While I was hopeful that Rutgers would perform well in their season opener against a top ten team in Washington, the game on the schedule that always seemed more critical was week two against Eastern Michigan. Beating Washington would have been a major upset and while Rutgers had their chances to win the game, they also demonstrated major improvement from last season. However, it was just one game, and a loss at that. In order to continue to push the needle forward from a progress and respect standpoint, Rutgers must take care of business this weekend against a bowl team from last season hailing from the gritty MAC conference.
Sure, a few college football analysts offered praise of Rutgers on twitter during the Washington game, but it means nothing if this team can’t build off of that performance. Just because Rutgers looked improved in their first game doesn’t mean they will end up being a good football team this season.
Every game is crucial to a team’s success, but the matchup against Eastern Michigan is a must win. Rutgers needs to continue to show progress on the field and beat the teams they are supposed to. This matchup is likely only one of two games they will be favored to win this season, with the other coming the following week against Morgan State, an FCS school (note: Illinois and Purdue are possibilities as well). There are multiple steps that must be achieved in rebuilding a program and Rutgers needs to win the next two before the Big Ten season begins to start year two of the Ash era in the right direction.
Head coach Chris Ash spoke on Monday regarding the challenge that Eastern Michigan poses:
“Obviously spent a lot more time watching their offense. They go really fast. Quarterback is a good player, plays with a lot of poise and composure, understands their offense, executes exceptionally well. Got a lot of respect for what they've done. And I know Chris Creighton personally, he's a really good coach, done a great job with that program.”
“But it starts with the quarterback. You're not going to win games without quarterback play, and they got that last year. And in the first game he's building off of what they did last year. It's going to be a tremendous challenge for us because, again, they are a bowl team. They've got a lot of confidence right now. They do have enough experience back in the right spots that they can be a dangerous football team.”
From a defensive standpoint, the line play against Washington was better than expected and held the Huskies to just 84 yards rushing on just 3.5 yards per carry. The good news is that Eastern Michigan only averaged 3.1 yards per carry in their 24-7 win over Charlotte in week one. If Rutgers can contain the running game and make EMU one dimensional on offense, the secondary will have opportunities to make plays in the passing game. While EMU’s quarterback, Brogan Roback, didn’t have his best performance against Charlotte (22-31, 267 yards, 1 INT), he is capable of giving the Rutgers defense trouble. As a fifth year senior, he is experienced and threw 34 touchdowns and just 18 interceptions combined in the past two seasons. Playing a veteran signal caller is always dangerous for an inexperienced team like Rutgers.
It’s silly to think that Rutgers will be looking ahead to Big Ten play and not take a team like Eastern Michigan seriously. As experienced as this coaching staff is, they will obviously do everything in their power not to let that happen. I believe the players are also highly motivated to prove the many doubters wrong this season. However, with the first week of college football producing two major upsets in Liberty defeating Baylor and Howard stunning UNLV, Ash was asked if he was concerned about Rutgers taking the new two games lightly. This was his response:
“We don't take any games lightly, period. We haven't won a game in 11 tries. There's not one game that we're going to take lightly. Every game is a big game, preparation is going to be the same. We need to get better, that's what it is. Whatever happened with other teams around the country, I see it, I like to look at scores. But every situation is different. Every week is different. We've got our own issues. We need to keep developing and improving and working hard and staying focused on us and what we do. And that's it. That's what we talk about more than anything else.”
The reality is that after a 2-10 record in 2016, there should be no assumed guaranteed wins, even by fans. This program is fighting for respect and the only way that truly changes this season is with major progress on the field. I’m sure some Rutgers fans are looking ahead and are dreaming of an upset in the Big Ten opener on the road against Nebraska, a team that is inexperienced and needed a goal line stand to beat Arkansas State 43-36 last weekend. However, Rutgers needs to stay focused on the task at hand and take another step forward this Saturday against Eastern Michigan above all else. Ideally, they dominate the game and win convincingly. But really, they just need to win. Style points are irrelevant right now. Ending the current ten game losing streak, getting better and learning how to win is all that matters.
It wasn't even that long ago that an undefeated Rutgers team lost to a MAC team at home, when Kent State ended a 7-0 start in 2012.
Another strong performance from the defense, improved production from the offense, and a reduction of mistakes overall will result in more progress in game two. If Rutgers wants to gain respect and prepare themselves to perform better in Big Ten play this season, there is no alternative. Don’t get me wrong, Rutgers isn’t going to change perception and erase the past two years just by winning the next two games. But they have to start somewhere. Beating a bowl team from last season from a tough conference like the MAC is a good place to begin. Every win this season will bring a little more respect with it. Hopefully, step one is achieved this Saturday against Eastern Michigan.