In a previous article of mine, I noted that one of the reasons I continued to watch Rutgers Football in 2017 was that it couldn’t be any worse than 2016, right? 2-10 overall, 0-9 in the Big Ten, 0-5 on the road, a whopping 224-0 combined score against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. So while 2017 certainly was an improvement, I don’t think we can classify the 4-8 record as either a surprise or a disappointment, primarily because while most people (myself included) did not see the loss to Eastern Michigan coming, those same people likely did not think 3 Big Ten wins were in the cards for this team.
So let’s get to it (bad news first, right?):
5 Disappointments of 2017
Anyone who watched all 12 games this season knows just how bad the quarterback situation was for Rutgers. After holding our collective breath for weeks during training camp, Chris Ash named Louisville transfer Kyle Bolin the starter. It was almost like Rutgers was #TransferU, with a transfer at starting QB, a transfer at starting RB, a transfer at starting TE and a DIII transfer punter (major props to Ryan Anderson’s excellent season).
But I digress. It became abundantly clear that Bolin was neither the answer nor a stopgap at QB, throwing for just 3 TDs and 6 INTs over the first four games before ceding work to Gio Rescigno against Ohio State. While it can be argued that the lack of weapons proved to be a deciding factor in Bolin’s inefficiency, the tape showed he simply was not a starting-caliber QB.
But neither is Gio Rescigno, who took over starting duties and made us all cringe every time the offense stepped on to the field. For the record, I love Rescigno’s spirit and commitment to the program. I admire his resiliency after 2016 and I can only imagine how hard he worked in the offseason. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that in order to be considered a dual-threat QB, one has to possess both rushing and passing capabilities. We knew Gio wasn’t much of a passer based on his 2016 season, but a 47% completion rate, 517 yards and 2 TDs on 47 total passes all season? Sure, he threw just 1 INT and was careful with the ball, but a 5.2 YPA doesn’t get you far. And if the rushing game was stalling, the offense was dead in the water. Rescigno had more rushing attempts than he did completions on the year (53 to 47), but there was never any real threat to opposing defenses when he dropped back. Perhaps most disappointing was the [lack of] use of freshman Johnathan Lewis. The highly touted, 4-star prospect dealt not only dealt with a nagging ankle injury but apparently didn’t make enough progress in the passing game to warrant serious game action. We saw a glimpse of his capabilities against Morgan State, as a big, bruising, yet elusive and deceptively quick dual-threat, but his limited performances against better competition left us wanting.
2. Late-Season Letdowns
This should say letdown (singular), since it was a bit far-fetched to think Rutgers would beat the surging Spartans to conclude the season. I certainly wanted more for our Seniors, as the team looked to just roll over and take the L before the game even started. But this is more about the bludgeoning at the hands of the Hoosiers. Rutgers and Indiana had, up to that point, had a few pretty exciting games over the last few years, with the Knights capturing the 2014 and 2015 games (45-23, 55-52) and losing last year 33-27. But this was an embarrassment. The fanbase is used to blowouts…but from Ohio State and Penn State. Not a fellow middle-of-the-pack team. Indiana amassed a whopping 503 yards of offense while the Knights could only muster 190. The defense allowed plays of 57, 45 and 36 yards while the offense’s 2 longest plays from scrimmage were 25 and 19 yards. The 4-8 record would look a little better knowing that the team finished the season with a combined 81-7 score over the final two games.
3. Janarion Grant
It remains to be seen if Grant, who some thought could be a 2nd or 3rd round pick after the 2015 season, will be drafted after an injury-plagued 2016 and 2017. He was rarely on the field this year and his absence was as plain as day. Without their top playmaker, Rutgers could do next to nothing on offense in the passing game.
So for good measure, let’s look at Grant’s big (and only) highlight of the 2017 season:
4. Talent Gap
If 2014 taught us anything, it’s that Rutgers has a long way to go to compete for a Big Ten East Title. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that Rutgers hasn’t made any progress in that respect. If we truly want to measure Rutgers’ successes, failures, strengths, weaknesses, and comparisons to fellow Big Ten members, we must throw out 2014. Sorry to say this, but it was a fluke. Rutgers beat a Brady Hoke-led Michigan team (and benefitted from a very questionable call on a Michigan incompletion down the stretch) as well as Maryland and Indiana, but got clobbered by Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, and couldn’t pull out a victory at home against a very mediocre Penn State team. Now, Michigan has gotten better, Penn State has gotten better, and as far as the talent gap goes between Rutgers and the big boys, it’s still extremely wide. Even Indiana put up 21 against Ohio State. Purdue held Wisconsin to 17 points. Why can’t Rutgers keep it competitive? I need to see more than 20 minutes of competitive play against the big boys before I’m ready to say the gap is narrowing. Heading into 2018, a good litmus test will be against Northwestern, a school that has its own sad history of football but seems to be on the rise. It’s a home game, as are the games against Indiana and Illinois, so I’m hoping for at least two wins there. But I’ll be looking more closely to see if Rutgers can cover the ridiculous spreads that are likely to appear @ Ohio State, @ Wisconsin, vs. Michigan, vs. Penn State, and @ Michigan State.
5. Redzone Defense
Considering the offensive woes of the 2017 Scarlet Knights, time of possession was a backbreaker for the defense. Rutgers ranked 98th in the nation on TOP, and Rutgers Punter Ryan Anderson punted an astounding 79 times on the season, tied for 5th-most in the nation. Needless to say, enemy offenses were often knocking at the door. And it was a near guarantee that they would score. Out of 129 teams, Rutgers ranked 126th in RedZone defense, allowing a score 93.9% of the time. Opponents entered the RedZone 49 times and came away with a TD on 37 times (9 FGs allowed). If Rutgers is going to have any chance at making games more competitive next year, they’re going to need to force turnovers in the RedZone or, at the very least, adopt more of a bend-don’t-break attitude. High Point Solutions Stadium may not have a large capacity in comparison to other programs, but it can get loud, and one way for that to happen is some crucial 4th-down stops or turnovers in the RedZone.
It wasn’t all bad, though! The consensus around fans and recruits alike is that the program is heading in the right direction. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and this program won’t flourish overnight or over the course of 1 season. But 2017 provided some nice surprises for sure.
5 Surprises of 2017
1. The Running Back Rotation
This team went into the season opener against Washington with just RB Gus Edwards and FB Max Anthony on the depth chart. Edwards was a highly-touted transfer from Miami, but still a new face for the Scarlet Knights. He was by far the most used running back on the roster, and his north-south style of play and ability to demolish would-be tacklers was reminiscent of Ray Rice. Just take a look at this stat from ProFootballFocus:
Gus Edwards had quite the year for Rutgers. pic.twitter.com/L2rGQcGGZS— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 29, 2017
Over the course of the season, however, while Edwards retained his position as the lead back, OC Jerry Kill successfully got Josh Hicks, Robert Martin, and—most importantly—freshman Raheem Blackshear involved. By the end of the season, the duo of Edwards and Blackshear proved most effective, with Blackshear often spelling Edwards on 3rd downs or sometimes for a series at a time. Edwards finished the season with 713 yards on 164 carried and 6 TDs, while Blackshear made excellent work in the passing game, averaging 19 yards per catch and matching up well against LBs on wheel routes. I’m hesitant to call Blackshear the Rutgers RB of the future, or the workhorse for next season, primarily because of his stature (5’9, 185 lbs), but there’s no doubt his mid-season emergence left plenty of fans optimistic about the next handful of years.
2. Winning Record against Big Ten West
Let’s take this with a grain of salt, but for the first time in the team’s Big Ten tenure, Rutgers finished with a winning record in crossover divisional play, beating both Illinois and Purdue, and losing to Nebraska. And in fact, the Nebraska game did feel winnable. The Scarlet Knights led 10-7 early in the second quarter and it was still just a on- touchdown deficit entering the fourth quarter. Looking back on it, this one might have stung more than the EMU loss. The Husker program is nowhere near what it was during the first 2 matchups with Rutgers (with wins of 31-14 and 42-24) and this game felt like Rutgers could walk out of Memorial Stadium with a sneaky W.
Nevertheless, Rutgers took care of business against Illinois and Purdue. Purdue was (perhaps, is) a team on the rise somewhat, and tallied wins against Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana in 2017, so the win over the Boilermakers is a little more impressive than at first glance. It was also nice to stick it to Jeff Brohm one more time.
3. Offensive Line
It was no secret to opposing defenses that when Rutgers was on offense, it was run-run-run-run….and then run some more. With little to no passing attack, the Scarlet Knight RBs were confronted with stacked boxes most of the time. Still, the offensive line paved the way and created holes to the tune of 150 rushing YPG. The stat might be a little inflated, thanks to the Rutgers’ massive 274 yards rushing against Illinois, but there was a rarely a game in which the offensive line failed to create space. Robert Martin, Gus Edwards, Blackshear and Rescigno combined to rush for 157 yards (4.0 YPC) against Penn State, the Knights tallied over 100 yards rushing against Ohio State and nearly hit the century mark against Michigan as well. Additionally, the offensive line allowed just 18 sacks all year long, best in the Big Ten East and second in the Big Ten only to Wisconsin. Sure, the amount of dropbacks combined between Gio Rescigno and Kyle Bolin is dwarfed compared to the amount from Trace McSorley or JT Barrett, but allowing the fewest sacks in a Power-5 conference is no walk in the park.
I have to hedge a little bit here, because the secondary took a step back in a few statistical categories, most notably passing yards per game allowed. However, it was a group constantly in flux, and the season-ending injury to star CB Blessaun Austin cannot be overstated. That being said, however, Rutgers finished 5th in the Big Ten and 2nd in the Big Ten East with 12 INTs, and 3rd in the Big Ten East with 51 Passes Defensed. The defense itself was also just one of two Big Ten East teams (Michigan) with multiple defensive TDs, one of which was this exciting pick-6 by Damon Hayes during the Maryland game this year.
5. Kickoff Coverage
Rutgers had its fair share of special teams blunder, whether it was the PR-TD in the season-opener that increased Washington’s lead or a couple muffed punts during the season. But one bright spot for the special teams play (and perhaps we’re reaching here) was their kickoff coverage. Ranked 18th-best nationally, Rutgers led the Big Ten in kickoff coverage, allowing just 18.03 yards per return and not a single kick-return TD. Considering the field-position battle was so crucial during close games, the special teams unit’s ability to lengthen the field for opponents and, in return, shorten the Scarlet Knight’s offensive drives, stellar kickoff coverage was crucial.
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