The blowout loss to Ohio State on September 8th was supposed to be the outlier of the season. The talent and depth of the Buckeyes was just too much for Rutgers to be competitive in the game for even a quarter. It was disappointing, especially in Chris Ash’s third year as head coach, but it didn’t change the trajectory of the season or the outlook of the program. Two weeks later, alarm bells aren’t just going off, the foundation is now collapsing.
After losing to Kansas and Buffalo by a combined score of 97-27, every previous positive thought about the Ash era is under seige and rightfully so. Chris Ash has accomplished something extraordinary, alright. He has brought the state of the program back to the dark ages of the Terry Shea era. Longtime Rutgers fans know what that brand of football looked like and watching this team this season, old memories are flashing back like yesterday. As the great Yogi Berra said, “It’s deja vu all over again.’
I was a student during the 1996-1999 seasons, the first four of Shea’s five years as head coach. I was lucky to graduate in May 2000 and not have to be on campus during his last season, a 3-8 campaign, the second best record of his tenure. I saw firsthand what a hopeless football team looks like. Rutgers produced a record of 8-36 in my four years on campus, including three seasons when they went 0-11, 1-10, and 2-9.
Because I had attended Rutgers games since 1984, back when Eric Hochberg led the Scarlet Knights to a 7-3 campaign, I actually cared about going to the games. Not many students did at the time and once I was a junior and senior, the tailgating scene was all any of my classmates cared about. From what the student section looked like during the Buffalo game on Saturday, it looks like the same attitude exists once again. Who can blame them?
With that being said, even Terry Shea produced more hope in his third season than Chris Ash has so far and ultimately will. Rutgers went 5-6 in 1998 and despite several blow out losses, Shea’s team beat Pitt, Army, Navy, and Temple. Not exactly a murderer’s row, but could you see Rutgers come close against any of them right now? Temple beat Maryland last week, Army lost in overtime at #5 Oklahoma on Saturday, and while Pitt and Navy aren’t having great seasons, they are both 2-2 after suffering close losses this weekend.
With the way Rutgers played against Kansas and Buffalo, they’ll be lucky to even be in any game at the half the rest of the season. That’s not an exaggeration. The message that the program is moving in the right direction has been proven not to be the case in year three of the Ash era and it’s only a third of the way through. The saddest thing about the 42-13 loss to Buffalo on Saturday wasn’t the Bulls showing mercy at the end of the first half leading 35-6 and taking a knee at midfield to let the clock expire. It was the fact that every Rutgers fan knew in their gut that when Buffalo took a 7-3 lead in the first quarter the game was over. This team is so poorly coached, so uninspired, and so hopeless, no one in their right mind can blame us.
The offense was 2 of 18 on third down conversions, the defense allowed big play after big play in the first half, and the team committed 9 penalties for almost 100 yards.
Pat Hobbs officially has a problem. I’m not telling him anything he doesn’t already know, but make no mistake, football is a disaster that even the best salesman in the world couldn’t sell right now. You can’t campaign that better days are ahead and that something special is being built within Rutgers athletics when the face of the department, football, is this brutally awful.
The problem with football being such an embarrassment is that it produces a stain over the entire athletic department. Football is the biggest revenue producer in college sports and the highest profile one as well. The fact that Rutgers is still three years away from earning a full share from being a member of the Big Ten complicates things even further. A failing football team to this magnitude hurts the Rutgers brand overall, as well as the bottom line.
School spirit is a contagious thing and the students aren’t feeling too proud right now when it comes to football. You could also argue this has a negative effect on recruiting for other sports. Not only does it bring negative attention to the school, but it can create doubt that other sports at Rutgers can actually turn things around. Social media is a major aspect of recruiting nowadays and the negative mentions about Rutgers on twitter are like an open field littered with land mines.
There were approximately 15,000 fans in attendance for the Buffalo game. With the way this team is playing, that number won’t be matched until Michigan and Penn State visit in November, when their many fans will turn HighPoint.com stadium into their own playpen, embarrassing Rutgers even more so.
Most importantly, losing this badly on this big of a stage kills the platform that Hobbs is selling. How can anyone possibly rally donors and alumni with this big of a failure at front and center of the athletic department. Unfortunately, despite all the good Hobbs has done in less than three years at Rutgers, the failure of the football program comprises it all.
Hobbs has done a tremendous job instilling hope and galvanizing a fan base desperate to win. He has organized the best fundraising campaign in Rutgers athletics history with the RFund and is a fraction away from fulfilling it’s 100 million dollar goal. More facilities have been completed and are in construction than have been literally in decades. Rutgers football fans could care less right now.
Go online and you’ll see the outrage. Longtime season ticket holders and alums are proclaiming they are giving up for good. They’ve lived through the Shea era and they think this is just as bad and can’t bear another go around. It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. Ash has more support, better facilities and and more resources than any Rutgers coach ever. He also is facing the stiffest competition, which is part of why the future outlook of the program at it’s current trajectory is so bleak.
If Rutgers can’t beat Illinois in two weeks, a 1-11 season seems close to a certainty. That’s where we are now, hoping to win one Big Ten game and avoid being universally known as the worst power five program in college football. Even if they beat Illinois, losing to Kansas and Buffalo by a combined 70 points will never escape the tenure of Chris Ash at Rutgers. You can never say never, but anyone who is confident that he can turn this program around is lying.
If you think things are ugly now, just wait another two months after eight more Big Ten losses occur, likely all blowouts. The dark ages are back for Rutgers football. The Shea era wasn’t for the weak or the weary and sadly, the Ash era is looking exactly the same, just with more to lose.