The non-conference portion of the 2017 season has been a roller coaster for Rutgers fans. After a better than expected performance against #7 Washington, who has gone on to defeat Fresno State and Montana by an average of 44 points, optimism quickly died after an embarrassing loss to Eastern Michigan. Rutgers then bounced back in the best way possible with a 65-0 win over Morgan State and while seeing the youth on this team shine was wncouraging, anything other than a rout would have been disappointing, based on the competition. This week will be very telling about the current state of this team and what we can expect from them the rest of the season.
Rutgers is set to open Big Ten play on the road against Nebraska on Saturday and they find themselves in an interesting position. With the longest current losing streak in FBS now behind them, the headlines and focus is not on the recent struggles of Rutgers football. Instead, it's the Cornhuskers who are reeling after suffering a 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois at home last weekend. Both teams enter the conference opener at 1-2 and while both fan bases are disappointed by that fact, one is dealing with a massive, expected rebuild and the other is having an identity crisis.
While the jury is still out on Rutgers head coach Chris Ash, although it's hard to deny obvious improvements he has made in every area but on the field so far, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley is fighting for his job in year three. In fact, if Rutgers wins on Saturday, Riley and athletic director Shawn Eichhorst might not make it to week five of the season. After a week of misery in Lincoln, a full out meltdown of epic proportions would result if they don’t win this weekend for a once proud program and former national power.
That's the beauty of this game for Rutgers. All of the pressure is on Nebraska. Despite the turmoil in Lincoln, no one outside of either fan base expects Rutgers to win. After opening up as a 10 point underdog, the spread for this game quickly shot to 14 points and is now teetering around 13. Rutgers is 2-10 on the road in Big Ten play all-time and hasn’t won a conference game since beating Indiana in Bloomington just over 23 months ago. Many players on the current roster have never played a road game in their college careers. If they lose the game, it will continue the narrative that Rutgers is still rebuilding and headed for another losing season. If Nebraska loses, anarchy may ensue. The odds are a bit different for each side.
While I agree with our Bob Cancro that a wounded animal is a dangerous one, which is exactly what the Nebraska football team is at the moment, there is also something very empowering about playing the spoiler and having nothing to lose. If Rutgers fails, it will be an expected loss in a season that they likely won't be favored in any Big Ten game on the schedule, with Illinois as the possible exception. But if they win, it will simultaneously re-energize Rutgers fans, who lost a lot of hope after the EMU loss, while devastating the other fan base that treats their football program like the Yankees, Giants, and Rangers combined. Ryan Dunleavy wrote about how there are 19 professional sports teams closer to Rutgers than the closest one to Nebraska. The entire state lives and dies with Cornhusker football. Expectations and the pressure are enormous and that weight will either make or break this Nebraska team the rest of this season. Right now, there are serious cracks in their foundation.
It's been said by a lot of our readers how this matchup is reminiscent of when Rutgers played a desperate Michigan team in 2014 at home and won in what was the program's first big Ten victory ever. While the significance of that win will never diminish, this game wouldn't be far behind, due to the long tradition of Nebraska football. While they are no longer a national power, the Cornhuskers have a proud tradition and they've still won 9 games or more in eight of the previous nine seasons. It would also mark the first Big Ten win for Chris Ash at Rutgers and his biggest victory to date.
A lot has to go right for Rutgers to win this game. They need minimize mistakes, start strong and avoid falling behind by multiple scores. The longer they can hang around, the more pressure Nebraska will feel in this game. The tension in the stands is going to be crazy at kickoff and it will only be amplified by every miscue the home team makes. Momentum is a crazy thing and will be a real factor in this game. Can Rutgers finally be on the right side of it?
Nebraska’s starting quarterback, Tanner Lee, leads the country with 7 interceptions and is completing just 52% of his passes. The offensive line is suffering multiple injuries and will likely miss two starters for this game. The run game for Nebraska has been solid so far this season, but so has the Rutgers defense in limiting the opponent’s ground game. I hope we see lots of pressure from the defense and aggressive play calling from Jay Niemann, who by the way, came to Rutgers after serving as DC for five years at Northern Illinois, the MAC team that just knocked off the Cornhuskers. There should be little doubt that the defense should be as prepared for this game as any all season and it will come down to effort and execution. The tone that the Rutgers defense sets in this game is crucial to the outcome.
On offense, expect Jerry Kill to run early and often on the road to establish the ground game and work to dominate time of possession. At the same time, Rutgers will need its playmakers to come through. Janarion Grant and Jerome Washington are matchup problems for any defense and it’s up to Kyle Bolin to get them the ball and let them work. The 1-2 punch of Gus Edwards and Robert Martin needs to be effective early and don’t be surprised to see true freshman Raheem Blackshear get a few carries. As we now know, his speed off the corner can result in big gains. Throw in the fact that Kill made it clear this week that another true freshman, quarterback Johnathan Lewis, will see more action in this game and all of sudden, Rutgers is a more difficult offense to prepare for than Nebraska’s.
I actually think Rutgers getting away from home for the first time this season is a good thing. They will be isolated and will be far from any pressure they’ve felt playing at home to start the season. For the newcomers, playing their first road game at Memorial Stadium is a heck of a welcome to college football. However, the environment will allow them to focus purely on the game and there shouldn’t be any distractions. Ash has not only added talent on the roster, but players who love to play the game and for the grad transfers, this is their last season to make an impact. Call it a hunch, but Bolin has played in these types of environment’s before and I think he could have his best game yet in a Rutgers uniform on Saturday. The leaders on this team need to step up and winning this game would change the tune for the rest of the fall with this program.
All I hope for is that Rutgers comes out ready to play and gives it their best shot. Despite all that is going against Nebraska at the moment, the Scarlet Knights are still facing a more talented team that is one season removed from winning 9 games. No one outside of followers of these two teams in college football expects Rutgers to win. From a national perspective, this game is about Nebraska and whether they can turn things around, which is why Rutgers has nothing to lose. No matter the final result in this game, I just hope this team goes down swinging. Play aggressive, don’t back down, and let the chips fall where they may. For the first time in a long time, Rutgers can be the team to inflict pain on another. If the defense plays like they did against Washington, while the offensive and special teams units continue to make strides, Rutgers can walk out of a storied venue as a surprise victor.