An inability to stop Illinois’ ground game, turnovers and a lack of execution in the red zone were major reasons that Rutgers unraveled in a disappointing 23-20 defeat on Saturday. However, another reason that has been a consistent problem this season was penalties. Rutgers entered the game leading the Big Ten with 27 penalties through three games for an average of 72 yards per game, which ranked 11th in the league. Illinois actually had its share of issues with penalties as well, entering the game with 24 and were tied for a league worst average of 85 yards per game.
In Saturday’s game, there was a clear difference though between the two teams. The Illini improved in this area by only committing 4 penalties for 40 yards, while Rutgers was flagged 7 times for 55 yards. It was more than the total, as Illinois had two touchdown drives aided by three costly penalties that were avoidable. None of the penalties called on the Illini came on scoring drives for Rutgers.
The first touchdown drive of the game for Illinois saw two mistakes from the defensive line. C.J Onyechi was called for roughing the passer on a third and five that was an incomplete pass. Instead of a three and out that stalled at the Illinois 18 yard line and would have given Rutgers the ball back with a 10-0 lead and likely good field position, the drive was extended. Later in the drive, Michael Dwumfour was flagged for offsides that resulted in an Illinois first down.
There were also two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that can’t happen. The first took place on the second drive of the game for Illinois, when Mayan Ahanotu was flagged. It fortunately didn’t cost Rutgers as Mike Tverdov forced a fumble on the next play and Max Melton recovered it. However, the second one took place midway through the third quarter and right after Rutgers took a 20-10 lead with Bo Melton’s second touchdown of the game. Tight end Tahjay Moore was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after throwing a punch on the ensuing kickoff. Instead of Illinois starting the next drive on their own 25 yard line, they started on their own 40 yard line. Six plays later, the Illini answered and the comeback was in full swing.
Following the loss, Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano discussed the penalties, stating “We made mistakes. We had some penalties that just aren’t what we allow in our program and those, one of them on a drive led to a score. The other one didn’t. We took the ball away. But still, those catch up to you when they catch up to you. You can’t do that stuff. That’s what I call those stupid and selfish penalties. You do that stuff, it makes you feel better in the moment and it hurts your team. And that’s not what we’re about.”
On moving forward, Schiano emphasized that “We got to get all that stuff fixed and that’s part of building this thing, building this program. We have to understand what it takes to win in this league and if we don’t, it will be that roller coaster, some good, some bad. We need to learn that it’s all in, it’s everything, otherwise this league’s too hard to win in.”
Tverdov, who finished with 7 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss, added that “No one is a finished product on this team. We have to be more disciplined. We have to trust our coaching in critical situations and do our jobs.”
If Rutgers is going to win another game this season, cleaning up mistakes like penalties is a must. There is no doubt limited practice time with a new coaching staff certainly put this team in a difficult place to begin the season, but through four games there hasn’t been any improvement with penalties. It has to change, as Rutgers simply can’t afford to make careless mistakes that lead to unforced errors if they want to overcome the lack of overall talent and depth of the roster in Big Ten play.