It didn’t take long for Chris Ash and his coaching staff to see their honeymoon end once the season started. In fact, it took less than one quarter of football, as Rutgers was shell shocked down 24-0 with 48 seconds remaining in the opening frame against Washington. After watching the Rutgers defense surrender big plays through the air the previous three seasons, it was deja vu all over again last Saturday. Washington scored on passing plays of 38, 43, and 50 yards on their three opening drives of the game. They attacked and beat a different defender each time, first linebacker Andre Hunt, then cornerback Isaiah Wharton, and lastly, safety Saquan Hampton. Head coach Chris Ash cited a failure to adjust to Washington’s speed as the reason in his postgame presser. It was if the defense was sleepless in Seattle, constantly steps behind.
But enough about that game, which is now in the rearview mirror. I don’t need to rehash that Washington is a legitimate CFB playoff contender, or that Rutgers actually defended well against the run, or that the defense only allowed 10 points in the final three quarters. The lone touchdown came after a Chris Laviano interception that was returned down to the 4 yard line. What is important is who is leading the Rutgers defense and why fans should be confident that we are not in for another disaster on that side of the ball, despite what happened in the first game.
Jay Niemann is the right defensive coordinator for this team, and honestly, we are lucky to have him. Chris Ash made his bones as a defensive mastermind, culminating in turning around Ohio State and helping them win a national championship. But don’t forget before all of his success, including several great seasons at Wisconsin, Ash played defensive back under Niemann at Drake University. Niemann coached his position group and was the defensive coordinator in Ash’s senior season. Ash went on to coach under experienced and successful coaches throughout his career. However, it all started under Niemann and he never lost touch with his former coach. While Ash will still be highly involved in game planning for the defense, he has far more responsibilities to worry about as head coach. He trusts Niemann completely, and that should give fans confidence in him as well.
Niemann’s track record at Northern Illinois the previous five seasons as their defensive coordinator should breed confidence in that he knows how to maximize the talent he has to work with. Niemann was very successful at Northern Illinois, helping them win the MAC West division all five seasons he was there, as well as three league titles. That run included a trip to the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2012 season. He produced seven players to sign with an NFL team, including safety Jimmie Ward, who was drafted in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers and led them in tackles the past two seasons.
Another great stat is that Northern Illinois went 3-2 against the Big Ten the past four seasons, with wins over Iowa, Northwestern, and Purdue. Big Ten offenses averaged just 21 points a game in those five contests against Niemann's defense. That includes last season’s matchup against Ohio State.
Although the 2015 season was actually a down year for Northern Illinois, their Niemann led defense held Ohio State to under 300 yards of offense on the road, losing by just a touchdown. His defense forced Ohio State into five turnovers in the game and just 4.5 yards per play, against now pro Cardale Jones, and future pro J.T. Barrett, at quarterback. Ezekiel Elliot, now the starting running back for the Dallas Cowboys, had 108 yards rushing on 4.7 yards per carry, his fourth lowest totals for that entire season. He also did not score and lost a fumble that Northern Illinois recovered.
Niemann didn’t shut down the defending national champions on the road with a power five defense. Throughout his five seasons at Northern Illinois, Niemann was able to get his unit to play at a very high level, despite not having blue chip prospects. And the MAC is a conference full of high powered offenses that annually knock off power five schools. The Huskies finished in the top ten last season nationally in takeaways, including fourth with 22 interceptions.
It wasn’t just at Northern Illinois, as Niemann has turned around defenses at every level and stop he has coached at. Niemann’s background is less well known than Ash’s, but it is extremely impressive in it’s own right.
Saturday was a disaster and brought back the horrors of the past three defensive seasons that drove every Rutgers fan mad. Our defense, once a proud and accomplished unit that we could rely on and was the identity of the program, has became a black hole and an embarrassment. Despite what happened against Washington, there is reason to have confidence that Ash and Niemann will turn things around this season.
A big reason to have faith, aside from Niemann’s experience, is the lack of adjustments and schemes that we as fans agonized over in the past, will not be present under Niemann. After he was hired, Niemann spoke about his defensive philosophy here:
That is a breath of fresh air after what seemed like an endless run of stubborn, thoughtless decision making by defensive coordinators at Rutgers after the departures of Greg Schiano and Robb Smith.
It’s a good thing Rutgers played against Washington on Saturday, despite the extremely disappointing result. Niemann got to see his defense against one of the best offenses in college football. Despite having spring practice and fall training camp, there is no better way to truly evaluate players than in a game. Now he really knows what he has at his disposal and can better prepare and scheme more effectively moving forward. One thing is for sure, he and Ash will not stop tinkering and making adjustments until they get the results they want. Niemann is hard nosed and will be relentless in finding answers, which is why he historically gets the most out of his players.
Other than the defensive line, Rutgers has an inexperienced unit comprised of first time starting linebackers and a young secondary still trying to figure out the college game. However, there is talent, led by veteran Darius Hamilton, who Niemann said played at a “championship level” against Washington. Kiy Hester had his best game of his Rutgers career on Saturday, and Ash previously said Hampton has “NFL potential”.
If Rutgers is able to progress this season to the point of being more competitive against the Big Ten elite, as well as beat some middle to bottom tiered teams in the conference, it will be because of their defense. With Jay Niemann leading the unit, I have every bit of confidence that Rutgers is well on it’s way to restoring the pride and tradition on defense that resulted in the best days the program has ever seen. Let Niemann grind and the results will come. It’s only a matter of time.