We haven’t even hit the official midpoint of September yet and the Rutgers football season is at a critical juncture. On the face of it, this team is right where we expected them to be, holding a 1-1 record headed to play Kansas on the road this Saturday. Looking a little closer, this team has had to deal with a lot of adversity just two games into the 2018 season. With six consecutive winnable games directly ahead, Rutgers still controls their own destiny. How they handle the cards they’ve been dealt moving forward is a major factor in whether achieving progress this season is the end result or not.
The first major strike of adversity hit over the summer, when news of the credit card fraud investigation broke. Two months later, four players involved are no longer with the program and four are still in limbo, awaiting their day in court and unclear of their status moving forward until that happens. To be clear, head coach Chris Ash and AD Pat Hobbs have handled the disciplinary action appropriately, a nice change for Rutgers fans to witness, despite dealing with another scandal. All eight players were part of a defensive unit that is, in part because of them, experiencing major depth issues already. While only one starter was projected among the credit card eight, news that came out this week showed how much that loss hurts now.
K.J. Gray was projected as the starting strong safety entering this season. He was rightly dismissed from the program, but his absence looms larger today than before. On Wednesday night, head coach Chris Ash stated during his radio show that starting cornerback Blessuan Austin may end up having surgery on the knee that he re-injured in the season opener. A decision could come as early as Friday. Not having Gray prevents Rutgers from a potential move they could have made to bolster the front line of the secondary.
Junior Damon Hayes converted from cornerback to safety starting at the end of spring and throughout the summer, ultimately winning the starting job left open by Gray. Hayes probably would have stayed at safety even with Gray on the team, because Ash didn’t approach Kiy Hester about returning to the program until the dismissal occurred. However, it’s fair to consider if Gray was still active and healthy, Ash and the staff could have potentially plugged Hayes into Austin’s open spot at corner. Even though Kiy Hester is back and held the starting strong safety spot last season, his own injury issues remain, having missed the Ohio State game like Austin. Therefore, keeping Hayes as the first option at strong safety is a must and true freshman Avery Young is the next man up at corner.
Young was thrown into the fire last weekend and was beaten for a touchdown in the first half. It’s possible once Tre Avery is deemed healthy, he could take over, but the point is we are only entering week three and Rutgers is struggling with depth issues in the secondary even earlier than they did last season. Don’t get me wrong, I think Young has a lot of potential, but the having a true freshman starting at cornerback in a critical stretch of the season was not the plan for what was once considered the strongest unit on the team.
The other issue is this team was badly beaten last weekend by Ohio State in a disappointing performance against a potentially great Buckeyes squad. A loss was expected, but the Scarlet Knights were drubbed all over the field in the first half, trailing 35-0 and seeing their starting quarterback laying on the ground holding his shoulder heading into the locker room. Thankfully, Sitkowski is okay and expected to start this weekend at Kansas. We don’t know how effective he will be on Saturday or how limited he has been this week. It’s also fair to wonder what the confidence level of this team is after the beating they took last weekend. Mentally, this team needs to recover quickly.
In Monday’s game week press conference, Ash admitted the team cannot let their performance in Columbus be a factor in their preparation for their trip to face the Jayhawks. “We flipped the page and we got on to Kansas right away,” Ash said. “That’s our focus. That’s where we need to be. It’s our challenge not to let a game like Ohio State beat us twice, and that’s really what we’re trying to do right now.”
The reality is “The Hunt” is still alive and progress can absolutely be made this season. As Walter Sobchak likes to say, “Nothing is F^cked, Dude”. The plan to get to six wins and a bowl game is still very much in play.
A win, no matter the score or how many style points Rutgers gets this Saturday, all that matters is that it’s a win. The Scarlet Knights then come home for a hugely important three game home stand against Buffalo, Indiana, and Illinois. With a road game against Maryland, Homecoming versus Northwestern, followed by a brutal November slate against Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State, the second half does not at least on paper, breed confidence there will be a lot of wins once the leaves change color and start falling this autumn. Rutgers must take advantage of the next month and win more than they lose. Realistically, anything worse than 4-2 at the midway point will make it unlikely they’ll achieve 5 or more victories overall this season, which would make this season a disappointment.
Adversity can make or break a team. The verdict is still out on what will become of Rutgers football in Ash’s third season. The game on Saturday against Kansas, the worst power five program from the past decade, is absolutely a must win. For optics and perception sake, for confidence wise, for progression of this team on the field, and most importantly, for the win column. If this season is going be deemed successful, it has to include a victory this weekend. Lose and this season could snowball into a disastrous one quickly. How Rutgers responds in this game will tell us more than we know about them so far.