It was an historic day for the Rutgers defense in the 38-27 win over Michigan State. In forcing seven turnovers as a team (one on special teams), it was the program’s most in a Big Ten game since joining the league in 2014. They only had seven takeaways total in nine conference games last season. They also forced six fumbles (five were recovered), which was the most Rutgers had ever produced in a game coached by Greg Schiano. That in and of itself is a bit shocking, considering some of the great defenses that Rutgers had during his first tenure.
Other impressive stats from the victory included the defense making 12 tackles for a loss, holding Michigan State to just 1.6 yards per carry and just 60 yards rushing overall, while also making two key stops on fourth down plays, including one in the third quarter that changed momentum in the game.
Entering the season, the defensive line was a concern but that group was a strength on Saturday. They caused havoc the entire game and really set the tone for the defense. The unit was led by veteran Mike Tverdov, who registered five tackles, including two for a loss, as well as Michigan transfer Michael Dwumfour, who had five tackles and one for a loss. A breakout player for the defensive line was Mohamed Toure, who forced fumbles on both of his sacks and also registered a pass break up. A trimmer Julius Turner was effective at times and had 3 tackles, including one for a loss. Robin Jutwreten had a sack and quarterback hit as well.
Tverdov praised his unit after the game, saying “We have a lot of guys up front who have a lot of talent. Michael Dwumfour, Julius Turner, Mo Toure, a handful of other guys. We are just learning how to play with each other and sacrifice for each other. Not every play is going to be about you. Some plays you may have to sacrifice for your teammate to make a play. That’s what this defense is built around. Swarm and finish. Running 100 miles through the ball every single play. Do your job.”
The leader of the defense remains middle linebacker Tyshon Fogg. Last season’s leading tackler seemed to be in on every big play in the victory, finishing with a team high 12 tackles, including two for a loss. Fogg spoke about the team effort, stating “The defense did a great job today swarming to the ball. Just to be able to perform and do their job in crucial moments. For the defense to have the ability to make that happen definitely meant a lot and is something exciting for us.”
Fogg’s counterpart in the linebacker core is Olakunle Fatukasi, who played arguably his best game as a Scarlet Knight. He was second on the team with 10 tackles, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
Another key performer was cornerback Avery Young, who forced two fumbles along with 9 tackles and a fumble recovery. He and Fogg spoke about the defense’s new mentality earlier this week. Regarding his mindset that led to him stripping the ball loose twice, Avery said it was “Get the ball, celebrate on the sidelines with the guys and watch the offense go score and execute. Crucial. I tried to swarm to the ball and make a play anyway I could.”
On the other side of the field, fellow cornerback Tre Avery was a big factor as well. He had four tackles, including one for a loss, one interception and one pass break up. Avery explained his simple approach and heaped praise on the job Rutgers did in the trenches, stating “I just did what I’m coached to do. It really came down to the defensive line getting pressure on the quarterback.” As for the performance of the defense overall, Avery said “Our job is to get the stop. We don’t focus on the score. We have our coaches for things like that. We just wanted to do our job and get off the field.”
Another bright spot was true freshman Max Melton, who finished with six tackles, including several open field stops that he made look easy.
As for what this win meant for Rutgers and the players, the defensive leaders were a bit in shock. Tverdov said “I’ll be honest with you. It was really surreal at first. Coach always preaches to never look at the scoreboard, but in those last 10 seconds, I looked up and said, ‘Wow. This is real life.’ And it’s definitely long overdue.” He continued, “I’m been here for a long time and to say this is our first Big Ten win since 2017 is definitely special to me.”
Fogg echoed that sentiment, saying “I don’t know how to explain it. I’m still at a loss for words. I’m still taking it in. It just means a lot. We hadn’t won a Big Ten game since my freshman year so to have our first win under our belt is a surreal feeling. I appreciate it so much. It was definitely a spectacular moment that I can enjoy with my brothers and the rest of the coaching staff. It means a lot, I’m excited.”
Young was a bit more introspective, stating “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve just been preparing for this moment. I knew it was going to come. I never lost faith and my guys never lost faith. It was a hard fought win. We knew it was time.”
As for what this performance means for the defense moving forward, Fogg explained “That was the first Big Ten win in a very long time. To come out with the defense playing the way we did, so many takeaways, perform and swarm to the ball each and every play. It’s definitely something we want to keep going. We are just chopping the moment right now. We will enjoy the win but take time to prepare for the next opponent. Sunday we will make the corrections that are needed from this game.”
For Rutgers fans, seeing such a spirited defensive effort in Saturday’s victory was a sight for sore eyes, but one that hopefully becomes a common occurrence moving forward with Greg Schiano back.