The college football season seems to pass by with the blink of an eye. It seems like only yesterday as I watched Pat Hobbs name Chris Ash as the Head Football Coach, marking the beginning of the #AshEra. Enthusiasm was abundant as the regime change brought with it a culture change that was vastly needed. Coach Ash did not mince words with his opening remarks:
“Moving forward, I have a message for fans, supporters, administrators, players, basically anybody that loves this program: We need to create some positive energy around this program. It's going to take an extreme amount of work. It's going to take a lot of the right people going in the same direction. Organizational alignment here in this athletic department and in this football program is going to be essential to our success.”
He meant what he said about the program needing an extreme amount of work, nor did he sugarcoat it. Not surprisingly Vegas reaffirmed this notion picking us to win 4 games this year. Coming off a 4-win season in 2015 and losing arguably one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten to the NFL, Leonte Carroo, as well as starting linebackers Steve Longa and Quentin Gause, there were valid concerns for a potential drop off in production. Add in different schemes on both sides of the ball, there was no arguing that there would be growing pains. Nonetheless, the long-term vision outlined by Coach Ash was clear:
“I want to build a first-class program here, a program that the university, the State of New Jersey, high school coaches and high school players can be proud to say that this program is theirs and they want to come here and be a part of it. We don't need New Jersey kids and players going to other programs. We need to keep them here at home at Rutgers and be the best that we can be here.”
With the early success on the recruiting trail, especially within the home state of New Jersey, I think we can all agree that the staff has matched or exceeded these expectations. As a glass half full kind of guy, I am in the exceeded expectations camp. Winning is always a priority, but rebuilding the program and instituting a long-term plan and vision was priority number one.
“We're going to worry about making goals that make us better tomorrow than we were today. That's all it's going to be about. The wins will come. Hopefully championships will come. But that's not my focus. That's not going to be the program's goal, at least early on. It's about getting better every single day.”
So here we are almost exactly 11 months later, 2-7 overall, and winless in conference play. So, I ask myself if Coach Ash and company has met the expectations he set forth when he received the job, and my answer is a resounding YES! Yes, we have only won two games, yes we have suffered a few blowout losses, but we have also lost three conference games by 7 points or less, all of which we were underdogs by double digits.
Let’s take a closer look at those three games in detail:
Game #1 Iowa at Rutgers (09/24/16): The Scarlet Knights lost to the Hawkeyes 14-7, as 15 point underdogs at home. Rutgers outgained Iowa in total offense 383-355, but only came away with 7 points despite 4 red zone attempts. This same Iowa offense put up 520 total yards against Purdue, 321 yards against Minnesota, and 435 yards against Iowa State. For the season the Hawkeyes are averaging 335 yards of total offense, while the defense is allowing an average of 402 yards. On paper the game looks evenly matched, but the Scarlet Knights could have easily won by a touchdown or more with better red zone play. Installing a brand-new style of offense is difficult for any QB, but is even more difficult for a pro-style QB like Chris Laviano, and the growing pains showed when it mattered most. Despite the miscues, the Scarlet Knights easily covered and were in a very good position to win. Sadly, the Scarlet Knights lost two invaluable players, Janarion Grant and Quanzell Lambert, to season ending injuries. Grant was Rutgers most dynamic player with 210 receiving yards, 138 rushing yards, and had scores on both punt and kickoff returns. Quanzell Lambert was one of the defensive line’s best pass rushers and already amassed 16 tackles before being injured. Coach Ash had this to say after the loss:
“I'm encouraged by the whole football team's play. Encouraged by how we played defensively. That was a good football team. Still gave up too many yards rushing, disappointed about that. We defended the pass fairly well. Got after the quarterback. Got some hits and sacks on the quarterback, but I'm encouraged by the whole football team, not any one aspect. Do we have to clean things up? Absolutely. Do we have to make the plays that are out there? Absolutely. But, again, that's a good football team. We showed up today to play and that's very encouraging. We made a lot of plays and we just have to get a few plays cleaned up and hopefully when we do that we will come out on the other end victorious.”
Game #2 Rutgers at Minnesota (10/22/16): The Scarlet Knights lost on the road to the Minnesota Golden Gophers 34-32 despite being 18 point underdogs. The Scarlet Knights were trailing 21-3 after the first quarter, but managed to mount an impressive comeback but fell short after Minnesota converted a game winning field goal with very little time remaining. A missed extra point by the Scarlet Knights following an interception returned for a touchdown, which was then followed by a kickoff returned for a touchdown by Minnesota were simply too much to overcome. Minnesota is averaging 387 yards of total offense per game, including an impressive 469 yards against Penn State. The defense is allowing 351 yards per game on average. This marked Gio Rescigno’s first official start and he led the offense on several impressive drives. Despite throwing two interceptions, the offense was able to amass 372 total yards, marking a +22-yard differential then what the Golden Gophers are allowing per game. Coach Ash had this to say after the loss:
“I want to express how proud I am of our players. The effort that continue to put forth, the preparation that they had throughout the week. A lot of people have written this team off. They just keep coming to work, every single day. And we’re getting better. They went out and took Minnesota’s best punch at the start of the game, in that first quarter. Minnesota came out, had a good game plan, and started the game off fast. If you don’t have good character kids, you fold in that situation. Especially with the losing streak that we’ve been on the last few games. But again, we’ve got great kids. They care. They want to do things right, they want to be successful, and they play so hard for each other. I can’t say enough about this group of individuals. We’ll get there. We’re knocking on the door. We’re getting better.”
Game #3 Indiana at Rutgers (11/05/16): The Scarlet Knights lost at home to the Indiana Hoosiers 33-27 as 13.5 point underdogs. The Hoosiers outgained the Scarlet Knights in total offense 567-351. The Scarlet Knights struggled on 3rd down and simply could not capitalize on the defensive takeaways. The Indiana offense is averaging 469 yards per game, including 657 yards against Maryland and 611 yards against Wake Forest. Their run game has been especially impressive, averaging 4.20 YPC, but averaged only 3.34 YPC against the Scarlet Knights, meanwhile their defense is allowing 390 yards per game. Rutgers’s offense gained 351 total yards, despite 7 straight 3 and outs in the second half. Average starting field position played a major role in this game, mainly due to poor special teams, as Indiana averaged 12+ yards of better field position per drive. Coach Ash had this to say after the loss:
“I thought overall our front seven with the D-line, and especially the linebackers, I thought the linebackers played their best game of the year against Indiana. So really pleased with that. I think they played faster, they were more aggressive. They were healthier, was one of the biggest contributors to that success. But was really pleased with what I saw, not only out of our D-line, but our linebackers, specifically.”
During a rebuilding year lopsided losses are going to happen, especially against top notch competition, and we need to keep things in perspective. This past weekend the #3 ranked Michigan Wolverines (9-0; 6-0) defeated the Maryland Terrapins (5-4; 2-4) 59-3. Additionally, the #6 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes (8-1; 5-1) defeated the #10 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers 62-3 (7-2; 4-2).
The rebuilding of the Rutgers Football program is a process that is going to take time, there are no quick fixes, this is not easy, and we all knew that going into the season. It is going to take patience, hard work, and dedication from everyone involved, including the fans. As a fan base, we need to continue to support the team, the program, and the University. When I compare this program now to where it was 11 months ago it makes me even more excited to see where we will be another year from now. This team is so much better coached and it shows from the team’s work ethic, discipline, and the fight they show week in and week out. As Rutgers fans we have become so quick to expect the worst when there are slight setbacks, but I assure you things are different this time around. I encourage everyone to re-watch the press conference announcing Chris Ash as the head coach. Listen to what he had to say, and look at where we are now, I think you might find the glass more than half full.