It is never fun to lose and yesterday’s 34-32 defeat to Minnesota was no exception. Rutgers outplayed the Golden Gophers the final three quarters of the game, with the exception of special teams. Several critical mistakes were the difference, but there were positives to come out of yesterday’s loss as well. After last week’s dreadful 24-7 loss to Illinois, it became clear this season is now about building for the future. There were several players with little experience and multiple years of eligibility remaining who played key roles in yesterday’s game. That is encouraging is and something to be hopeful for. Here are five players that stood out against Minnesota and are clearly a part of the rebuild of Rutgers football moving forward.
As Griffin Whitmer wrote, Gio wasn’t perfect, but he did more than enough to show he is the best quarterback on the current roster. His command of the offense and ability to make multiple throws were impressive. However, what really stood out was his ability to adapt after his hamstring injury, after being so effective running the ball in the first half. That’s the sign of a gamer who finds a way to be effective, even when not everything is going his way. His three turnovers were certainly a major reason Rutgers lost, but the fact is they never would have been in the game if not for him. Considering it was his first career start and only the second game he has ever seen extended action, I think the redshirt sophomore exceeded expectations on the road. Minnesota was the #18 ranked defense in S&P+ in the country heading into this game and Gio wasn’t phased. He should have even more confidence now heading into the bye week ahead of playing Indiana and can use the extra prep time to get healthy.
Any expectations of Harris to even come close to filling Janarion Grant’s role since he was injured have been unfair. The redshirt freshman struggled the previous two games before yesterday, registering 5 catches for just 14 yards and 4 rushes for -3 yards. However, Harris had some positive moments against Minnesota, including an 18 yard touchdown in the 4th quarter that showcased his ability to make a catch up the middle and break away from the safety in coverage. He finished with 5 catches for 47 yards and the score that made it a close game the rest of the way. The redshirt freshman and Big Ten baseball stolen bases champ needs to continue to develop on the gridiron, but he has a chance to be a special player at Rutgers.
The true freshman was nowhere near the two deep in early August when fall camp began. However, after Najee Clayton left the team and Greg Jones suffered a career ending injury early in the first half against Ohio State, Maddox-Williams has been the guy at the SAM linebacker position ever since. While he has made mistakes and is still learning, there was much more good than bad yesterday. He made a huge tackle in the 3rd quarter when Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner tried to run for the first down on fourth and 1, only to be stopped on the outside by Maddox-Williams. He also made a big third down stop, along with Kevin Marquez, midway through the fourth quarter, which led to a punt after a Minnesota penalty on fourth down. The former 3-star recruit from Timber Creek finished with 10 tackles, his second double-digit effort of the season.
The redshirt sophomore safety hasn’t had the season he had hoped for after getting injured in the opener against Washington. He returned last week against Illinois and was still shaking the rust off. However, Hampton was more involved yesterday and registered 8 tackles in the game. He still needs to improve on his tackling, but his speed and talent are obvious. Rutgers head coach Chris Ash spoke about Hampton’s NFL potential prior to the season. He should continue to improve the more time he gets on the field and is a major bright spot regarding the future for the Rutgers defense.
The true freshman cornerback came up with a huge interception in the third quarter and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown. The player he was covering ran into his own teammate and it was a bad throw from Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, but Hayes showed his athleticism on the play. He caught the ball low to the ground while he was on the run, catching it in stride and had plenty of speed to take it all the way for a score down the sideline. He hadn’t produced much since his sack and four tackle performance against Howard earlier in the season, but the former 3-star recruit is getting valuable experience this season. Yesterday’s pick six highlighted his potential.