September is over and that’s a good thing for Rutgers football. Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Indiana dropped them to 1-4 on the season. After more of the same in the first half against the Hoosiers, Rutgers played better in the second half, but their comeback fell short in the final minutes. Some of our contributors share their thoughts on the loss and what to look for this week against Illinois.
Patrick Mella: I imagine this feeling much like when your kid brings home F grades all year only to surprise you with a solid C-. What can you say really? It was nice to see the team show some fight in this one. It was far from a clean game but the way Rutgers has been manhandled this season, it was nice to see them put together a somewhat competitive game. More perplexing however is the shaky early defensive play that has plagued this team all season long. At this point the offense isn’t developed enough to rally back from 14 points plus deficits early. On a positive note though, Sitkowski looked much more comfortable in the second half. Fans knock his passing accuracy, but one thing about him that you cant deny is his toughness. The kid has taken shot after shot and gotten up every time. If they could cut down on the penalties and clean up the offensive line play, this offense just might be able to put up some points. Overall it was a step up from what we’ve seen from the team this year but it’s still far from being a good product on the field.
Jim Hoffman: I hate the whole concept of “moral victories” but if there ever was a game that fits the term, this one was it. Sitkowski looked like things are starting to slow down for him behind center for the first time this season, and seeing a 52 yard field goal means that a new dimension opens up for Scarlet Knights. Their second half performance was what we want to see for four quarters, starting next week maybe? I think that playing like that against the Illini will bring away a victory, but who knows with this team?
Like Patrick above, Artur’s toughness impressed the heck out of me. He is willing to take a big hit to make a big play, and that means a lot, particularly as his accuracy and his comfort level leading the team improves. It is clear hearing the players after the game that there is a great deal of respect for him as well. I am heartened by the team’s play, which is a first for me in 2018.
Lance Glinn: I feel like I have seen this result before. And by this result of course, while a loss occurred, I am talking about the “moral victory”. Sitkowski looked to have turned a corner and looked more confident in his throws. Justin Davidovicz looks like a reincarnation of Jeremy Ito. Mike Tverdov looks as though he could become a real catalyst on the defensive line for years to come.
But ultimately the scoreboard still read 24 - 17 Indiana at the end of the fourth quarter, and while that moral victory allows fans to see positives, the most crucial result did not go the Scarlet Knights way. Yet, the “moral victory” happened, renewing confidence that this program may be heading in the right direction. How this team continues on during the season, and how they play next week I believe, will be the true test. We have seen “moral victories” before turn into complete duds the next week (Washington to Eastern Michigan last year). But if the Scarlet Knights come out fired up, confident after an improved performance against Indiana, and play well against Illinois, than this loss may be one that people look at as a turning point.
David Anderson: Talk about a tale of two halves. In the first half, the Rutgers defense simply could not get a stop on third down (more to come on that in this week’s film review) and yet the ability to slow big plays just enough kept the Knights in it. Then it was one of those typical college football games where one team just hangs around hoping for a few breaks. Unfortunately for Rutgers, their offense didn’t have enough firepower to overcome a poor turnover in the end zone during the first half that ended up being the difference.
The first half was probably the first time I started to question Jay Niemann during his tenure as defensive coordinator. Indiana’s offense was sure efficient despite lacking explosiveness earlier this season, but I thought the Rutgers coaching staff would have something up their sleeve defensively. Of course a second half shutout surely showed some resolve and the coaching staff making adjustments at half. Offensively, Sitkowski showed his upside a few times, but also a few rookie mistakes as we expected coming into the season. It will be interesting to re-watch this game with some hindsight. The frustrating part is if Rutgers would have put forth efforts like these against Kansas and Buffalo, would the alarm bells have gone off like they did?
Rutgers simply HAS to beat Illinois next week at this point. It may be their last opportunity for a win all season.
Aaron Breitman: I think it’s important to judge a team against expectations from the start of the season and that’s why I’m not a fan of any perceived “moral victory” in the loss to Indiana. Yes, Rutgers played better in the second half and didn’t quit, turning a blowout into a game that went down to the final minutes. However, the Big Ten doesn’t hand out participation trophies for teams that show up and give a good effort. The fact that so many fans stated they were okay with just a relatively normal loss shows how far expectations for this team have fallen. In just one month’s time since the season began, progress went from winning 5-6 games to giving Indiana a fight in the fourth quarter. Depressing.
This was a hugely important game in the season and Rutgers admittedly beat themselves by making too many mistakes. Credit Ash for saying this after the game. If they would have been victorious, they would have had a chance in this weekend’s game against Illinois to win two Big Ten contests in a row. If they would have done it, it would have amazingly put Rutgers at 3-3 overall and 2-1 in conference play at the midpoint in the season. It would have been a massive narrative changer for Ash and this team after the embarrassing losses to Kansas and Buffalo, who by the way lost to Army on Saturday by the same score they beat RU, 42-13. The game was for the taking and Rutgers didn’t take advantage. While there were some positive signs, especially from some younger players, it’s still a damaging loss. Now Rutgers faces a must win against Illinois or they will be officially branded the worst power five team in college football and staring a 1-11 season in the eye.