylor-offensive-juggernaut-machine, but to Rutgers fans it is a marked improvement. One of the biggest benefits of Friedgen's offense is the different ways he can get the ball to the team's playmakers. Leonte Carroo is without a doubt the top option, but Gary Nova has been spreading the wealth all season. Running backs are getting involved more in the passing game, as we saw with Paul James during the Howard game. Conversely, wide receivers are making plays in the running game, as we saw with Janarion Grant during the Michigan game when Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples were bottled up early.
Friedgen said he wanted to a balanced attack for RU, and he's delivered. In the Navy matchup, Nova was kept to a minimum of pass attempts while the run game piled up over 250 rushing yards on the day. Against Michigan, the passing game carried the offense to the tune of over 400 yards. Possibly the most exciting part is that we might not have seen everything this offense can do just yet, as this offense is looking better each game.
Joe Rossi brings the CHOP back to the defense
In 2013, the Rutgers defense lacked one major component of success: pressure. Sure, the secondary was green, which led to plenty of cringe-worthy moments defending the pass. But the lack of pressure by the defensive line left the true freshmen in the backfield to play on an island. That's not a recipe for success. This year, the Scarlet Knights are on pace for 48 sacks through 12 games, which would have been the most for RU since 2009 when the team sacked the quarterback 40 times - in 13 games.
The pressure caused by Darius Hamilton, Kemoko Turay, Dave Milewski, and Steve Longa has allowed Rutgers to give up 60 fewer yards through the air per game, and even kept the Scarlet Knights in the game against Penn State, despite a poor showing offensively. Just by watching this year's defense, you can see an aggression that was missing from last season, and it's a testament to Rossi's work in training camp getting his players ready for a league that didn't show any respect to the Scarlet Knights.
#TheBirthplace shines in primetime
The Point doesn't hold 100,000 spectators, but for Rutgers, it's quality over quantity. Michigan's "Big House" is commonly referred to as quiet, at least for a stadium that is bigger than any other in college football. Rutgers, on the other hand? When it's a primetime game against a formidable opponent, you can be sure that all 53,000+ in attendance will make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. RU has always thrived as an underdog, and perhaps that's how the fans like to view themselves as well.
Drew Robinson (@DrewRU) October 7, 2014
Sunday Ruminations #Rutgers The new B1G team showing some of the old B1G what a student section can look like - ON time & totally into GAME.— Gerry DiNardo (@gerrydinardo) October 5, 2014
Oregon's Autzen Stadium shows that you don't need a huge stadium for a great homefield advantage in college football. All you need is passion, and #CHOPNation brings it under the lights.
Block 'R' Party in the B1G
It shouldn't be a secret to anyone. I know Rutgers fans make it known that the Scarlet Knights lead the nation in blocked kicks since 2009. Yet every time it happens, it's even more exhilarating and exciting as the one before. Blocking kicks is a Rutgers tradition unlike any other. It's been a staple of the program since the Schiano days, and finally, a national audience can witness the magic in action.
In two B1G conference games, Rutgers already has three blocked kicks, and the Kemoko Dragon has had a hand - literally - in two of them. In games this season not against Tulane or Howard, the average margin of victory for Rutgers is 3.75. This is a good football team that should be able to compete with most teams in the Big Ten, and moving forward, having the ability to pull a block out of the special teams hat is undeniably valuable.
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We're now at the midpoint of the season with six games left to go. What did you like most from the first half? What did you like the least? Tell us in the comments below, and stay tuned to On the Banks for midseason awards and an early preview of the next three B1G games.