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Five Thoughts As Rutgers Looks Ahead To Big Ten Play

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NCAA Football: New Mexico at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been pretty, but Rutgers did what they needed to do in non-conference play. Starting the season as almost four touchdown underdogs against now top ten ranked Washington was simply too big a task for this team and they took an expected loss. No matter how bad that first quarter was in Seattle, it counts as one loss just the same. It was an absolute necessity for Rutgers to complete their schedule before Big Ten conference play with two wins. Although they fell behind to Howard 14-0 and New Mexico 21-0, this team pulled together and won both games. Now they can start the first ever nine game Big Ten conference schedule with some confidence and hope that a bowl berth is still a possibility. Here are my thoughts on Rutgers as they enter conference play with a 2-1 record.

Can We Start The Game In The 2nd Quarter?

There is no denying that the 1st Quarter woes Rutgers is having will be catastrophic in conference play. If they fall down by two or three touchdowns right out of the gate against Iowa, Ohio State, or Michigan, their next three opponents, it will result in bigger blowouts than Rutgers experienced the past two seasons. Head coach Chris Ash did say the option run offense required a period for the defense to adjust to the speed and what New Mexico was doing. That’s understandable, but that’s now all three games that Rutgers has been embarrassed early on. They have been outscored 59-14 in the 1st quarter in their first three games, while surrendering over 500 yards of offense to their opposition. In addition, the offense has started sluggishly, amassing just three first downs in the 1st quarter through three games. Rutgers has committed five turnovers this season and three of them have come in the opening frame of games. That has to change quickly

We Have a Legitimate Coaching Staff

As bad as Rutgers has started, they have recovered in various degrees in all three games this season. They continued to play poorly at times throughout the game against Washington, but showed some signs of life after falling down 24-0 in the 1st quarter. Rutgers scored 52 unanswered points against Howard, dominating the second half. Yesterday, they made adjustments the quickest of all three games, responding with a 21-0 2nd quarter that gave them a touchdown lead at the half. They also came out strong after the half and closed out the game better than we have seen in a few seasons.

These are all signs of good coaching and the staff has been consistent in making adjustments throughout the first three games. This is very encouraging, as too many games the past few seasons felt over immediately because the coaching staff was so poor at game planning for their opponents. Regardless of the situation in the game, Rutgers kept doing the same basic things on offense and defense. It was infuriating, but those times have now passed. Ash and his coordinators have continued to change personnel and adjusted play calling based on how the game is going and how players are performing. This is a major positive development for both now and for what the future holds.

Offensive Trio of Playmakers

The offense has struggled at times, especially early on in games, but this team has three players who have the potential to be some of the best in the Big Ten.

Receiver Janarion Grant has scored touchdowns on a kickoff return, a punt return, running after taking direct snaps, and even throwing for a score. Ironically, the only thing he hasn’t done yet is catch a touchdown pass.

Robert Martin had a solid debut last week and followed that up with a commanding 21 carry, 169 yard rushing game against New Mexico. That’s an 8.0 yard per carry average and he has 252 yards rushing in just two games, a quarter of the way to 1,000 yards with three quarters of the season remaining. Ash seemed to prefer a one back approach and he found his man with Martin. However, we expected Grant and Martin to deliver.

The surprise has been the development of Jawuan Harris, who led Rutgers in receiving yards for the second consecutive game. I called him an X factor over the summer and it’s proving to be true. His 75 yard touchdown happened because he was able to get behind the defense and take it all the way on a perfect pass from Chris Laviano. His speed is elite and the more he is involved in the offense, the better.

Of the 44 combined rushes and receptions for the Rutgers offense yesterday, Grant, Martin, and Harris had 34 touches. That’s 77% of the offense and there is no reason the focus on this trio won’t remain. They all need to perform in Big Ten play for Rutgers to have a chance in any game they play, but having multiple playmakers will make it that much harder for the opposition to game plan against them.

QB Is A Question Without An Answer

Laviano continued to struggle with his accuracy yesterday, missing many short passes that prevented players like Grant and Harris from running after the catch with space around them. He still throws behind receivers and even overthrowing at times, so much that he was actually benched for a series late in the game, something that never happened last season. It’s clear his grasp on the starting position is less firm as each week passes. The problem is there is no perfect replacement.

Zach Allen saw his first action at Rutgers and also struggled passing with two incompletions in his only attempts. Ash and offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer have previously said the other options, Gio Rescigno and Tylin Oden, are not ready in the passing game. Hayden Rettig seems completely out of the equation.

As much as fans are clamoring for Laviano to get the hook, the reality is he still may be the best option at quarterback at the moment. I do expect to see more run packages for Gio and or Oden now that Big Ten play begins. Something needs to change and whoever is taking the snaps needs to get the ball in the hands of the above mentioned playmakers on offense. If Rutgers does fall way behind against Iowa, Ohio State, or Michigan in their next three games, it certainly seems like the right time to develop at least one of the other three options at quarterback.

This Team Has Heart And Believes In The Coaching Staff

In Chris Ash’s postgame press conference, he had this to say about his team coming back from a 21 point deficit to win the game:

There is no doubt this team has a ton of heart, as they have not quit at any point this season. If this team was mentally weak or physically unprepared, there is no way they would have come back against New Mexico. And the defense finally held up late in the game, something that has been missing in recent seasons. If they didn’t believe in each other and how the staff is leading them, they would have given up. They were on the ropes early and responded with authority late in the 1st quarter and through the entire 2nd quarter. These players have dealt with a lot the past year plus and have shown heart and resolve through all of it. We always hoped the disaster of last season was a direct result of several bad apples and that the core of the team was ultimately comprised of high character guys.

The manner of which they have bought into the culture change within the program under Ash has been impressive. With their buy in, attitude, and belief in everything they are doing, it should give fans hope that Rutgers will continue to improve this season. The next three games may very well be brutal, but the key will be how the players continue to fight and adjust throughout.

The second half is much more manageable and this team has a chance to string enough wins together for a bowl berth. They are certainly a long way from being good enough to do that, but the signs are there for this team to keep getting better each week, just as Ash said was his goal before the season. The results on the field have been frustrating at times, and even alarming, but the attitude of the team has been impressive. They took care of business and entered Big Ten play 2-1. They have games against Illinois, who lost badly at home to Western Michigan, and Maryland, who needed overtime to beat UCF last night. Games against Indiana and Penn State are at home, with a difficult but not impossible road game at Minnesota. Don’t give up on this team and it’s bowl chances yet, because they surely won’t give up on themselves.