In a season we all hoped would be marked by progress on the field in year two with Chris Ash as head coach, the hope that the 2017 campaign began with has been quickly replaced by despair before the calendar has even entered the midway point of September. Becoming the first Big Ten team to lose to Eastern Michigan in 39 tries and having that disappointing defeat follow a better than expected performance against a top ten team in Washington has put Rutgers in a major hole before conference play has even started.
While expectations for this season were modest, as doubling last year’s two win total seemed like the consensus on what sufficient progress would look like, even improving on 2016’s record is now in question. However, as difficult as things have been to start this season, all is not completely lost YET. With ten games still to play, Rutgers can still make progress this season and demonstrate the program is headed in the right direction. Nothing will be able to make up for the loss to Eastern Michigan, but they must produce some positive results at some point or this season will be one of the worst in program history.
I have hope this team can improve and frankly, there is nowhere for them to go but up from here on out. Here are seven things that Rutgers must do if they want to salvage the 2017 season.
As fans, we have the luxury of bemoaning bad losses forever, but the players must put this setback behind them quickly. Although Morgan State, an FCS school that has failed to score a point in its two losses so far this season, shouldn’t present much of a challenge this weekend, Rutgers needs to come out focused and execute well on Saturday. In addition, the team can’t let the EMU loss creep back in their minds once Big Ten play begins the following weekend at Nebraska. They have to try and wipe the slate clean as much as possible and play with a renewed purpose. Otherwise, the EMU defeat will end up costing them even more than just one loss, it will be a major factor in the season collapsing.
Offense Develop An Identity
I wrote about the offensive struggles after Saturday’s loss and it’s obvious there must be major improvement for Rutgers to be competitive in any Big Ten contest this season. Quarterback Kyle Bolin needs to improve his accuracy, the offensive line needs to give Bolin time and create holes in the run game, the backfield needs to consistently produce and the receivers need to cut down on mistakes and be more of a factor earlier in games. Offensive coordinator Jerry Kill has spoken previously about the importance of having an identity, but through two games this unit hasn’t developed one.
The offense is not devoid of playmakers, whether it be the running back tandem of Gus Edwards and Robert Martin, new tight end Jerome Washington, last season’s leading receiver Jawuan Harris, Arkansas grad transfer Damon Mitchell, and of course, Janarion Grant. It’s fair to have expected time for all of the newcomers to mix well with the rest of the offense, but this group has too much talent to be as bad as they’ve been through two games. Things need to get better quickly or things could get ugly in conference play.
Limit Blow Out Losses
This one is obvious and was the case before the season began. However, it’s even more important now that Rutgers avoid future embarrassments the rest of the season. I know moral victories are unsatisfying, but if they lose in games against Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State in the 30-10 neighborhood, as opposed to 40+ point losses, whether you want to admit it or not, that’s progress. The problem is Rutgers can’t afford laying an egg and getting torched by a blue blood like last season. If they get run off the field by the score of something like 49-7 or worse, the sting will be magnified by the fact they couldn’t even beat Eastern Michigan. As bas as last season was, Rutgers still owned a quality win over WAC co-champs New Mexico, a team that won 9 games. This season, they have accomplished nothing so far, so any blow out will bring even more negative attention and the pile on will be twice as heavy.
This is an obvious one, but for Rutgers to have any hope at winning games in Big Ten play, it must keep the core of key players healthy. While the season ending injury suffered by starting linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams in training camp was the only significant injury in the preseason, the defensive line is already banged up. Per NJ Advance Media’s Ryan Dunleavy’s practice report from yesterday, starters Jon Bateky and Kevin Wilkins were wearing green jerseys, as was reserve Jimmy Hogan, indicating they are on limited duty. Bateky and Hogan missed Saturday’s game due to undisclosed injuries. On the offensive line, starting left tackle Tariq Cole is hobbled, but expected to play against Morgan State. Luckily, no starter has been declared out for an extended period of time, but Rutgers certainly can’t afford for that to happen. We saw what happened when Grant and Quanzell Lambert were lost for the year in the fourth game of the season.
There is nothing worse that watching your team play tight, conservative football and the mistakes they make cost them any chance of winning due to the little margin of error that they created from playing that style. At this point, Rutgers is expected to go 0-9 again in the Big Ten. They have nothing to lose and hopefully Ash will look to be more aggressive in attempting to knock off conference foes. When a team is at a disadvantage talent wise, you have to find an edge or way to close the gap. Taking chances in order to generate big plays has to happen at some point. Rutgers is not going to be able to line up toe to toe with most Big Ten teams and have a chance by playing conservative, predictable football. Creativity in game planning, blitzing more on defense and looking to generate big plays on offense are a must if Rutgers is going to pull upsets this season.
Win 2-3 Big Ten Games
That leads me to my next point on what I think would satisfy the fan base and pundits alike that Rutgers is actually improving. The team has gone 1-17 in the Big Ten the previous two seasons. Winning 2-3 conference games would show that while Rutgers stumbled badly early on against Eastern Michigan, they got better as the season went along. That’s a key step in showing the program is headed in the right direction.
Looking at Steve Pikiell in his first year with the men’s basketball team, Rutgers was just 3-15 in Big Ten play in the regular season. But they won their last regular season game against Illinois and then beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament. That was tangible evidence to everyone that Rutgers basketball was improving. Football needs results to show the same. I wrote over the summer that games in October against Illinois and Purdue are winnable and they still are. Upsetting Indiana on the road or maybe even Maryland or Michigan State looks unlikely right now, but it’s not impossible. While a true signature win for Ash is seemingly out of the question this season, putting together more wins this year than the previous two would be an accomplishment that signals improvement.
Maintain Core Of 2018 Recruiting Class
All of the above leads to my final point that this program needs to accomplish this season and is the most important regarding the future. Credit Ash and the staff for doing a good job on the recruiting trail this summer in building a solid 2018 class, as it stands at the moment.
The staff has certainly dealt with the challenges of recruiting locally after a 2-10 season a year ago, but have still put together a class containing 19 commits with a 3-star rating and there is a lot of potential within the group. 247 Sports ranks the current class 10th in the Big Ten and 45th nationally. Rutgers must keep the core of this class together or it will be a devastating blow to the rebuilding process. If losses by wide margins pile up, it’s inevitable that some decommitments will occur. However, Ash did a great job last season in preparing the 2017 commits that bad losses were part of the process and the staff was able to keep most of them, resulting in the best class that Rutgers had in years. If he can do the same this season, in addition to showing some progress on the field, the program will have put together a two year run of infusing significant talent onto the roster. That would be a major step for Ash and something to point to as a reason to believe in the rebuild of Rutgers football under his direction.
Ryan Dunleavy of NJ Advance Media wrote why Ash is NOT on the hot seat right now and I agree patience is needed. Being a Rutgers football fan is not easy, but the reality is this program had many problems that Ash inherited and it’s going to take more time than most want it to take. There is a reason he was given a five year contract as a first time head coach, because this was always viewed as a massive rebuild. We all want to see better results and a loss to Eastern Michigan is unacceptable, but missteps are inevitable in the rebuilding process. However, Ash and this team have an opportunity to right the ship with ten games left on the schedule this season. If that happens, the program will still take a necessary step forward in the rebuild, despite the disappointing start.