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Rutgers proves it’s a different team despite loss to No. 17 Indiana

The Scarlet Knights have taken on the personality of head coach Greg Schiano and that’s a very good thing.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After Saturday’s 37-21 loss to no. 17 Indiana, Rutgers has now lost 29 straight games against ranked foes dating back to 2009, the longest streak of any power five conference program. The last victory over a ranked opponent came when the Greg Schiano led Scarlet Knights blew out no. 23 South Florida on a Thursday night in mid-November eleven years ago.

By the time Schiano’s first tenure ended at the conclusion of the 2011 season, he had lost three times to ranked teams since that night, all of whom were named West Virginia. No program wrecked more havoc for Rutgers during Schiano’s first tenure, but the series was mostly hotly contested and two of those losses were in close, heartbreaking fashion. All three of those losses were by an average of 11 points. However, most of the 25 losses since Schiano left before this weekend’s defeat to the Hoosiers were not nearly as close at all.

In eight seasons of Kyle Flood and Chris Ash as head coach, the severe drop off the program took following Schiano’s departure can in part be demonstrated by how uncompetitive Rutgers was against ranked foes.

Flood’s teams between 2012-2015 lost nine games against ranked opponents by an average margin of defeat of 26 points. In those nine losses, RU was held to single digit points twice. Even in the 2014 season that saw the Scarlet Knights go 8-5, they still lost three times to ranked foes by an average of 33 points.

Rutgers lost to ranked teams under Ash 13 times in three-plus seasons by an average margin of defeat of 40 points. The offense was held to single digits in every game but one (Washington 2017) and was shutout six times. Nunzio Campanile took over as interim head coach once Ash was fired after four games into last season and lost to three ranked opponents by 30 points. They were held to single digits twice, but Nunzio was coaching without his starting quarterback and running back who decided to redshirt after Ash’s dismissal. Even so, Rutgers scored a program best 21 points against Ohio State under Nunzio, which was also more than the offense produced in any game Ash coached against a ranked team. It’s one of the many reasons that Campanile deserves the gratitude of all Rutgers fans.

So what is the point of looking back to this painful history in such detailed fashion?

Despite falling short on Saturday to the Hoosiers, Rutgers showed they are an improved team from the past few years. One metric in proving that is looking back at how uncompetitive Rutgers has been against ranked foes the previous eight seasons and realizing this loss was far closer.

The Scarlet Knights were trailing 23-15 late in the third quarter and yes they did get knocked against the ropes and fell behind 37-15 soon after. However, Schiano’s team kept chopping and added one more score while continuing to threaten the Hoosiers until the final whistle. In fact, it was almost even closer due to that amazingly complicated trick play on 4th and 32 towards the end of the game that ultimately didn’t count due to an illegal forward pass, which was by a hair (Shameen Jones to Sam Vretman). The effort and resolve that those players demonstrated highlighted the culture change that’s already taken place in Schiano’s first season back on the banks. Also, what a call by Chris Carlin.

Schiano was asked about the play after the game and explained it wasn’t a fluke. “We practice that play. That’s one of our end-of-game plays. It never plays out the same. The beginning starts the same, but who knows where it goes from the pitch fest, right? I couldn’t tell you if that was a forward pass. How do I know?” He continued, “I do know this: they really executed it about as well as you can. They refused to go down with the ball, which is not easy to do. How many times do you watch a game and see a guy go down with the ball? You see it all the time. They refused to go down with the ball. I thought it was a tremendous effort.”

Coaching and player toughness have greatly improved since Schiano returned.

Rutgers certainly made some critical mistakes in the loss. Three turnovers, all interceptions thrown by quarterback Noah Vedral, probably cost them the game alone as Indiana capitalized on two them by scoring touchdowns after starting with the ball within 25 yards of the end zone. Eight penalties, while converting just 3 of 17 third and fourth down conversions were factors in falling short as well. The defense had trouble stopping the big play.

Of course, Indiana had something to do with that and look to be a very good team after starting 2-0 with a win over Penn State last weekend. If they can beat Michigan next weekend, then their game against Ohio State will likely decide the Big Ten East division.

Despite the mistakes, Rutgers did actually have one more first down than Indiana (20 to 19), rushed for 122 yards, 15 more than IU, and All-Big Ten performer Aron Cruickshank made his first big play at Rutgers with a 55 yard kickoff return in the second half. As much as the offense struggled, they still scored 21 points against a good defense, which was more than they scored in all but one Big Ten game the previous two seasons.

Schiano’s team kept fighting and if not for a couple of plays, it would have been a much closer game. “I do love the way they compete,” he said after the loss. Schiano continued, “I love the way they keep straining, as we say, keep chopping. Certainly not one ounce of giving in. It’s about winning and losing, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’ll build this thing the right way. I believe in our guys. They stuck to the plan throughout. But certainly it’s disappointing.”

Asked what he learned about his team in the loss, Schiano was matter of fact in saying, “I think the same thing I learned in the win: when things didn’t go well, they kept chopping. Tonight things didn’t go well for a long period of time, and they just kept playing hard.”

For fans that stayed dialed in during the worst losses in recent memory, it’s obvious that wasn’t always the case. It was fair to question the toughness of some of those teams.

The major reason why things are much different now is simple: Greg Schiano.

In just two games since his return, Rutgers has been reborn from the worst power five conference team in the country to one that can seriously compete with arguably any team in the Big Ten not named Ohio State. We don’t exactly know about Michigan and Penn State yet, but both those team have already lost to the two opponents Rutgers has faced this season.

The team’s personality has been completely remade to fit the mold of its head coach, despite the majority of the roster being comprised of players he didn’t recruit. It speaks volumes of both his ability to get players to buy-in, but also his approach in converting them by making them his own.

Schiano’s influence has been evident in speaking with several players over the past two weeks. “Chopping the moment” is said by all. Their focus and confidence in one another is apparent. The way they carried themselves and seized the moment against Michigan State was an obvious sign. The defensive effort was vintage Schiano. However, tonight demonstrated a key change as well. This team plays to win and doesn’t get discouraged despite being down multiple scores.

It’s time to officially retire the surrender punt at Rutgers.

Despite failing on all three fourth down attempts, having the offense go for it and refusing to concede a loss sent an important message. It also led to the first touchdown of the game when Rutgers drew a roughing the passer penalty to advance the ball.

That’s not all. There was an onside kick in the third quarter. There was also a two-point conversion attempt in the same frame even after a five yard penalty, making it a much tougher play. Isaih Pacheco caught a short pass from Vedral and made a great play to get into the end zone for the deuce.

Schiano cut to the chase when asked about the aggressive decision making, stating “I didn’t come back here to lose.” He further explained, “I’m not saying we’re going to win every game or we’re going to win ‘em all right away. We’re going out there and we’re playing to win. If it means going on fourth down, if it means going for two, whatever it means, that’s what we’re going to do. I promised these kids that. As hard as they work, they deserve that.”

Rutgers believes in their head coach and he believes in them. They are a work in progress and have a ways to go. Expectations were low heading into the season, but they have looked better than expected and are thankfully an interesting team to watch once again.

“Keep Chopping” might be a simple catch phrase, but it’s given a program that desperately needed an identity the confidence that they can win by fully living and embracing it. This is a different team now than they’ve been most of the past decade and Saturday’s loss proved that. The rebuild is going to take time and require patience, but hope continues to grow.