For one half, Rutgers hung in with Penn State much the same way they hung in with another ranked opponent Michigan, and in the same way they hung in for more than a half against nationally ranked Washington.
In all three matchups, the Scarlet Knights found themselves on the losing end, and eventually conceded 30+ points, belying the high level of defense Rutgers actually played in all three games.
In every one of those matchups, Rutgers not only played solid “bend-don’t break” type defense, but more than occasionally, they dictated terms.
Against Penn State, Rutgers put the Nittany Lions behind the chains, stopped the run and forced the ball out of Barkley’s hands.
Rutgers held Penn State’s Heisman candidate Saquan Barkley to just 35 yards rushing, it forced a quarterback change against Michigan, and forced a change in gameplan from Washington in the season opener.
Unable to run the ball, the Washington Huskies opened up the playbook and beat a tired Rutgers’ secondary to eventually open up their 16-point margin of victory.
So what happened?
In the Washington game, it was a change in gameplan. But, what enabled that change to succeed?
In the Michigan game, it was a switch at quarterback, and for Penn State, it was using Barkley as mainly a decoy, while Trace McSorley did his best impression of Tim Tebow circa 2008.
The key for these talented teams to eventually unlock the Scarlet Knight defense actually were found on the other side of the ball. In fact, it was what enabled teams Rutgers beat: Maryland and Purdue especially, to get back into those games as well.
Rutgers, with its one dimensional offense pounding the ball into the line of scrimmage eventually fell into prolonged droughts without a first down.
Once that happened, the defensive unit was forced to take a pounding play after play, and eventually talent won out as Penn State, Washington, and Michigan consistently drove the field en-route to reaching 30+ points.
The Rutgers passing offense has had its moments; the wheel-route touchdown to Raheem Blackshear and Gus Edwards’s 23-yard TD catch against Maryland on third down for example. However, it is fair to say those were moments of Jerry Kill catching the opposing defense in the right moment and a play working to perfection to its first option.
When Rescigno is forced to make choices, or go to secondary options, it just hasn’t worked consistently for RU in 2017.
The building blocks for success are there. The defense is developing and the offense is a bit behind. But once Rutgers can find its aerial attack to go along with a solid run game, the Knights will be a solid Big Ten team.