There is not one word that can properly describe the emotions of losing a college football game 78-0. It was brutal in every way, especially coming against a Michigan team so intent on recruiting the best players in New Jersey. The past two weeks were a perfect storm for disaster for Rutgers on the football field. Losing a combined 136-0, despite coming against the best two Big Ten schools and two top 5 teams in the country, is never a good thing. It can be demoralizing for the players, the entire program, and the fan base.
Ah, the fan base, we are a tortured people for sure. If you are under the age of 30, ask some older fans about the losing and irrelevance Rutgers experienced in previous decades. Even so, every college football team has fans that go to extremes. With Rutgers, you can tell who has been around a long time and those who hopped on the 2006 bandwagon, or even those who started following in 2014 when Rutgers joined the Big Ten. Were the last two weeks painful, disheartening and even a little soul crushing? Absolutely! Is there enough reason to question why we didn’t hire a big name coach, or declare this is the worst season in decades, or dramatically declare that the program should be shut down? Absolutely not! And yet, I’ve read these type of reactions on social media the past 12 hours since the Michigan melee.
Perspective is key in every aspect of life and being a Rutgers fan right now, it’s especially important. The crazy thing to me is there is a modern day example showing fans why they need to be patient and believe in the future. In 2001, Rutgers football was far worse off than things are right now. The stability we have in the Big Ten today was not true of the former Big East 15 years ago. Greg Schiano was hired in 2001 and promptly went 2-9 in a season when Rutgers lost to #1 Miami 61-0, #9 Virginia Tech 50-0, Pittsburgh 42-0, and West Virginia 80-7. How did Schiano turnout at Rutgers? Just 5 years later, Rutgers finished with their highest ranking in school history at #12 and had a record of 11-2. While that same success wasn’t achieved again, a sustained run of winning seasons and bowl appearances followed, something Rutgers never experienced prior to Schiano.
Now, there are certainly different challenges that head coach Chris Ash faces compared to Schiano. For one, Rutgers was terrible for a long time back when Schiano took over in 2001. The big issue for fans dealing with this season is the past decade of various success Rutgers had under Schiano, as well as after his departure. The inaugural Big Ten season just two years ago was a great debut for Rutgers into the conference. Three wins over East division foes, including Michigan, and a resounding bowl thrashing of North Carolina led to a 8-5 record and only increased expectations for the future. The reality is 2014 masked the slow deterioration of the culture of the program, which was the foundation on which the success was built.
Expectations for Rutgers football went sky high. The problem was, the infrastructure was crumbling behind the scenes. The biggest reason for Rutgers football’s struggles in 2016 is that recruiting under former head coach Kyle Flood was in a word, terrible. The key players on the 2014 team were recruits of Schiano, not Flood. I’m not trying to discredit the job the coaching staff did with that team, because they obviously did well. The point though, especially in college where the talent gap can fluctuate greatly team to team, is that without players, it’s difficult to compete against the elite teams.
In the recent past, Rutgers stayed above water and went to a bowl game 9 out of 10 seasons, in large part because of consistent recruiting success under Schiano. With the exception of the seniors, this current team was recruited by Flood. Rutgers came into this season with a lot of returning starters and experience on the two deep. What we are seeing now is the attrition of a roster short on quality depth. Losing senior starters Janarion Grant, Quanzell Lambert, and Greg Jones are major losses. Having to move a backup running back to safety, as Ash did with Josh Hicks yesterday, in the middle of the season, is an obvious red flag that there are major issues with roster depth. Rutgers played last night without their top two free safeties in Saquan Hampton and Kiy Hester, their linebacker with the most tackles in Jones, Lambert on the defensive line, left tackle Tariq Cole, and their most valuable player, Janarion Grant. That's five different positions missing their starter or backup.
Despite all those players being out with various injuries, I understand the displeasure in losing to a conference foe 78-0, especially after losing 58-0 the week before. However, take a minute and realize this roster is simply not built to compete against the Big Ten elite. At the end of the day, Rutgers is 2-4, just like we expected them to be, based on the difficult first half of the schedule.
That’s the silver lining. Rutgers faces Illinois next Saturday, who are a team in an even worse situation. Former NFL head coach Lovie Smith has seen his Illinois career open with a 1-4 start, including yesterday’s 34-31 loss to Purdue, who were generally considered the worst team in the Big Ten. The Illini also lost to Western Michigan by 24 points. Rutgers won’t get healthy by next week, but there is a very winnable game staring them in the eye. In fact, Rutgers doesn’t have another ranked opponent remaining on the schedule. It won’t be easy to put together a winning streak regardless, but it will be much more informative in how this staff can coach with the talent level of their opponents being more manageable compared to the current Rutgers roster.
The reality of facing three top 5 teams in the first 6 games is it has now skewed fan emotions to the extreme other end of the spectrum. With the recent past success and the current embarrassing blowouts on the field, perspective has been lost by some. Don’t let it be you. No matter how this season ends up, the most important thing that needs to happen is for Ash and this coaching staff to keep the current group of commits for the 2017 class together. If they can weather this storm and keep the most talented recruiting class assembled since the Schiano days together through signing day, a major step will be taken. That’s when you will know if New Jersey high school coaches and players really believe in Ash. It takes a special coach to convince 17 and 18 year olds to take a chance on a program in a down swing, when perceived better options exist. However, the old saying states “with great challenges comes great opportunities”. Schiano convinced enough in-state recruits to do just that. Now we have to give Ash time to do the same.
Rebuilding isn’t fun. Losing on national television in historic fashion is not a enjoyable way to spend a Saturday night. Getting taunted by other Big Ten fan bases is frustrating. Don’t let that blur the reality of what led to the 2-4 start and the hope the future can bring under Ash. As Griffin said last week, this season is not about now. I’ve been preaching patience and to remain calm for awhile now. It’s never easy to actually go through a major rebuild such as this. Sometimes you have to take a couple steps backwards, before moving forward. Such is life. It’s a gloomy Sunday in more ways than one today for sure. Just remember the sun will come out tomorrow and the painful journey we are experiencing now, will make future success all the more satisfying. That’s worth waiting for!
If it makes you feel any better, Notre Dame is also 2-4 but their losses are to opponents w combined record of 11-10. Rutgers opponents 21-2— On the Banks (@OTB_SBNation) October 9, 2016