We all felt that familiar but unwelcome pain in our stomach. Despite a spirited first half and throwback defensive effort that saw Rutgers leading by as much as 18 points, by midway through the third quarter things were starting to slip away.
Michigan State recovered a fumble on a punt return, converted it for a 30 yard touchdown a play later and then forced Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral to fumble it away on the next possession. The Spartans took over on the RU 29 yard line trailing 28-20 and plenty of time left in the game. After quarterback Rocky Lombardi ran for 5 yards on first down, it seemed like it was only a matter of time until MSU scored. Based on how the script has been written the past few years, it was fair to expect the wheels to fly off and Rutgers end up losing by multiple scores.
Instead, the Scarlet Knights kept chopping. After holding Michigan State to just 3 yards on the next two plays, first year head coach Mel Tucker decided to go for it on fourth and 2. Not only that, he chose to run it up the gut of the Rutgers defense on a third straight rushing play. Michigan transfer Michael Dwumfour and veteran linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi made the crucial stop, giving the RU offense the ball back without surrendering any points. It killed the Spartans momentum and changed the trajectory of the outcome. There were many key moments in this complete team victory, but none were bigger than that stop.
Impressively, Vedral and the Rutgers offense were able to respond by putting together a 14 play drive that took over 6 minutes off the clock. It ended with kicker Guy Fava connecting on his first collegiate field goal attempt. He came through from 44 yards out and made it a two score game with just over 12 minutes remaining. Schiano said after the game that Fava beat out incumbent Justin Davidovicz in the preseason and his faith was rewarded. Michigan State never got closer and Rutgers won 38-27 to send a statement across the Big Ten.
“I’m really proud of our guys. Our coaching staff, our support staff, and most of all, our players,” Schiano said. “They’ve worked incredibly hard in a very difficult environment for a long time. It’s great to get it started with a victory.”
For Rutgers fans that remember Schiano’s first tenure in detail, the way this team won was in classic fashion. There were multiple contributors on both sides of the ball as the offense took advantage of a big defensive stop that changed the game.
When the outcome was in the balance so many times before in recent seasons, the conclusion seemed predestined. It wasn’t a question of if Rutgers fell apart, but how would they? Actually, there weren’t even that many occurrences of that happening in the last five years because usually the issue was no longer in doubt not far out from halftime. Everyone was reminded that things will be different now that Schiano is back as head coach.
We don’t know how high the ceiling is for this program in the long term, but it’s fairly certain to surmise that the basement will be far better. To see that type of progress after just one game is amazing.
Seven takeaways by the defense, equal to what Rutgers had total in nine Big Ten games last season.
Rutgers scored five touchdowns after the offense scored just six in nine Big Ten games last season.
They scored on all four trips to the red zone, while holding Michigan State to just one trip total.
The Scarlet Knights never trailed in the game, winning its first Big Ten contest in three seasons and ending the dreaded 21 game losing streak.
Schiano was able to chop off a monster sized boulder on the back of Rutgers football with one swing.
There is plenty of room for improvement, especially when you consider the fact that Michigan State did not look good at all and could be headed to a disastrous season under Tucker.
Rutgers had three turnovers and committed 9 penalties for 66 yards. Michigan State had 7 more first downs and 103 more total yards on offense. They only averaged 2.6 yards per carry. Schiano made a point after the victory to say that there are plenty of things for this team to improve on.
“We have a ways to go. We had penalties. You can’t win games with the penalties we had,” Schiano said. He continued, “We were able to take the ball away and take those opportunities to find a way to win. But as we know, you won’t take the ball away seven times each week. We have a lot of work to do, we know that.”
However, he also made a point to talk about the growth process the team went through in the season opener and how the foundation has been laid for future success.
“It was a really hard fought game. This team learned something about themselves. We learned that we will work hard, stick together, take the work from the practice field and some parts of it, we will be able to put on the game field. I fully believed we would do that after watching these guys practice. But until you do it, I think everybody learns about themselves, their teammates, and their coaches as you go through the competition. It’s a good start, but that’s really what it is. We won’t lose perspective on that.”
Building a strong culture and solid foundation for future success was always the goal for this season. Any positives on the scoreboard or in the win column should be considered a bonus. However, it’s fair to be excited about the possibilities for this season after seeing how far this team has come since Schiano’s arrival, even during a shortened offseason and preseason with the global pandemic.
It’s a strange year in the world and is already looking like it’s going to be a strange season in the Big Ten. Hours after Rutgers’s victory, Indiana, who come to Piscataway next weekend, knocked off no. 8 Penn State in overtime. Purdue beat Iowa. Northwestern, who some picked to finish last in the West division, beat Maryland 43-3.
How this season ultimately plays out for Rutgers remains to be seen. What we do know is that Schiano is back in charge and this team has shown major growth already. Winning his first game back was not expected, but it sends a clear message to the rest of the Big Ten that the days of Rutgers football as a laughingstock are officially over.
Schiano put it poignantly, stating “This is the beginning of something. That’s all it is. And I feel good about it.”
Every Rutgers fan does too.