The upcoming 2018 season is a pivotal one in Chris Ash’s tenure as head coach at Rutgers. After a 4-8 record and three Big Ten victories in his second campaign on the banks, more is expected in year three. With improved talent and depth on the roster, the most manageable non-conference slate since his arrival (Texas State, at Kansas, Buffalo), as well as the Big Ten schedule frontloaded with winnable games, a potential bowl trip is not a pipe dream. Getting to six wins will require a lot of improvement from last season and it won’t be easy, but for the first time since Ash took over the program, it is certainly possible.
Perhaps the most important game of the season is one that is probably against the team that Rutgers has the unlikeliest chance to beat. Ohio State has thoroughly dominated Rutgers in the four previous meetings since they became Big Ten foes, with the average score amounting to 55-6. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur that Rutgers is even close to truly scaring the Buckeyes on the field. However, based on several factors, how the Scarlet Knights perform in this year’s meeting could have a major impact on the rest of the season.
Ohio State is easily the most talented team that Rutgers will play until at least November and possibly all year. Facing them in week two is both an advantage and disadvantage. The two schools have typically played each other between the fifth and seventh game of the season. The Buckeyes always seem to be hitting their stride at that point of the season and look like a fine tuned machine against RU. They’ve completely overwhelmed Rutgers every time and the talent disparity is the biggest reason why. Even so, in 2014 when Rutgers went 8-5 and finished in fourth place in the Big Ten East, they still lost 56-17 at Ohio State.
In playing the Buckeyes in week two this year, it seems more likely they’ll yet to have completely figured things out at that stage of their season. They’ll have a new starting quarterback, who most likely will be Dwayne Haskins (remember him?). While he does have some experience, it will be his first time as the true #1 quarterback for the Buckeyes and he’ll need time to adapt. The flip side, of course, is that Rutgers will be in the same position, but it lends the possibility that Ohio State won’t be fully weaponized on the field in week two, despite having possibly the most talented team in the country.
In terms of why this game is so important, there are several reasons.
The biggest is that Rutgers MUST survive this matchup from a physical standpoint. In last season’s 56-0 loss, the defensive secondary lost two starters during the game in Saquon Hampton and Kiy Hester. Both missed further game action and were limited the rest of the season. Linebacker Deonte Roberts also got dinged up on a hit, but it wasn’t as serious. Starting right guard Jonah Jackson was also injured and missed significant time. Quarterback Johnathan Lewis suffered an injury that kept him out the next couple of games and potentially prevented him from taking over the starting role with the bye week right after this game. There were likely other minor injuries suffered we never heard about. The season before, starting linebacker Greg Jones suffered a career ending injury in the game against the Buckeyes. I’m sure there have been other injuries either not reported or one’s I’ve forgotten about from the previous two seasons before that. Regardless, last season shows that Rutgers cannot afford to get as beat up physically against Ohio State this time, especially with the winnable stretch of games that follows. If the Scarlet Knights are ever going to put up a true fight against the Buckeyes, they have to hold up physically in order to do it.
While moral victories are never the goal, let’s be real here. If Rutgers stayed in the game into the second half, something they haven’t done in four prior meetings, that would be by definition, progress. A final score of 38-17 or in that range would be much more respectable and also mark progress, however sad that may make you as a fan. The reality is while a result like this wouldn’t dramatically change perception of Rutgers football, it would certainly be a step forward in losing by a more modest margin to arguably the best team in the Big Ten and all of FBS. It wouldn’t be a national story by any means, but it would probably mean every college football fan that weekend that saw the score scroll on their television screen would have a moment of “Huh, Rutgers didn’t get killed at Ohio State”. Baby steps.
Playing Ohio State more competitively in years past brings with it two important developments.
It would give the team confidence that they are improving and help their mindset heading into two must win non-conference game and four potentially winnable conference games with Illinois and Indiana at home, at Maryland, followed by Northwestern for the Homecoming game. For a young team trying to take a step forward in year three, holding their own for the majority of the game against a powerhouse on the road can yield benefits weeks later.
The other is while still a loss, a solid effort against Ohio State is tangible proof that signifies progress that Ash can point to with recruits. Some type of message involving, “we aren’t there yet, but we are closing the gap” won’t result in a top 25 class, but it certainly would be a positive message and perhaps help with more realistic targets that Rutgers is battling for. Of course, this team would have to build off that performance with at a minimum, wins against Kansas, Buffalo, and Illinois, in the weeks that followed.
Consider the alternative. Rutgers suffers the usual slaughter at the hands of Ohio State, 2-3 key players suffer significant injuries and the Scarlet Knights find themselves in dogfights the following two weeks at Kansas and home against Buffalo. Maybe they pull both out, but as much as win is a win, Rutgers wouldn’t get much credit for barely beating those teams. It would continue the narrative that this program is still very far away. That narrative would have been triggered by the return of the annual blowout against Ohio State.
All rebuilds are different in how they play out, but all contain those moments when a corner is turned or signs appear that don’t necessarily lead to victory at the time, but give hope that long term progress is happening. For Rutgers football in the season ahead, the first opportunity to have one of those moments is on the road in week two against a legitimate national title contender. There are a lot of questions about this team that need to be answered and it could be an overwhelming challenge that early in the season. However, there is more talent and this team will be hungry to prove themselves. Putting up a real fight for the majority of the game and surviving without major injuries would be a big step in the right direction. It would give Ash something to build on as the program enters a six week stretch where they at a minimum, should be very competitive and hopefully, should win more than they lose.
2018 Rutgers Football Schedule
September 1st: Noon Kickoff vs. Texas State (BTN)
September 8th: 3:30 p.m. at Ohio State (BTN)
September 15th: Noon at Kansas (Fox Sports Regional Networks)
September 22nd: TBD vs. Buffalo
September 29th: TBD vs. Indiana
October 6th: TBD vs. Illinois
October 13th: Noon kickoff at Maryland
October 20th: Noon kickoff vs. Northwestern (Homecoming)
October 27th: BYE
November 3rd: TBD at Wisconsin
November 10th: TBD vs. Michigan
November 17th: TBD vs. Penn State
November 24th: TBD at Michigan State
(all times eastern time zone)