After enduring a blow out loss from the University of Washington last week I would venture a guess that the Scarlet Knights football squad probably feels a bit relieved facing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Football Conference’s Howard University Bison.
While I encourage the RU program and fans alike to forget last week’s slaughter, let us focus on one positive: the RU defense’s ability to stop the run. Last Saturday the Huskies were only able to generate 91 yards on the ground against the Scarlet Knights with defensive backs Kiy Hester and Blessuan Austin leading the way in tackles with 8 and 6, respectively. With only one game in the books RU ranks 42nd in rush defense among Division I teams.
I realize RU football is under different management this year, but it is helpful to look back to 2015 for some clues to this year’s probable performance and strengths - especially since some key players have returned and based on last week's performance, this will hopefully continue to be a trend. According to Football Outsiders, the RU defensive line ranked 19th among Division I schools in stuff rate, which measures the percentage of carries by running backs who are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage. Equally impressive the defensive unit ranked 28th in defensive Opportunity Rate, which is the percentage of carries (when five yards are available) that opposing running backs gain for at least five yards.
I should note that most of you realize Howard University is and team from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) of Division I football where Rutgers belongs to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). FCS teams are different from their Division I brethren in scholarship availability, finances, game attendance requirements, and methodology in playoff format. FBS is the superior subdivision in terms of talent. While I will remark of Howard's football rankings, these statistics are separate from the FBS conferences, but I do so to give readers an idea of their strengths, weaknesses, and how they will matchup against RU. For a thorough background of FCS and FBS differences click on this link.
In their Saturday opening season loss, Bison running backs were able to find only 69 yards on the ground with an average of 1.97 yard per carry against the Maryland Terps - a team similar in talent and stage of development to Rutgers. Bison junior. running back Anthony Philyaw led the team with 18 carries for 53 yards, equating to an average of 2.94 yards per rush. From the one game thus far, the Bison are ranked 82nd in FCS for rushing offense.
Look for Howard to pass the ball more often, as the team had more success throwing against the Terps and will look exploit an obvious weakness against the subpar RU pass defense this Saturday. The Bison managed a ranking of 45th in passing offense and 33rd in team passing efficiency in FCS play while RU ranks 100th in passing yards allowed in FBS play. In the S&P+ pass down efficiency, the Rutgers defense ranked 118th last year.
Last week, Howard’s Junior quarterback Kaelen Johnson tossed a 17-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Kyle Anthony in the fourth quarter to give the Bison their first points of the game. Johnson completed 10 of 15 pass attempts for 100 yards, but shared reps with sophomore passer Jason Collins, who also tossed a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Anthony. Collins was 8 of 14 for 100 passing yards. Despite the blowout loss to Maryland, both quarterbacks showed a decent amount of poise.
Last year, Johnson threw 8 TD passes for 1,174 yards and 9 interceptions in a pass offense that ranked 110th of all FCS football teams. Johnson himself ranked 86th in passing efficiency, 91st in TD passes, and 89th in passing yards.
Meanwhile, the Rutgers offense will need to show improvement this Saturday, as they are currently ranked 101st in both total offense and passing offense. While working out the kinks in a new spread offense, coach Chris Ash hopes the unit can build confidence and momentum against a weaker opponent. Last year, Howard ranked 76th in total defense in FCS and was particularly lousy in turnovers, scores allowed, and redzone defense, with the team losing by an average of 28.6 points per game. However, their average losing margin had wild swings in variability of roughly 24 points from loss to loss (standard deviation measure excluding Howard's one win last season). Even so, they did show some strength against the pass ranking 48th in FCS with senior defensive back Travon Hunt leading the team with 5 interceptions.
I am expecting Rutgers to return to the run game this week, which was a message Coach Ash stressed leading up to the start of the season. That should allow the Scarlet Knights to control the clock and keep Johnson and Anthony off the field. While it is not a stretch, expect running backs Justin Goodwin and Josh Hicks to have big games. I think offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer will call Hicks' number a little more this Saturday, helping him to build momentum from his 70 yards in 14 attempts for an average of 5 yards per rush performance against the Huskies.