Big Ten play is now upon us and Rutgers will take on Nebraska on the road this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on BTN. There are plenty of storylines entering this game, which will be the third meeting between the schools since Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014. In the first season of joining the conference, Nebraska won 42-24 at Memorial Stadium and then beat Rutgers in Piscataway by the score of 31-14 in 2015. While the issue was never in doubt in either game, Rutgers hasn’t been overmatched against the Cornhuskers in the way they’ve been against the powers of the Big Ten East and West stalwart Wisconsin. The Vegas oddsmakers opened the line with Nebraska as 10 point favorites. Let’s look at five key storylines as Nebraska Week kicks off.
The Cornhuskers also enter this game with a 1-2 record and like Rutgers, own losses to a PAC-12 team (Oregon) and a MAC team (Northern Illinois). In fact, their opening season victory over Arkansas State was shaky at best, winning by just a touchdown. The loss to Oregon wasn’t that shocking and they were trailing by a big margin (42-14), before Nebraska ended the game with three consecutive touchdowns. The defeat at home this past weekend to Northern Illinois, on the other hand, has left their fan base teetering on the edge of madness. Mike Riley is in his third year on the job, one more than Chris Ash, but his seat is far hotter after a rocky start to the season. The loss actually puts a different dynamic on this game and Nebraska will certainly want to take out their anger on Rutgers this weekend. I always thought this game would tell us a lot about Rutgers, but that’s the case even more so now. Ash and the staff better have this team ready or it could get ugly quickly. We look at the Nebraska situation more here.
Bob Diaco - Jerry Kill Dynamic
The current defensive coordinator for Nebraska and former head coach at UConn has an interesting tie to Rutgers offensive coordinator Jerry Kill. Maybe tie is the wrong way to describe it, but one factor cited in the firing of Diaco at UConn was his unwillingness to meet with Kill, who worked with current Huskies AD David Benedict at Minnesota. Diaco refused to meet with Kill and that apparently was the last, or one of the last straws, in Benedict deciding to move on from his head coach. I’ve said before, but credit Ash for being secure enough to hire Kill, someone with far more head coaching experience than himself. Diaco is already off to a bad start at Nebraska, causing controversy just one week into the season. When the Rutgers offense lines up against the Nebraska defense this weekend, it’s an interesting footnote to keep in mind. Kill is certainly low key, but also very competitive, so you know he would love to get the upper hand in this matchup.
How Involved Will Johnathan Lewis Be?
Ryan Dunleavy of NJ Advance Media reported that Jerry Kill has decided to expand the role of Johnathan Lewis, based on his five touchdown game this past weekend, which led to him being named the Big Ten’s co-Freshman of the Week. How much more of a role is something we will have to wait to find out. I preached for him to get the chance to have his own drives at times moving forward. In Dunleavy’s story, the idea of Lewis coming in when Rutgers has the ball in or near the red zone was discussed as a possibility. Either way, it’s clear Lewis should be involved more and it’s a positive that Kill is embracing that, as well as starting QB Kyle Bolin, who told Dunleavy, "Like I told Coach Kill during the game, I have no problem driving the team 90 yards and letting John come in and put it in the paint. I'm all about getting points.” Spoken like the true captain that Bolin is. His buy-in with Lewis’s development should not be understated and is a key to the success of the offense the rest of the season.
How Good Is The Rutgers Defense?
After holding Washington to 23 points in the season opener, one year removed from allowing 24 points to the same offense in just one quarter, it was obvious the Rutgers defense was an improved unit. While they made some mistakes in the loss to Eastern Michigan, they did have three key goalline stands and held the MAC school to just 16 points. Pitching a shutout to FCS school Morgan State, a team that hasn’t scored yet in three games, wasn’t a surprise, but they dominated when they were supposed to. This week against Nebraska is a huge litmus test for the defense. The Cornhusker offense scored 88 points combined in their first two games, before stalling badly in the loss to Northern Illinois. Starting quarterback Tanner Lee has thrown a nation’s worst seven interceptions through three games, including three last Saturday, two of which were returned for touchdowns. To win at Nebraska, the defense needs to force takeaways and contain the Cornhuskers run game, which averaged just 2.6 yards per carry in the loss to Northern Illinois. This is their opportunity to make a statement.
Does Rutgers Have A Chance?
Of course they do. If Rutgers could have squeaked out a victory over Eastern Michigan, we all would be optimistic heading to Nebraska this week. The fact is Rutgers played better than expected against Washington and did everything they should have in the win over Morgan State. Rutgers must withstand the first quarter against a likely motivated Nebraska squad, who are hearing it from their fans since the loss. If the Scarlet Knights can hold strong early, the longer they can keep it close or take the lead, the more confidence they will have and the more doubt will creep into the opposite sideline. I see two scenario’s from the Nebraska side. They’ll either come together and play the most complete game of their season, in which Rutgers will be in trouble, or they’ll start to crumble at the first sign of adversity in this game and the outcome is there for the taking. However, Rutgers has to be ready and bring an aggressive style with them. Nebraska isn’t going to give them the game, but Rutgers may be able to outfight them for it.