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Rutgers looks to continue surprising start against no. 17 Indiana

An opportunity to end the nation’s longest drought against ranked foes is on the table Saturday in Piscataway.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that escalated quickly. We went from a dark beginning of fall with no Rutgers football the first six weeks to now approaching a very big game in just the second contest of the season. The return of Greg Schiano as head coach drew plenty of national praise this past weekend after the Scarlet Knights defeated Michigan State 38-27 on the road. It was an impressive second debut at RU and has set up a meaningful matchup against no. 17 Indiana this weekend.

The Hoosiers are coming off their own emotional high after stunning then no. 8 Penn State 36-35 in overtime last Saturday. They went for two points and the win as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. extended his arm to break the plane of the goal line to seal the victory. It was IU’s first win over a top ten opponent since 1987 and were rewarded with its highest ranking in the national polls since 1993.

Schiano spoke about this week’s opponent on Monday, saying “It’s all eyes on Indiana. Obviously, a real good football team. Coach (Tom) Allen has done a tremendous job building the program. He took over and has really built a program where they’re a nationally ranked team. Kevin Wilson was there before and did a great job. Indiana football has been on the rise here for a while. This isn’t a new thing.”

He continued, “I really like the kind of team that coach has put together out there. They play really hard, and they’re good in all three phases. So it’s gonna be a big challenge, and one that we’re looking forward to. We’re excited about coming, playing in our stadium, although we’re not going to have many people here. We’re going to have loved ones and looking forward to playing another game here in about five days.”

As fun and exciting as the season opening win was over Michigan State, it’s also important for the team and even fans to stay grounded this early in the rebuild. Expectations were appropriately low entering this season. While it already appears more progress could be made than expected this fall, it was clear on Saturday that Rutgers has plenty of work to do.

After beating Michigan State, Schiano stated “We have a ways to go. We had penalties. You can’t win games with the penalties we had.” 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.”

As for the Hoosiers, they come to Piscataway with increased expectations a season after winning 8 games for the first time in 27 years and producing just its third winning record over that time period. They return a ton of talent on offense, led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who last year set the IU program single-season completion percentage mark (68.8), which also ranks sixth all-time in the Big Ten. He struggled for most of the game against Penn State, completing just 10 of 26 passes along with one interception before putting on his super hero cape, completing 9 of his final 10 passes with a touchdown, as well as running for a two point conversion twice to seal the win.

Rutgers enters Saturday’s contest as heavy underdogs once again, as Indiana opened as 12 point favorites. While the Hoosiers deserve to be double digit favorites, there are several reasons to be hopeful that this will be a close game.

While we don’t know how bad Michigan State will be this season, it seems safe to say they will not be close to good. However, it’s also possible that Penn State is nowhere close to a top ten team, especially after top running back Journey Brown is out with a medical condition. That being said, the Nittany Lions outgained Indiana by 277 yards on Saturday and had 11 more first downs. They also missed three field goals, including a 25 yarder. PSU also held a 20-plus minute time of possession advantage. The Hoosiers were also able to profit off questionable game management and play calling by Penn State head coach James Franklin, much to the chagrin of PSU fans everywhere.

It was essentially one sided except for the scoreboard, which of course at the end of the day is all that matters. Credit IU for taking over and executing when it mattered most. Still, the Hoosiers certainly had a lot of things go their way in order to win and it’s a reason to be optimistic ahead of Saturday’s matchup.

Rutgers benefited from the Spartans sloppy play and questionable play calling, but they also helped to generate their own luck by swarming to the ball and trying to strip it away on every play. That led to a remarkable seven takeaways, including six fumble recoveries. The closing speed of defenders and being fundamentally sound securing loose balls without trying to run prematurely was notable.

While every season is different, there is an encouraging trend in the series matchup between Indiana and Rutgers. Although the Hoosiers have won four straight games since RU won the first two matchups as Big Ten foes, including a 45-23 victory at home in 2014, the two losses in Piscataway have been far more competitive than on the road. Indiana beat the Scarlet Knights by a combined 76-0 in Bloomington in the 2017 and 2019 contests. However, despite Rutgers winning just 2 games in 2016 and 1 game in 2018, they only lost to Indiana by one score (13 points combined) in both defeats. The Hoosiers won 5 and 6 games respectively in those seasons, so while they appear to be even better this season, they were a decent team back then as well. With Rutgers having played IU so tough at home recently, even in very bad years, is certainly something to be encouraged about ahead of Saturday.

Indiana is a more talented and improved team since their last visit to Piscataway and how the Rutgers defense plays will go a long way to determining the outcome. The Hoosiers averaged 433 yards per game last season, but struggled on the ground against Penn State last weekend, rushing for just 1.6 yards per carry. The Scarlet Knights defense held Michigan State to just 50 yards rushing on 1.3 yards per carry. If the defense can have a second strong performance in a row, they’ll give Rutgers a chance to pull the upset. Mixing coverages, aggressive blitzing, rotating bodies along the defensive line, swarming the ball carrier and attempting to strip the ball loose is the formula that was a staple in Schiano’s first tenure at Rutgers. It was on full display once again in his return last Saturday and transformed the team. Whether they can produce a similar relentless effort against Indiana and how the visitors will handle it remains to be seen.

The last thought is an optimistic one that doesn’t have anything to do with the actual players on Saturday, but as fans, history is always relevant, whether it’s rational or not. Rutgers has lost 28 straight games against foes ranked in the AP Top 25 poll, dating back to 2009 when they defeated South Florida 31-0. It’s the longest drought among all power five conference teams. It’s been a strange year in the world where weird things are happening and the return of Schiano has boosted the program after just one week. Perhaps the Scarlet Knights are due and things will get even wilder this weekend by connecting on its biggest chop yet since Schiano’s return. While it shouldn’t be expected by any means, just having the possibility float around in the minds of Rutgers fans this week and it not being a completely crazy idea is progress.