The streak is over! With a 48-21 victory over Massachusetts on Friday, the Scarlet Knights officially turned the page from a 1-11 season, including an 11 game losing streak. Already, Rutgers has matched their win total from a year ago with a full season left to play. Granted, UMass isn’t exactly Ohio State, but a win is a win. There was good, and there was bad.
What Stands Out - Eye In The Sky Department
The passing game. In somewhat of a surprise move, and certainly controversial, Coach Ash named McLane Carter the starting QB for Week 1. A transfer from a run and gun style offense at Texas Tech, he certainly has the tools to be a prolific passer in the Big Ten. The decision looked to backfire with an interception in the first drive of the game, but Carter settled down and led the Knights to an efficient game in the 150th incarnation of Rutgers football.
Rutgers threw for 348 yards (340 from Carter), which is 81 yards more than any game last year. The running game didn’t look too bad either (206 yards, which would have been 2nd best), that helped for a combined offensive output of 554 yards - 131 yards better than their 2018 best. Additionally, Carter threw for 2 touchdowns. Maybe that number doesn’t stand out too much, but keep in mind Rutgers never threw for 2 TD’s in a game last season.
Earlier in the offseason, we examined how a couple of overlooked statistics will be signposts of improvement - first downs and first half production. The 24 first downs gained against UMass were definitely a step in the right direction. What stands out even more though, 16 of those first downs came through the air. Again, this represents what would have been a season best in 2018. Despite a scary start, the team went into the locker room up 38-21. Those 38 first half points were more than they scored in any complete game last year.
The UMass game was a benchmark for many reasons, not the least of which to see how the offense would open the season in the second year under Coach McNulty. The numbers suggest that there are legitimate reasons for optimism.
What Stands Out - Feet On The Ground Department
Run Defense. Perhaps chalk it up to first game jitters or too much adrenaline, but the run defense looked pathetic in the 1st quarter, giving up 39 yard and 33 yard touchdown runs to go into a couple of 14 point deficits. Both runs went straight through the middle of the defense with barely a hand on the runner. If UMass was able to carve up the D like that, it doesn’t bode well. The 183 yards yielded on the ground were not optimal to say the least, but especially against a much lesser opponent. Coach Buh has his work cut out for him to shore that aspect up.
Furthermore, the defense absolutely must work on penalties. They committed 7 penalties for 80 yards, which is below average. The biggest takeaway, though, is that 4 of those penalties resulted in first downs for UMass, including two of their scoring drives (both of the personal foul variety). We would have a much better memory of this game, should those drives been stopped by the defense, instead of extended.
Lastly, a goal for this team must be to narrow the gap of points-off-turnovers. The most obvious way to accomplish this is to cut back on turning the ball over. The 3 interceptions are worrisome. Again, first game/new team jitters can be used to explain the interception on the first drive of the game. Back to back interceptions in the second half, though, are concerning. The third interception did come on an 11 play drive drive in the end zone, so Carter was still able to move the ball down the field. Still, better decision making is going to be imperative moving into the Big Ten schedule.
Moving Forward - A Path To Victory @ Iowa, Week 2
Don’t expect a repeat as Rutgers plays a ranked opponent (#19/#20) for the first time this season, and on the road no less. Despite an underwhelming 38-14 victory over Miami OH last week, the Hawkeyes defense only gave up 245 yards of offense (186 passing, 59 rushing). Our running game should be much better than what they faced, and I’m optimistic that Carter can continue to show he belongs as the starter. However, I think we just don’t have enough to breakthrough just yet.
Iowa has a balanced offensive attack, as evidenced by 13 first downs each through the air and on the ground. Not to mention, almost equal yardage gained in each area as well, They also rely on methodically moving the ball, and are not prone to making the big yardage play. It took them 71 plays to score 38 points (0.53 points per play), while the Scarlet Knights went for 48 points on 75 plays (0.64 points per play), suggesting Rutgers was more efficient in Week 1.
The road to potential victory will rest squarely on the Rutgers offense’s ability to make big plays and take Iowa out of their comfort zone. Iowa threw for 90 yards less than Carter last week, despite only one less attempt. It’s an old cliche to start off hot; but there’s legitimate, although slim, odds to come home with a program defining win. If Rutgers can run up some points quickly, Iowa’s offense isn’t built to put up points in a similar fashion.
Of course, none of that matters unless the defense shows up in the 1st quarter. In our favor, as well, is that this is a potential overlook game towards their Iowa State rivalry game next week, which wouldn’t hurt either. It’ll be an uphill climb no matter what, and for Rutgers fans, a respectable competitive losing effort may not be the desired result, but will be an important step forward.