The statistics from yesterday’s 14-12 victory for Rutgers over Purdue paint a very clear picture:
Purdue gained 474 yards on offense, Rutgers only had 217 yards.
Purdue threw for 195 yards while Rutgers threw for 87 yards.
Purdue rushed for 279 yards, five more than Rutgers did in their win over Illinois and 149 yards more than the Scarlet Knights ran for yesterday. Of the 130 yards Rutgers rushed for, 74 of them came on the Gus Edwards touchdown on the second play from scrimmage in the game. Their 3.5 yards per carry average in the game was actually just 1.5 yards per carry when taking out that big run from Edwards.
Purdue had 25 first downs and Rutgers had just 8.
Purdue won the time of possession battle, 32:06 to 27:54.
The picture shows that Purdue dominated the game in many ways. And yet, Rutgers won due to minimizing mistakes and making the two biggest plays of the game. Purdue committed two turnovers and Rutgers had zero. Purdue committed 8 penalties, while Rutgers was flagged just 4 times. Purdue had two drives end inside the Rutgers 10 yard line and had to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. Purdue was just 3 of 15 on third down conversions and only 1 of 4 on fourth down attempts. At the end of the day, Rutgers held an edge in the statistical categories that mattered most and it resulted in them winning the game. Minimizing mistakes and two big plays on offense were the difference in the outcome.
It doesn’t matter that it was an ugly win, because the final result is all that matters. Chris Ash said as much in the opening of his press conference after the game:
“Obviously this is a first, being in here, back-to-back victories, so it's a good feeling. Really excited about our players. Again, we didn't play a great game, but we made the plays we needed to on defense and special teams to win the game, and it's okay to win games like that. But it wasn't pretty.”
When Ash was asked about the lopsided statistics in Purdue’s favor, he quickly referred to the only one that mattered at the end of the game:
“I don't look at them right now. I'm not looking at them. You can look at them, you can make all the assumptions you want. There's one that matters today, and we've got that W.”
Rutgers started the season 1-4 and went into its bye week after a 56-0 shellacking at the hands of Ohio State. The season was on the brink of no return and fans had a right to be legitimately concerned that a nightmare 1-11 season was possible. Rutgers was on a 16 game Big Ten losing streak and there were grumblings growing louder that Chris Ash was not going to turn things around. All of a sudden, Rutgers is 2-0 in October and has its first Big Ten winning streak ever in their fourth season in the conference. Ash was asked what changed in the past two weeks and his answer signaled the importance of how hard and long it takes to change the culture in a program:
“You don't win those games in the last eight days, you just don't. You win games in the off-season, back of the off-season, spring ball, summer conditioning, training camp. That's when you win these games. You just don't want to lose your team during tough times and adversity, and that's really, I guess, a testament to our players is we have been through some tough times. We didn't start off great. We were 1 and 4, some close games, some tough losses, and we stayed together, and we kept battling and kept fighting and kept getting better.”
“The formula doesn't change for winning games. We've got to go play really, really hard, and we've got to do our job. We've got to play four quarters of football. We've got to be good up front on both sides of the ball. We weren't today. But again, just because one part of that doesn't work, that doesn't mean you can't win games, and that's really what it was about today. You know, all three phases weren't clicking together for four quarters today, but we still did what we needed to in one phase or the other, made a few more plays that allowed us to win the game, and that's all that matters.”
The biggest takeaway from yesterday’s game for me is that winning ugly is an absolutely necessary step in rebuilding Rutgers football. It’s no secret this is a flawed team. The offensive line was manhandled by the Purdue front seven yesterday, who should have paid rent for living in the Rutgers backfield as much as they did in the game. The passing game continues to be anemic. The defensive line did not generate consistent pressure against the Purdue offensive line like we had hoped they would and the run defense was atrocious in this game. Injuries have taken a toll on a roster that was already lacking talent and depth. The coaching staff has been labeled as more conservative than a room of older British women at a tea party.
The reality is that the program has made real progress in the second season with Chris Ash at the helm. There is still a long way to go, there have been mistakes for sure and he is still learning on the job, but the culture he has built is starting to blossom. This team didn’t quit on him, his staff, or themselves entering the bye week at 1-4. They’ve now won the second most conference games in a season since Rutgers joined in 2014. The team has already won more games than last season and almost half of the schedule remains to be played. It doesn’t matter that the wins have come against two of the worst teams in the West division, or that Rutgers struggled at times against both of them. These wins are important for perception, recruiting, and most importantly, reinforcing the culture established under Ash and marking true steps forward in the rebuilding process.
We knew the schedule had aligned well and that playing Illinois and Purdue in back to back games was a major opportunity to prove this team was improving. It doesn’t matter how ugly either game was, the most important thing is that Rutgers won both games. Part of any rebuild is learning how to win and with the current state of the roster, winning ugly is the only realistic way they will be victorious on Saturdays the rest of this season. Winning ugly is a good thing, because the alternative provides no tangible progress.
The Eastern Michigan game is a perfect example. Fans were talking before the game how important it was for Rutgers to win convincingly to show real progress is happening. I wrote at the time that margin of victory doesn’t matter for a program that was currently on a 10 game losing streak. They just needed to win. Unfortunately, Rutgers lost and this season looked like it was becoming a trip towards disaster as the only destination. While it’s fair to groan that if Rutgers had just won that game, they’d be 4-3 right now and have a chance at a bowl game, program rebuilds do not travel in a consistent, positive trajectory. There are ups and downs, sometimes when you least suspect that they will happen. Sometimes players, coaches, and teams learn how to win and get better through the adversity they created and are surrounded by. They have climbed out of the depth’s of hell that was the loss to Eastern Michigan and they’ve won back to back Big Ten games. Style points are irrelevant.
Credit Ash for getting the most out of this team the past two games and changing the narrative around the Big Ten. Only eight out of fourteen teams have multiple conference wins and Rutgers is one of them. It doesn’t matter who they beat or how they won them. For a program that has finished in last place for two consecutive seasons and was unanimously picked last again this year, all that matters is winning games and proving everyone wrong.
Rutgers is tied with Michigan at 2-2 for fourth place in the Big Ten East, ahead of next week’s matchup. That fact alone helps to change the perception of Rutgers football, who won just one conference game the previous two seasons.
I’ve said before this rebuild is going to require time and patience, which is still very true. It’s also okay to enjoy these triumphs along the way, because winning ugly is a necessary part of Rutgers football changing the narrative permanently, both in the Big Ten and within all of college football. Most people don’t look at the stats, they see the final score. The past two weekends, college football fans have seen the score ticker on their television screens and saw that Rutgers was the winner. That’s progress!