Rutgers football opened it’s 2018 season with a solid performance against Texas State, beating the visitors from the Sun Belt Conference on Saturday afternoon at HighPoint.com Stadium. Artur Sitkowski became the first true freshman since Ryan Cubit in the 2001 opener to start the season at quarterback. He played fairly well in his debut, but also made some mistakes, which is to be expected. Overall, the offense looked much improved under returning offensive coordinator John McNulty. The defense looked very strong and didn’t give up a score the entire game. Rutgers did what they needed to do to deliver a solid 35-7 season opening victory, setting the tone from the start.
The Scarlet Knights scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the season, as Raheem Blackshear ran it in from 9 yards out behind a great block from Tariq Cole. It was an 11 play, 71 yard drive in which Blackshear produce 38 of his own.
After a 15 play drive from Texas State that lasted almost 8 minutes but resulted in a 51 yard field goal attempt that was blocked by Rutgers’ Elorm Lumor, the Scarlet Knights offense picked up where they left off. Sitkowski found Blackshear on a 3rd and 3 on the Texas State 20 that saw the running back pull off a “Leonard Leap” impression and was tackled at the 3 yard line. Grad transfer Jon Hilliman ran it in on the next play to put Rutgers up 14-0 with 12:41 remaining in the first half.
Blessuan Austin had his first interception of the season, but landed awkwardly at the end of the play. He walked slowly off the field and did not return. BTN said during the telecast that it was for precautionary reasons and not because he injured himself, so that was good news. Hopefully, he is ready to go next weekend.
Rutgers couldn’t take advantage but on the following Texas State drive deep in their own territory, Rashawn battle forced a fumble and Elorm Lumor recovered it, rumbling down to the 3 yard line. Two plays later, Sitkowski threw a bullet to Blackshear for the first touchdown pass of his collegiate career and Rutgers led 21-0 midway through the second half.
Sitkowski almost threw his second touchdown soon after, as he found Jerome Washington in the end zone, but it didn’t count as Rutgers was flagged for a false start penalty. On the next play, Sitkowski missed Bo Melton and it was picked off by Texas State in the end zone. Rutgers went into halftime leading 21-0. Sitkowksi, Blackshear, and Melton all played well in the opening frame.
Lumor had a tremendous first half, registering a sack, another tackle for a loss, the blocked field goal and the fumble recovery. After learning from Kemoko Turay last season, Lumor sure looks ready to step up and fill the big shoes left by the now Indianapolis Colts edge rusher.
After halftime, Rutgers sputtered for most of the third quarter. Blackshear muffed a punt that resulted in a turnover. Soon after, Sitkowski threw his second interception, telegraphing a pass to Everett Wormley. Texas State’s Kordell Rodgers stepped in to pick the pass off and he returned it 51 yards for the touchdown.
The positive is that Sitkowski and the Rutgers offense responded well on the next drive. They put together a 13 play, 75 yard drive that ended with Jon Hilliman powering into the end zone for a 8 yard touchdown run. Receiver Mo Jabbie landed a key block on the play. Sitkowski completed 4 of 5 pass attempts on the drive, a good sign for the true freshman after throwing a pick six on the previous drive.
After Sitkowski threw his third interception of the game into heavy coverage near the Rutgers goalline, the defense stepped up once again. Texas State fumbled the snap in their own end zone and Olakunle Fatusaki recovered for the touchdown. Rutgers led 35-7 midway through the fourth quarter.
Overall, the defense looked strong and were +7 on the day, scoring that late touchdown and pitching a shutout on their side of the ball. They held Texas State to 161 total yards, 11 first downs and forced three turnovers. The Bobcats also committed 15 penalties for 119 yards.
The offense looks much improved with John McNulty calling the shots. Blackshear finished the game with 150 all-purpose yards, including 62 yards rushing on 12 attempts and 7 catches for 56 yards. He scored two touchdowns, one on the ground and one in the air. Bo Melton had 4 catches for 57 yards, all in the first half. Hilliman had 15 carries for 60 yards and two scores. True freshman Isaih Pacheco saw a lot of action at the end of the game and ended up leading Rutgers in rushing with 76 yards on 11 carries. The offense finished the game with 423 total yards and 23 first downs.
Sitkowski finished his first college game completing 20 of 29 passes for 205 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions. He averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. He showed poised at times, but also made three bad mistakes with throws that resulted in turnovers. Sitkowski did take a lot of hits in the game, as the offensive line was disappointing in pass coverage in the opener. A mixed performance from Sitkowski, which is probably going to be par for the course much of his freshman season. The bottom line is he flashed his potential and looked in control of himself the entire game. He needs reps and experience in order to continue to improve. This game was a step forward in that regard.
Rutgers took care of business and it was nice to see them control the game from the start. There were some encouraging moments, some sloppy play (7 penalties, 4 turnovers), injury concerns and plenty of experienced gained for a young team. The Scarlet Knights head to Columbus next weekend against #5 Ohio State for the Big Ten opener for both teams. It will be a major test for Rutgers, who have failed to compete against the Buckeyes in any of the four previous meetings since joining the conference in 2014. After a solid season opening victory, there is hope that they can produce their best performance against Ohio State next week.
To watch highlights of this game, including all five Rutgers’ touchdowns, click here.