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Random Thoughts The Day After Rutgers Football’s Loss To Nebraska

The rebuilding process is not fun or easy to watch, but it’s not all bad

Rutgers v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Rutgers has now lost fifteen consecutive Big Ten games. They lost to a vulnerable Nebraska team in a game that was for the taking. The fan base is upset and rightfully so. After going to a bowl game in nine of ten years, this will be the third straight losing season for the program. However, it’s also important when looking at the obvious problems that continue to be major issues, to also look at the details and see what positives are happening as well. Here are a few thoughts on where this team stands four games into the 2017 season and second with Chris Ash as head coach.

  • People can bemoan the coaching staff all they want, and there are definitely reasons to do so, but the fact is a major reason Rutgers falters in the second half against power five competition is due to a lack of depth. Rutgers trailed Washington and Nebraska 10-7 and 14-10 at halftime, both because they surrendered long punt returns that led to touchdowns and cost them the lead before the break. The defensive line, in particular, has now worn down in the second halves against Washington and Nebraska, after playing relatively well. Ash and the staff certainly need to be held accountable for this team’s performance and their inability to close out games. However, it’s also unfair to not take into account how low on Big Ten talent the roster was when Ash took over. It’s going to take several recruiting classes to get the Rutgers roster where it needs to be to truly be competitive. If the 2018 class holds the way it is comprised right now, that will mark two consecutive classes with significant talent added to the roster.
  • Despite depth being in an issue on defense, there is no denying this unit is improved from last season. You can read David Anderson’s detailed review of their performance yesterday here. After giving up 12 touchdowns through four games last season, the Rutgers defense has given up just 6 touchdowns through four games in 2017. And that includes a one play, four yard touchdown drive yesterday for Nebraska after the 63 yard punt return from De’Mornay Pierson-El. Both four game starts included three bowl teams from last season. That’s progress.
  • The Washington comparison is most striking, as they have scored 31 or more points 18 times in their past 21 games. The only teams to hold them under 31 points were USC, Alabama, and Rutgers. After the Scarlet Knights allowed the Huskies to score 48 points and the defense surrendered four touchdowns in the 2016 game, the Washington offense scored just two touchdowns in the rematch this season. Last night, the Huskies went on the road against reigning PAC-12 South champion Colorado and put up 37 points in a four score victory. Rutgers has played the soon to be top five Huskies the toughest so far this season.
  • As bad as the offense has been this season, it is still an improved version from last year. In red zone trips this season, Rutgers has scored in 14 of 15 opportunities, 10 of which have been for touchdowns, which is already one more than all of last season. In 2016, Rutgers had just 25 red zone trips in 12 games and scored on just 17 of them, including only 9 touchdowns. Last season’s offense was the worst in college football, so some improvement was expected, but the reality is they are far better in the red zone this season. The problem is they need to get there much more often.
  • Jerry Kill as offensive coordinator is exactly who we thought he’d be. Read this Q&A we did with SB Nation’s Minnesota site, The Daily Gopher, and this answer in particular: “Typically it has always been a run-heavy offense that uses play-action for the passing game. That is very vague and general, but the Gopher offense relied upon a good offensive line, a good running back and a lot of runs up the middle.” Kill has certainly been a conservative, even unimaginative play caller at times so far through four games. The problem with trying to be a power run team is that the Rutgers offensive line just isn’t capable of being able to generate a push on a consistent basis. Depth is a major issue with that group as well. The passing game has been stagnant and it’s been frustrating to watch. The offense is suffering from an identity crisis, after switching from a pro-style to a spread to whatever it is now. Kill must find something this unit can excel at or things will only get worse as Big Ten play continues.
  • Kyle Bolin has completed 67 of 117 pass attempts for 57% and thrown for 642 yards, 3 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He was voted a team captain and has been praised for his work ethic, but he hasn’t been producing on the field the way Rutgers needs him to. Bolin has looked like a less mobile version of Gio Rescigno, who is currently the 3rd string quarterback behind true freshman Johnathan Lewis. It was worth a shot to add Bolin this season and he seems like a great kid who has done all the right things, but it’s soon becoming time for Ash and Kill to focus on the future. I think Bolin gets the start this week against Ohio State, but Lewis should get time to get his feet wet in running the offense against a Big Ten defense. Then you have the bye week to have time to prepare him to start against Illinois, a game that is certainly winnable for Rutgers. I just don’t see the point of letting Bolin start much more this season if his results are going to be what they’ve been through four games. As a fifth year senior, Bolin is what he is.
  • Rutgers is still a very young and inexperienced team. Thirteen true freshman have played this season and there are double digit redshirt true freshman playing as well. Over 30 players on the roster had never played a road game in college football before yesterday’s loss. That is an obvious sign this program is still in the early stages of a rebuild.
  • The Big Ten losing streak is now at 15. It’s painful and frustrating to watch as fans, no doubt. But the anger and ridicule from some fans has surprised me. Maybe it shouldn’t, but I’m not sure what people were expecting in year two of the Ash Era. The Eastern Michigan loss was embarrassing and unacceptable. But no rebuild is linear in progress and the other three games have shown this team has improved. Rutgers was close to a two touchdown underdog on the road to Nebraska and lost by 10 points, without its best playmaker in Janarion Grant. If this game was at home, the outcome may have been different. Last year, Rutgers loses this game by 30 points or more. Of course, they had their chances to win the game and I was upset about their failure to do so too.
  • Let’s give the narrative that Ash is doomed and will never succeed here a rest. His in-game coaching performance needs to improve, but he is still learning on the job. He has accomplished quite a bit off the field in getting facilities added and buy-in from key donors and the administration in a short time and before having success on the field. Ash’s ability to get key people to believe in him, as well as recruits in both last year’s and this year’s class is of major importance. It takes time to rebuild a program that was as in bad a shape that it was when he took over. Look at another defensive minded coach who took over a once hapless, power five program. Mike MacIntyre went 10-27 in his first three seasons at Colorado, including 2-10 in his second year. They’ve gone 13-5 since, including a PAC-12 South title. Heck, MacIntyre went 6-19 in his first two seasons at San Jose State, before going 10-2 in his last year, which led him to Colorado. It is premature to give up on Ash just 16 games into his tenure.
  • Patience is a virtue as they say and it seems to be disappearing around Rutgers football before the calendar turns to October. How this team progresses this season is key. The simple fact is this team is still learning how to win and until they do, we will experience more days like yesterday. But there are signs progress is occurring, even though it might not be obvious on game days. Rutgers has a great chance to end the conference losing streak in three weeks at Illinois. Giving up now is silly, but also not preparing for the long haul in this rebuild is too. The success of 2006, 2012, and even 2014, a year literally everything went right for Rutgers, feels like miles away. The reality is it’s going to take a marathon pace to get back to that type of success and it’s time to accept that fate.