Another fall Saturday resulted in another loss for Rutgers football, as the losing streak grew to four. After a promising start to the game, Indiana asserted control and scored 24 unanswered points. The Scarlet Knights didn’t quit on this day, but lacked the execution and firepower to complete the comeback, falling to the Hoosiers by one score, 24-17. There were signs of improvement, particularly on offense, but moral victories don’t equal progress in Chris Ash’s third season. This was a game they needed to win to turn around the season and failed to do it. Rutgers went 1-4 in September.
The Rutgers offense started the game well, taking the opening drive all the way in for a score. Quarterback Artur Sitkowski threw his first touchdown since the opening game of the season, finding Shameen Jones in the end zone on a 11 yard pass play. Offensive coordinator John McNulty was far more creative, inserting multiple running backs together throughout the drive. He utilized Raheem Blackshear, who had a 36 yard run on the drive, as well as Jon Hilliman and Isaih Pacheco in combination and Rutgers took an early 7-0 lead over the Hoosiers. The big play from Blackshear was the first 30+ yard gain of the season for the Rutgers offense, the last team in FBS to achieve that feat.
It's an Artie Party in the end zone as @artursitkowski4 connects with @shameenjones2 for the @RFootball TD! pic.twitter.com/Vvb89XjPuv— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) September 29, 2018
Unfortunately, the Rutgers defense continued it’s poor play, failing to stop the Indiana offense on any of its four first half drives. Quarterback Patrick Ramsey shredded the pass defense and completed 18 of 26 passes for 185 yards passing and a touchdown in the first half. He also led Indiana in rushing in the opening half and ran for a score as well. While the Rutgers offense played somewhat better, they failed to add any points to the opening drive and Indiana led 24-7 at the half.
To his credit, Sitkowski played better in this game and produced a strong drive late in the second quarter. He completed five passes in a row and led Rutgers into the red zone. However, he underthrew tight end Jerome Washington in tight coverage and Indiana picked it off in the end zone. It was a crucial drive that Rutgers desperately needed points before the half to stay in the game. After climbing back in the game in the fourth quarter, this drive proved even more costly in the final outcome.
In the second half, the Scarlet Knights finally stopped the Hoosier offense, forcing them to punt for the first time in the game on a three and out on their opening drive. The Rutgers offense failed to put together a threatening drive on the next possession and it seemed clear a comeback was not in store on this beautiful day for a football game.
To the surprise of probably every Rutgers fan, the team showed some life in the fourth quarter, starting with Deonte Roberts recovering a Scott fumble at midfield. On the ensuing drive, McNulty dialed up a trick play, as Pacheco completed a 39 yard pass to Jerome Washington, resulting in the biggest gain of the season.
A little trickeration led to an easy @RFootball TD, as Isaih Pacheco completes the halfback pass to Jerome Washington to enter the redzone. pic.twitter.com/JEsbe5C1Xt— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) September 29, 2018
Hilliman ran it in from the 1 yard line and Rutgers was within 10 points. On the next Hoosier possession, Damon Hayes intercepted Ramsay midway through the 4th quarter in the end zone.
Rutgers was then able to drive into Indiana territory and despite stalling, they were able to generate points behind the strong leg of kicker Justin Davidovicz, who connected on a career long 52 yard field goal with less than four minutes remaining in the game. However, on the next Indiana possession on a fourth and 1, the Rutgers defense was drawn offsides and surrendered a big pass play, ending the comeback for good.
On the day, Sitkowski completed 18 of 35 passes for 154 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. To his credit, he took a lot of hits again in this game and kept getting up. The throw that was picked off at the end of the first half was a big play in the game, but he kept fighting as Rutgers outscored Indiana 10-0 in the fourth quarter. His effort didn’t result in a win, but he did make progress in the game and proved the coaches right to start him. Hopefully, he can build off of this performance and continue to improve.
Raheem Blackshear led Rutgers with 64 yards rushing on just 8 attempts and 1 touchdown, as well as 4 catches for 22 yards. He had several drops, some of which were bad passes from Sitkowski and were plays Rutgers really needed to make. Hilliman had 29 yards on 9 carries and a score. He added 18 yards on 2 catches. Despite getting two carries on the opening drive, Pacheco didn’t have another rush attempt in the contest, but made that big pass to Washington to get Rutgers back in the game.
Washington led the offense with 55 yards on 2 catches. Bo Melton had 4 catches for 32 yards, but failed to haul down any big plays, including one late in the game in the end zone on a pass that went off his hands. Shameen Jones had 3 catches for 34 yards and Eddie Lewis had 3 catches for 23 yards.
The biggest issue in this game was the Rutgers defense. Yes, they forced two turnovers and shut out the Hoosiers in the second half. However, they can’t keep getting destroyed in the first half of games. They continue to stun media and fans of this team in how terrible they have been this season. The second half effort was encouraging but it was all for naught. The offense had to abandon the run after falling so far behind.
It’s unfathomable that a unit that returns the majority of its starters from what was a competent defense and the strength of the team last season, can be so bad this year. Of course, injuries and the loss of depth with eight players off the roster due to the credit card fraud investigation have hurt them. However, there are still a lot of seniors on the field and a good amount of younger players who saw plenty of action last season still suiting up. Those issues mentioned don’t excuse the fact that the defense looks slow, is often out of position, and has mostly failed to prevent big plays from occurring all season.
Ramsey threw four passes for over 20 yards in the first half alone. Freshman running back Stevie Scott, a former Rutgers commit who flipped to IU right before signing day, ran over the defense en route for a 16 yard touchdown in the first half. While the pass rush was better early on in the game, it failed to do enough damage and wasn’t sustainable. Overall, they allowed 451 total yards and Indiana was a combined 13 of 21 on third and fourth down conversions. The defenses lacks consistency with their own big play ability and coming up with stops in crucial situations, which were both killers in this game.
Head coach Chris Ash is now 0-3 against Indiana, which is a team Rutgers needs to beat on a regular basis if they want to move up the ladder of the Big Ten East long term. You can’t fault the effort of Rutgers in this loss, but the lack of execution and discrepancy in big plays was the difference. Having to call two timeouts both in the first and fourth quarters in what were avoidable situations, as well as committing several costly penalties, really hurt this team. The coaching staff has to be better in getting this team ready to play in the first half of games as well. This team can’t afford to bury themselves in such a deep hole every week. They’ll host Illinois next Saturday in what is their best chance at a victory the rest of this season.