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Rutgers failed the first test in producing significant improvement

The Scarlet Knights have lost 13 Big Ten games in a row, but Saturday’s loss was more how they did than the result itself.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

On the last day of the first week of September, also known as yesterday, Rutgers football fans were transported to a place none of us ever wanted to visit again. God bless you if you are one of a few who felt like there were positives to take away from the 30-0 blowout loss at no. 20/19 Iowa, but it looked a lot like last season’s team on the field from my view.

Yes, the defense hung in there for most of the first half before wearing down due to the inefficient offense, specifically awful quarterback play from both McLane Carter, who left injured, Artur Sitkowski and Johnny Langan. Adam Korsak had a very good day, pinning Iowa inside their own 10 yard line five different times in the first half alone. But those aren’t positives related to progress, because those two things were commonplace last season as well.

Stop me if you heard this one before: Rutgers had just three plays from scrimmage of 10 or more yards the entire game. They had more penalties than first downs (7 to 5) and more penalty yards than passing yards (61 to 41). They committed 3 turnovers and forced none.

The playcalling on offense was bad. The play of the safeties was worse than that. The defensive line did not look like it has a chance to be a difference maker in Big Ten play. The penalties and turnovers never stop killing this team.

So what has changed from last season? Absolutely nothing.

Facts are facts. They haven’t won a Big Ten game since Maryland in 2017, now having lost 13 straight conference games. Rutgers is 3-25 in the Big Ten under head coach Chris Ash.

A loss on Saturday against a ranked Iowa team was expected. However, the way they lost showed no progress from last season. That’s the bigger issue here. No one is expecting miracles and beating the Hawkeyes was never part of the vision of Rutgers winning 5 games this season. It’s just that the performance they delivered gives zero confidence that this team will come close to reaching “significant improvement” this season, an undefined metric that athletic director Pat Hobbs stated was needed after last year’s 1-11 campaign.

A few points for context. Rutgers is now 2-15 in their last 17 games since that Maryland win two years ago. They beat Texas State in last season’s opener, who went 3-9 and saw third year head coach Everett Withers ultimately dismissed. Last week, the Scarlet Knights fell behind UMass by two touchdowns twice, before winning 47-21. To fully understand the level of competition that Rutgers beat, consider these facts:

Southern Illinois beat UMass yesterday 45-20, a team who lost to Southeast Missouri State by 16 points the week before, who then lost to Montana State 38-17 last night.

Let that sink in.

Then there is this.

Rutgers will always be compared to Maryland, as both schools were the Northeast additions to the Big Ten. Like Rutgers, they haven’t produced a winning season since both programs did so their first year in the conference in 2014. Both programs have struggled on the field and off it, with the Terps having greater controversy that ultimately led to the dismissal of former head coach DJ Durkin, who was hired the same time as Ash at Rutgers. Even despite that all, Maryland has consistently provided signature wins along the way to keep hope alive among their fan base. They beat Texas both in 2017 & 2018, followed by Saturday’s rout of no. 21 Syracuse by the score of 63-20. The Terps have had a shuffling of quarterbacks along the way as well, due to injury and inconsistency, but have recruited at a far higher level and are now off to a 2-0 start under first year head coach Mike Locksley.

As for Rutgers, the schedule brings a much needed bye to recover after the blowout loss to Iowa. Boston College (2-0) is next, followed by a trip to Michigan (2-0), who needed overtime to beat Army at the Big House on Saturday, and then a home game against Maryland. Did anyone see anything yesterday against Iowa that gives credence to the idea Rutgers will win any of those games, or dare I say, even be competitive against them?

Iowa isn’t nearly as talented as Ohio State or Michigan, teams that have routinely blown out Rutgers. They typically have recruiting classes ranked in the mid-40’s. It’s a Big Ten team that’s in the top half of the conference, but one Rutgers should at least be competitive with and they were far from it on Saturday. They were in 2016 in the only other meeting between the program’s, losing 14-7. And that came during Ash’s first season when Rutgers went 2-10.

Last week, Miami (OH) was within 10 points of Iowa with a freshman quarterback. Rutgers was done in the second quarter when they fell behind multiple scores.

How the Scarlet Knights perform against Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois will define their ceiling in the Big Ten this season, but it’s hard to shake the feeling they are bound for the basement once again.

I wrote over the summer the Boston College game is crucial for having a successful season. The Eagles have gone to bowl games consistently under head coach Steve Addazio, but are typically a middle of the pack team in the ACC. These are the type of teams that Ash needs to beat for Rutgers to ever climb towards respectability. No one expected to beat Iowa, but playing a former Big East foe who is still a competitor on the recruiting trail at home is really a must win at this stage of the season and Ash’s tenure.

If Rutgers loses to BC in two weeks, the season is certainly not over. Could Rutgers and Ash still make a significant turnaround this season? Of course. Would it seem likely? Not at all. This bye week is crucial for Rutgers to figure things out in order to deliver a performance that produces both hope and a victory over the Eagles. If they don’t, it’s hard to shake the feeling the season could snowball once again.

I wrote before the season that Ash’s development as a head coach was key to Rutgers making major progress this season. There is no doubt he walked into a difficult situation and has made a positive impact with facility improvements. However, at the end of the day, he has to prove he is a good coach and produce signs this team team is headed in the right direction. Making a bowl game wasn’t even the goal of most fans entering this season, showing significant improvement was. Saturday was an opportunity to show that and in that context, he and the team failed miserably. There is still time to change that trajectory, but you can’t blame fans for not believing that will ever happen with Ash as head coach.