In Friday night’s loss to Washington, Rutgers showed that they are a different team from last season. After being down 48-3 in the third quarter against the Huskies in last year’s meeting, Rutgers was only trailing 10-7 at the same point of the game last night. That is the definition of progress. While too many mistakes were made for Rutgers to win the game, it certainly gives this team a solid base to build on moving forward.
Consider that Rutgers had sixteen players make their collegiate debuts last night and that nine were true freshmen. Five transfer players made their Rutgers debut. The fact that they made it such a tight game, despite such inexperience playing on this stage and with each other is much more surprising than the mistakes that cost them the game. The biggest takeaway is that this a completely different and more talented team than the one that went 2-10 in 2016. Head coach Chris Ash had this to say after the game:
“Really disappointed. Happy about the fight and the toughness and the improvement that a lot of guys made. A number of players played their first college football game tonight on national television. Did a lot of good things. Made some mistakes and some critical errors, or in critical situations that cost us but we'll keep moving forward. Keep getting better. But I like the direction that we're going. You know, if we can keep this team healthy, keep getting better, there will be a lot of fun football games to watch on Saturday nights here, or Saturday afternoons here at this stadium with our football team.”
There is no doubt that Rutgers had Washington in a precarious position in this game. There were several critical mistakes that cost the Scarlet Knights the opportunity to shock the world. The lack of execution on the punt returned for a touchdown, the two interceptions from Kyle Bolin, and the blown coverages on defense in the second half all contributed to the loss. However, there were more positives than negatives to take from this game.
The defensive line of Rutgers wrecked havoc at times and Kemoko Turay, the best past rusher on the team, looked like the 2014 version of himself last night. He was second on the team with five tackles and had two hits on quarterback Jake Browning.
The offensive line did a great job against the defensive line of Washington as well. They yielded just one sack and Rutgers controlled much of the contest with their ground game, dominating time of possession with having the ball for over 38 minutes of the game.
Both lines for Washington have players who will end up in the NFL in terms future and Rutgers held their own and even had the upper hand at times.
Tight end Jerome Washington has a chance to be a real threat in the passing game, as he had 6 catches for 36 yards and is physically imposing on the field.
On third downs, Rutgers converted on 9 of 19 chances, almost a 50 percent clip. They held Washington to just 3 of 11 on third down conversions.
These are all positives that the staff can point to and the players can build on for the rest of the season.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game was that Rutgers showed they could physically match up with Washington. Ash agreed:
“Last year, you watch that game, and you would have said, there was a lot of physical mismatches across the board. I don't feel that way right now. I feel like we just didn't execute in some critical situations on some key plays that cost us that football game. Until we learn how not to do that, we won't come out on the winning end. I feel like we're bigger, we're stronger, we're more athletic and we've got the ability to go toe-to-toe with good football teams but again, to beat them, we're going to have to play better football.”
Last season, the players looked like they knew they didn’t have a chance a lot of the time and were completely over matched against the best teams. The way they played against Washington last night should prove to them that they can challenge some of the better teams in the Big Ten if they can just execute better. That’s a huge step forward and it certainly helped the players confidence in proving that they belong. Here is what a few of them said after the loss:
WR Damon Mitchell (4 receptions for 46 yards)
"It's definitely a good feeling to be out there, but definitely a bad feeling to lose. I felt like competing against a top-10 ranked opponent in the country for the first week to kick off the year does a lot for us as an offense and a football team. We have some work to do and we made some mistakes and didn't have a perfect game, but we definitely will get back to the drawing board so that the mistakes won't happen again."
QB Kyle Bolin (24-34, 178 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT)
"I'm very pleased with how the offense played. Washington is a great team. They have a great defense, but we were able to move the ball the majority of the night. We just have to watch film and correct the mental errors and mistakes that we make. I'm really excited to see where this team can go in the upcoming weeks."
DE Darnell Davis ( 1 monster sack, 1 forced fumble)
"We can keep up with any team in this country, we just can't beat ourselves. When we go out there, we put our pants on just like they do. I feel like we had a good game along the d-line. But there's team success, unit success and individual success. I think the d-line played well, but we just have to keep working and perfect our mistakes."
CB Blessuan Austin (4 tackles)
"There were no physical mismatches at all. It was just great scheme. We just came up short. We can't beat ourselves. When a team adjusts to what you're doing, you have to be that much more disciplined and not make mistakes."
If Rutgers can learn from their mistakes and continue to gel as a team, there is real hope that they can win multiple games in the Big Ten this season. After watching film of this game, the players will likely believe they belong even more so than they did last night. The confidence gained in giving Washington all they could handle for a good part of the game is priceless. The next two weeks are critical for Rutgers to improve and take care of business versus two inferior opponents in Eastern Michigan and Morgan State. If they can do that, lessons learned from this Washington game could pay off in a major way for Rutgers in Big Ten play this season.