The morning after a terribly disappointing and shocking blow out loss to Indiana leads to several conclusions for the current state of Rutgers football. Despite real progress this season, the program still has a long way to go. In fact, after winning three conference games in four weeks, Rutgers has hit a brick wall since leading Penn State 6-0 midway through the second quarter in its previous game. Since that lead, Rutgers has been outscored 76-0 in its past six plus quarters of football. That’s awful, especially since the real embarrassment came at the hands of Indiana, not Penn State.
The disappointment, perhaps anger with some fans, is actually a positive in my book. Last season, Rutgers was a hopeless football team. There was literally nothing to look forward to week after week. The 2-10 record was the worst in almost two decades. The team was so overmatched in every facet of the game, it was hard to watch and felt like a form of torture.
This season has been far different. It’s been a roller coaster ride that started by scraping the ground under the tracks, to rising high and seeing Big Ten foes behind Rutgers in the standings, to coming back to earth and being at ground level. There is no doubt yesterday’s loss was equal footing with the many demoralizing defeats that took place the season before. However, it was more upsetting because of the visible progress that has taken place this season. The defense and special teams play, in particular, have made strides and been major reasons why Rutgers has been more competitive this season.
It’s obvious that the offense has not made the progress necessary for the program to climb as far as we had hoped it would after the strong month of October this team had. After a six game sample size, it’s clear that starting quarterback Gio Rescigno has gotten the offense as far as he could. He has faced plenty of challenges in taking over the role during the bye week and helped lead this team to three conference wins. The best two receivers in the passing game, Janarion Grant and Jerome Washington, have battled injuries most of the season. Rescigno has battled his own minor injuries, showing real heart and guts in how he plays and runs the football. He has had a mostly young and inexperienced receiving core to throw to. The offensive line has been inconsistent at best in giving him time to throw. He has only thrown one interception, and although he has lost two fumbles, that’s still just three turnovers in six starts.
Even so, it’s clear what Gio offers at the most important position on the field and it’s simply not enough to get Rutgers to the next level. Gio has completed less than 50% of his passes and is averaging less than 100 yards passing per game. Without an ability to attack through the air, the Rutgers offense is inefficient, predictable, and extremely beatable against middle tier Big Ten teams or better.
The brutal loss yesterday against Indiana makes things easier for head coach Chris Ash in how he approaches the season finale at home against Michigan State. At 4-7, the slim hopes that Rutgers had of making a bowl game are over. It’s time to focus on next season and get the younger players on the roster more experience in the last game of this campaign.
It’s time to start Johnathan Lewis at quarterback and give him a full week to prepare as such. I’ve actually had this view since the bye week, and while the staff choosing Gio to start helped lead to three wins, I never thought it was a sustainable option. The staff made the decision they thought was best for the team at the time and I admit they were right, based on the results. However, yesterday’s result makes it clear things aren’t going to improve much more until the offense gets dramatically better.
Lewis was recruited to Rutgers by the Ash regime. Former offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer was key in getting Lewis to commit, and by all accounts, new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill believes in Lewis as the future starting quarterback. It’s short sighted to not think that the most likely scenario is for Lewis to take over the offense next season, regardless of the incoming recruits at the position. There is a reason Lewis didn’t redshirt this season and if an ankle injury didn’t severely limit Lewis after the Ohio State game, its likely he would have played much more this season. The staff knew they needed to show progress this season and felt Gio was the best short term answer. However, Lewis was always the long term option and now it’s time to switch for good.The quarterback is not the only issue with the offense, but it’s the biggest. The way things have played out at the position has been a microcosm for the entire season.
Rutgers has made steady progress in Chris Ash’s second season. You can’t deny that the Scarlet Knights winning three games in Big Ten play, after winning one combined in the previous two years, isn’t significant. It is. There have also been major disappointments, with two horrific losses to Eastern Michigan and Indiana. Of course, Ohio State also continued its now annual tradition of pummeling Rutgers. Still, there has been plenty of other positives, like being more competitive against certain ranked opponents, including Washington at home, and Michigan and Penn State on the road.
I think it’s hard to argue that reasonable expectations for this season haven’t already been met. The win total has doubled from last season, two of the three units are significantly improved, and Rutgers has been more competitive overall this season. They’ve done so with Janarion Grant having a limited impact, just one year after the offense had no hope without him. The best player on defense, Blessuan Austin, has been out since week 4, but the secondary has seen younger players step up at times and improve. The kickoff coverage unit has gone from dead last in the Big Ten a year ago to the best in the conference this season.
Football rebuilds take time and while this program is still far away from becoming a real factor in the Big Ten, there are tangible signs things are moving in the right direction. Yesterday’s loss doesn’t negate the progress already made, but rather, it proves that more adjustments, changes, and improvements are needed before its possible to take more steps forward. Hoping for more than four wins this season is fair, but it shouldn’t lead to surprise or disappointment that it likely won’t happen. On October 1st of this season, there was legitimate fear this team wouldn’t win another game the rest of the way. The Indiana loss shouldn’t diminish the positives achieved this season, if anything, it should highlight progress by how surprising the manner in which Rutgers lost was.
If the program can continue to improve this offseason at the rate it did in the last one, there is real hope this team can fight for a bowl berth next season. The fact that we were even entertaining that hope entering yesterday’s game for this season is something most all of us would have laughed at less than two months ago. How this team responds for the season finale against Michigan State is important in setting the tone for the offseason. Don't give up on them yet, as Rutgers has proven to be unpredictable this season, which is much better than being hopeless.