Just two months ago there were numerous questions surrounding the football program that only time could answer. With four games left on the schedule and the season winding down, I think there’s a much better understanding of what the team is and what it is not. Let’s examine some things we’ve learned about the team through nine weeks of the season.
The offense will live and die by the run.
Coach Kill is intent on slowing down the game, limiting turnovers and wearing down defenses. All of which can be accomplished by being able to run the ball effectively. When it works, it’s a thing of beauty as we saw in the Illinois game. When it falls flat like it did against Ohio State, the chances of grabbing a win seem non-existent. The rare exception is the game you saw two weeks ago against Purdue where Rutgers struggled to run but were still able to pull out a victory. My concern is that until Rutgers has the offensive line to match up up with the better defensive lines in the Big Ten, the run first mentality could box them into becoming a one dimensional offense. Opposing defenses can counter the run by simply loading the box, essentially daring Rutgers to throw the ball. My point is that even run heavy teams need to throw the ball at some point. We saw a little of that this week versus Michigan but it’s still an area of concern.
Good things happen when Raheem Blackshear gets the ball.
Hopefully the quad injury isn’t anything serious because Rutgers desperately needs more play makers on offense. If he’s back in action versus Maryland he deserves to get more touches. Whether it’s more carries, passing routes out of the backfield or just splitting him out as a wide receiver, just get the man the ball! And while I fully expect Gus Edwards to continue to see the majority of the touches, as physically he is the more durable of the two. I would like to see Coach Kill find creative ways to get the ball in Blackshear’s hands much like he did this week with direct snaps to Janarion Grant. Again, his health will obviously dictate the amount of snaps he sees going forward but when healthy he remains one of their most explosive options.
The heart of the defense lies in the secondary.
Not enough can be said about the secondary. After the Blessuan Austin injury the secondary could easily have packed things in but the positional group really stepped up. Possibly the MVP of the defense, Jawuan Harris has become a vital piece since moving to safety. I was hoping Isaiah Wharton would step into Austin’s role but he has struggled at times in coverage. Luckily, K.J. Gray has seemingly improved each week and in my opinion has been the most improved player in the secondary. He struggled at times against Michigan but you cannot deny the statistics. Through eight games Gray has 49 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and 2 interceptions. This might be a stretch but the positional group really reminds me of back when Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon were here. They weren’t household names but they were very athletic, solid tacklers and guys who contributed each game. If Austin gets cleared on the medical redshirt, this positional group could be one of the best in the Big Ten next year.
Rutgers can play loose from here on out.
Those two Big Ten wins were huge but all eyes should be on the remaining games. I actually think they still have a few winnable games left on the schedule especially the Maryland game that will now be played at High Point Solutions Stadium. But for the most part Rutgers will be heavy underdogs from here on out allowing them to play very loose. I’ve been calling for (and still waiting) for Coach Kill to start a game by taking a shot deep to get the offense some quick momentum and put opposing defenses on their heels early. I realize this offense isn’t the most creative but most defenses are aware of Rutgers’ intent on running the ball. Most defenses aren’t expecting Rutgers to come out and take that kind of shot early. This doesn’t mean deviating from the game plan but when you’re underdogs in every game, you’ve got to do something different to spark the team.
Although no longer the doormat of the Big Ten, Rutgers still has a ways to go.
It was certainly nice to see Rutgers not get blanked this week by Michigan but the distance between this program and the upper echelon teams is still pretty wide. Rutgers needs to continue to recruit Big Ten talent and build the program from the ground up. This means recruiting guys that fit your scheme. If Coach Kill is intent on being a run first team, they need to build the offensive line into one that can impose their will on defensive lines. Picking up Micah Clark last season was huge for this program but there are only so many four and five star guys to go around. Rutgers is lucky to get one or two per year, meaning they’ve got to evolve the guys that aren’t top talent. The good news is Rutgers has their quarterback of the future in Johnathan Lewis. This should allow them to focus on filling other positions in the next few seasons. It’s clear that a lot of progress has been made this year but the journey has only begun for Coach Ash and this program.