Rutgers entered the conference opener at Nebraska as close to a two touchdown underdog. However, leading in the third quarter, there was real hope the Scarlet Knights could actually win the game. Sadly, as has happened many times in recent years, and in not so recent times too, who am I kidding, that hope was inevitably beaten to a bloody pulp. Rutgers had a major opportunity to walk out of Memorial Stadium with a monumental victory, but sadly too many mistakes led to their demise. After leading 17-14 early in the third quarter, Nebraska scored 13 unanswered points the rest of the way, winning the game by the final score of 27-17.
While it was good to see the Scarlet Knights provide a real test for the Cornhuskers, it’s very disappointing that they couldn’t execute down the stretch to pull off the upset. Here are some rapid reaction postgame thoughts on Rutgers’ fifteenth consecutive Big Ten loss.
The Drive That Lost It
With Rutgers leading by three points and Nebraska starting on their own 3 yard line, the Cornhuskers put together a 17 play, 8 minute drive that resulted in a Tanner Lee 8 yard touchdown pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El. It was the second 3rd and goal during their trip in the red zone. A costly penalty from Kiy Hester, called for a late hit on an incompletion that would have forced a field goal attempt, resulted in a new set of downs. Nebraska took a 21-17 lead with 2:49 left in the 3rd quarter and never relinquished control from there on out. In 90 degree heat, the Rutgers defense looked exhausted the rest of the game after that drive and the offense couldn’t get anything going.
Offense Was Pass Happy & Aggressive At The Start
The play calling was balanced overall in the game, but Rutgers came out throwing on the first drive, which resulted in a touchdown run by Gus Edwards. During the drive, tight end Jerome Washington made quite possibly the catch of the year in college football that resulted in a critical first down.
@RFootball CATCH OF THE YEAR pic.twitter.com/UPOui4bvph— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 23, 2017
Bolin started 10 of 12 for 78 yards passing but was incomplete on his last three attempts of the first half. One was a sure first down that Dacoven Bailey dropped. That forced Rutgers to punt after not converting on the next play on 3rd down, which lead to....
Special Teams Gives Up Huge Return
With the Scarlet Knights leading 10-7 with about five minutes left in the first half, coverage issues reemerged as Nebraska’s De’Mornay Pierson-El returned a punt 63 yards all the way to the 5 yard line of Rutgers. True freshman Bo Melton had a clear shot at Pierson-El near the sideline as he caught the punt, but he spinned out of the tackle and ended up almost scoring. Nebraska did so on the next play, as Mikale Wilbon ran it in for the touchdown.
Third Down Conversions A Major Difference
Coming in to this game, Rutgers was over 40% in third down conversions on offense and limiting their opponent under 30%. On the flip side, Nebraska had struggled on both ends. Unfortunately, both teams reversed their performance in this area and it was a big reason Rutgers lost the game. The Scarlet Knight offense suffered a stretch of failing to convert on eight consecutive third down conversion opportunities and finished just 3 of 12 for 25% in the game. Nebraska was 8 of 17 and it proved to be a big difference in the outcome.
Kyle Bolin struggled after the strong start and finished just 15 of 29 for 126 yards and two second half interceptions. His first was a costly turnover with Rutgers down 21-17 right before the end of the 3rd quarter, which led to a Nebraska field goal.
In terms of the run game, Gus Edwards had over 50% of the carries and rushed 15 times for 58 yards and a touchdown. A huge sequence came late in the first half with Rutgers having a 3rd and 1 near the 50. Jerry Kill called two consecutive handoffs to Edwards out of the pistol formation and Nebraska stopped both runs for no gain. It was great to see Rutgers go for it on fourth down, but there was no creativity on the play calling and the offensive line failed to get any push.
I would have liked to see Robert Martin get more carries in this game and in that sequence, in particular. He had just 5 carries for 14 yards. Johnathan Lewis could have been useful in short yardage situations, but was only used on a 2nd down play early in the third quarter, rushing for a 2 yard gain. After hearing from Kill this week that Lewis would be more involved after a 5 touchdown performance against Morgan State, it’s disappointing he didn’t play more, especially with Bolin struggling in the second half.
A Good Effort But Too Many Mistakes
It was great to see Rutgers come out fast on offense. The first drive was scripted well and executed to perfection. The problem is that the offense only produced 3 points the rest of the game and only 194 yards all day. They had opportunities to extend drives but as mentioned above, they struggled converting on third down.
The defense wore down in this game, but overall they played well at times. The best play on the day was this interception and 33 yard return for a touchdown by Kiy Hester.
Hester to the !@RFootball with another pick, and Kiy Hester had reservations for six: pic.twitter.com/YMze49W4k7— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 23, 2017
After that play, the Rutgers faithful who made the trip were loud enough for R-U chants to be heard on the live broadcast. That was the high point of the day and it all went down hill from there.
Blessuan Austin also had a interception in the game, but suffered a bad knee injury in the second half. No word on his status, but it didn't look good. Let's hope he recovers soon.
Overall, there were some encouraging moments, but Rutgers simply wasn’t good enough to take advantage of a Nebraska team that was on the cusp of breaking after the pick six to start the second half. A lack of execution and mental mistakes led to the loss. The absence of Janarion Grant, the team’s top playmaker, was certainly a factor. Inexperience certainly impacted their performance as well, as over 30 players on the Rutgers side had never been in a road game before today. It was a disappointing loss and now Rutgers prepares to host Ohio State next Saturday night. Hopefully, this team learned a lot from this defeat and they can be more successful in their next road game at Illinois on October 14th.