Entering the month of October, the fear that Rutgers football could be headed to a dismal 1-11 campaign was very much on the table. Chris Ash's program entered its bye week on the heels of a 56-0 blowout loss to Ohio State and had lost 13 straight games against FBS opponents and 16 straight contests in Big Ten play. The reality during the bye week was that Rutgers had done little so far in Ash's second season to demonstrate that progress was truly occurring. There was an encouraging performance in a loss to Washington to open the season, but an embarrassing defeat to Eastern Michigan severely heightened concern that this year would be even worse than the last, when Rutgers won its fewest games since 2002.
Five weeks have passed since that well timed bye week and oh, how things have changed. After going 4-23 in their first 3+ seasons in the Big Ten, Rutgers has won three of their last four conference games. It doesn't matter that the three teams Rutgers has defeated sit at or near the bottom of their divisions. What does matter is that the Scarlet Knights are beating teams they lost to by multiple scores last season. Rutgers lost to Illinois and Maryland by a combined 35 points in 2016, but beat them both this season. That's tangible progress.
The win over Maryland yesterday is an excellent example of how progress has been made this season. Rutgers was outgained by 39 total yards, committed one more turnover than the Terps, and lost the time of possession battle by over two minutes to the Big Ten's worst team in that category. The Scarlet Knights blew a first half, ten point lead and when they took over on their own 23 yard line, trailing 24-17 with just over 4 minutes to play in the third quarter, ESPN's Game Center gave them a 22.4% chance to win the game. Yet, as they've done in all three of their recent victories, Rutgers found a way to win. Chris Ash and the entire coaching staff deserve a ton of credit for this team's resiliency and toughness. This team has plenty of flaws and has suffered significant injuries to key players, but they continue to fight and battle, week in and week out. They've learned how to win ugly and it's a beautiful thing. When Rutgers has needed to make the plays necessary to win the game, they've made them.
One thing that has impressed me by Ash during his tenure is his ability to learn from his own mistakes. He hired 28 year old Drew Mehringer to run a spread offense last season and it was a disaster. Ash changed course and hired grizzled veteran Jerry Kill, who has installed a multiple offensive system that is better suited for the current personnel. After Ash's vision of running a flashy, exciting offense in year one turned into a nightmare, he brought in someone to run an offense that is the opposite of those things, but it's putting this team in position to win games. Ash is getting this team to win by running the football and playing hard nosed, timely defense. Simply put, Rutgers is winning by doing things the old fashioned way.
In addition, Ash realized that installing Louisville grad transfer Kyle Bolin was a mistake and made the change that was needed during the bye week. Coaches are stubborn by nature, especially when the change needed to be made shows they were initially wrong. Ash could have been insecure and unwilling to change in this case, but instead moved back to Gio Rescigno, who played well at times at the end of last season and brought stability to the offense since he took over this October. It's easy for fans to ask what if Ash had only started Gio from the start of this season, but hindsight is always 20/20. The reality is that Ash is still learning on the job, but the encouraging takeaway is that he is starting to figure things out.
As Ash and the staff continue to recruit, it's now very realistic to believe this team will continue to improve. The staff received a big boost this week with 4-star QB Artur Sitkowski committing, who flipped from undefeated Miami to Rutgers. Perception is reality and the reality is perception is changing in a very positive way, both on and off the field for this program.
Despite missteps during the 1-4 start to this season, Rutgers has made significant progress since. And they've proven the doubters wrong, as aside from a 3-3 record in conference play, they are 5-1 against the spread in Big Ten contests this season.
Rutgers now has a firm hold on fifth place in the East division, as they are now one game ahead of Maryland, who close their season against Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State. Even if they somehow did win one of those games, Rutgers holds the head to head tiebreaker after yesterday's victory. Indiana is 0-6 in Big Ten play and would need to beat Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue to finish ahead of the Scarlet Knights in the standings.
For a program that has finished in last place the previous two seasons, the fact that Rutgers enters the home stretch of this campaign in a strong position to finish ahead of both Maryland and Indiana is another positive step forward. As I wrote earlier this week, beating Maryland was huge in closing the gap between the two programs. Mission accomplished. Of course, beating Indiana on the road in two weeks would really be the icing on the cake to this season. It would also allow fans to dream of a stunning upset the last week of the season against Michigan State at home that would make Rutgers bowl eligible, but let's take things one step at a time. The fact that I could even write that sentence as a possibility on the first weekend of November demonstrates how much progress has been made this season.
After finishing Ash's debut season with a 2-10 record and 0-9 in Big Ten play, Rutgers sits at 4-5 and 3-3 in conference play. That's undeniable and significant progress. There was no respect for this program entering this season and even at the start of yesterday's telecast on BTN, they incorrectly stated Rutgers has never been to a bowl game since joining the Big Ten. The reality is that the shine of the 8-5 debut campaign in 2014, which included a bowl blowout victory over North Carolina, was quickly lost when the foundation came crumbling down the following season under former head coach Kyle Flood.
Ash took on the task of rebuilding this program and the fruits of his labor have bloomed in the past month. The culture and foundation he has laid within this program appears more solid as each week passes. No rebuild progresses in a straight line on an upward trajectory. However, after the first 17 games of Ash's tenure, it felt like the program was stuck in reverse. They've now been in full throttle mode ever since. With three games left this season, Rutgers is playing with house money and fans have real reasons to be hopeful the rest of the way, as well as for the future ahead. What a difference a month has made!