Rutgers enters the bye week with a 2-2 record, finally having time to recover from what has been a nightmarish first month off the field. After losing in the final minutes at home to Washington State, followed by Penn State beating Rutgers badly in Happy Valley, the results on the field haven't been good either. Looking ahead, this team faces a brutal month of October and early November, as they are scheduled to take on four ranked teams in their next five games.
Rutgers only home games in the next month are against the two top ranked teams in the country, Ohio State and Michigan State. After facing the Buckeyes at home on October 24th, Rutgers travels to #19 Wisconsin and then #22 Michigan in back to back weeks. We should expect to be at least two touchdown underdogs in all four games. The only opponent we play during that stretch that is not ranked is 4-0 Indiana. We visit the Hoosiers on October 17th for their Homecoming game. Following this five game stretch, Rutgers returns home to face 2-2 Nebraska.
So is there any hope that Rutgers can string enough wins together to become bowl eligible? I say yes but it will not be easy at all. The last two games of the season are against Army in West Point and at home against Maryland. Army just won their first game of the season on Saturday against Eastern Michigan, after losing to Fordham, Wake Forest and UCONN. There are no sure things of course, but Rutgers will be favored to win that game. Finishing the season at home against Maryland will not be easy, but the Terrapins are in worse shape than Rutgers on the field right now. They have benched two starting quarterbacks so far this season and their defense is a mess. They lost to Bowling Green by three touchdowns and were destroyed by West Virginia on Saturday 45-6. As bad as September was for Rutgers on the field, it wasn't on the same level of bad as Maryland.
Let's assume for a minute that Rutgers has enough left in the tank to finish off Army and Maryland. Where is Rutgers going to get two more wins? The best opportunities by far, is Indiana on the road and Nebraska at home. I am not giving up on any game, but let's be realistic. Winning at Wisconsin seems highly unlikely, even without Corey Clement in the backfield. While it's possible to win at Michigan, the Harbaugh effect has already led to a step forward, after a 31-0 shellacking of BYU on Saturday. Rutgers would have to play near or at their best to beat Michigan in the Big House the way things look right now.
Indiana is undefeated but they are beatable. Their wins include a 1 point victory over FCS school Southern Illinois, a 3 point victory over Western Kentucky and a 7 point win at Wake Forest. Indiana gives up 32 points a game on defense and again, have not faced anyone of significance. They do have a good quarterback in Nate Sudfeld, who is starting to excel after returning from his season ending injury a year ago. He averages 285 yards passing a game and has thrown 7 touchdowns with just 1 interception. It must be nice to have a quarterback that efficient!
The point, it will not be easy on the defensive end, but our offense will have every opportunity to keep up. If Rutgers can continue to fine tune and improve on the running game, we can control the game like we did Saturday against Kansas. Indiana's rushing defense is ranked 54th, giving up 138.5 yards per game. The highest ranked rushing offense that Indiana has faced is Florida International at 96th in the country. Rutgers currently ranks 30th, averaging 211 rushing yards a game. Last year we wore Indiana down with the run, and we need to do the same this year. It will also be coach Kyle Flood's first game back from his suspension, hopefully resulting in this team coming out fired up and ready to play.
After Rutgers ends that crazy five game gauntlet, it comes home to face Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are 2-2 with heartbreaking losses to BYU and Miami. What is more telling is they only beat Southern Miss at home this past Saturday 36-28. Although the Nebraska run defense is ranked 11th in the country, the highest ranked rushing offense they have faced is Southern Miss at 78th. Miami and BYU are pass heavy offenses. Another fact on our side is that Nebraska plays Michigan State the week before their visit to Piscataway. Who knows what shape they will be in heading into our game? Of course, we don't know what shape Rutgers will be in either.
The season is only a third of the way complete, but it's obvious Rutgers only has so many realistic chances left for a win. They cannot squander those opportunities like they did with Washington State. I hope they play respectably against Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Heck, there is always a shot they could upset Michigan. However, major improvement is needed in all facets of the game for this team to do that.
The reality is this, a loss to Indiana would spell likely disaster for whatever is left of the season at that point. With a win against the Hoosiers, the most likely scenario is this team is 3-6 with Nebraska, Army and Maryland left on the schedule. In order for Rutgers to achieve six wins and qualify for a bowl, they would need a clean sweep to finish the season. Never say never and let's hope this team can pull it off. Otherwise, the season will result in failed expectations across the board.