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The reality of the Rutgers rebuild sinks in

A gut punch loss to Illinois was a reminder that the program has a long way to go.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Saturday’s loss to Illinois pulled at the heartstrings of Rutgers fans and ultimately ended with a kick to the gut when James McCourt drilled a game winning 47 yard field goal with 3 seconds left in the game. After being favored in a Big Ten game for the first time since the 2014 season with a chance to improve to 2-2 ahead of a prime time game next weekend against Michigan, the Scarlet Knights couldn’t deliver. Across social media, message boards and even in the comment section of this website, the familiar self pitying moan of “same old Rutgers” made it’s first appearance this fall. Some comments yielded even harsher assessments.

Entering the 2020 season, I warned you. I wrote that expectations should be low and to enjoy any positives that occur, no matter how basic or small. Remember, Rutgers entered this season as the unquestioned worst power five conference team in college football. Add in the fact that a team that won just three games combined in the previous two seasons prepared for this campaign with a new coaching staff and without having spring practice, normal offseason activities or a traditional training camp.

Schiano isn’t the messiah, he is a program builder.

Expectations understandably increased after Rutgers stunned Michigan State to open the season, which ended the three year long, 21 game Big Ten losing streak. Despite losses to Indiana and Ohio State by a combined 38 points ahead of Saturday’s game against Illinois, Rutgers was far more competitive against both teams currently ranked in the top ten nationally than expected before the season.

Enter Illinois, who despite being a bowl team last season, came to Piscataway on Saturday winless and short handed due to Covid-19. Even though no one is in attendance this season due to the global pandemic, Rutgers fans were right in feeling confident that a second win in four games was there for the taking.

As the fan base was painfully reminded on Saturday, rebuilds are not linear. Missteps will happen along the way and sometimes not when you expect them to occur.

In Greg Schiano’s fourth season at Rutgers during his first tenure, the Scarlet Knights opened with a statement win over Michigan State, sound familiar, only to lose the following week to then 1-AA New Hampshire. The next season, Rutgers went to just the second bowl game in program history and the year after that won 10 games and finished the season ranked 12th in the country.

Back to year one of Schiano’s second tenure and Illinois was the best chance for Rutgers to earn a second victory this season. The Scarlet Knights are instead now 1-3 and while there will be more opportunities, they’ll have to improve in all phases to capitalize.

To his credit, Schiano didn’t shy away from the disappointment for the fan base after the loss, stating “I want the expectations to be higher. That’s what they should be.” He added that in knowing what Illinois had been through this season so far, he warned the team that “This is a wounded animal backed into a corner and they’re going to come out and fight.

Entering the game having allowed the second fewest rushing yards in Big Ten play, the Illini gashed the Scarlet Knights defense for 338 yards. Backup quarterback Isaiah Williams wore Rutgers down, running 31 times for 192 yards and a touchdown. After the defense looked reborn in the win over Michigan State, producing seven takeaways, the unit looked overmatched and weary in Saturday’s defeat.

It’s completely fair to be upset after this loss, even angry. Rutgers held a 10 point lead midway through the third quarter and had several chances to regain the lead late in the game but continually faltered. Quarterback Noah Vedral had his second three-interception game of the season, wiping out the positives that came with 259 yards passing and two touchdowns to Bo Melton.

It’s easy to have patience in the offseason and contemplate a reasonable timeline of three or four seasons before Schiano has the program back in a bowl game. It’s much harder to stay level headed after a hard to swallow, last second loss to a previously winless team, even if it happens in week four of year one. Losing hurts and when major progress will take time to occur, it’s easy to get caught up in a vacuum in the short term.

This team has to learn how walk before they can run. Learning to win when you are expected to and closing out a lead in the second half are both things that this Rutgers team hasn’t dealt with in a long time. They failed on Saturday and some of the decision making by the coaching staff was puzzling. Red zone play calling, throwing it on first down on the last drive after the run game was rolling, and a more conservative defensive approach all contributed to the loss.

In addition, Rutgers continues to lead the Big Ten in penalties and made several costly mistakes against Illinois.

Enjoy the little things.

While there have been too many turnovers and inconsistent production from the Rutgers offense overall this season, they’ve now scored 20 points or more in all four games. In the previous four seasons, Rutgers scored 20 or more points in just five of 36 conference games. That includes doing so just once during the 21 Big Ten losing streak and only came under interim head coach Nunzio Campanile against Ohio State last fall.

That isn’t to say it’s enough offensive output to become a consistent winner in the Big Ten because it isn’t. The point is for this team to become good, they have to first improve enough to become close to an average offense, then slightly above. They aren’t there yet, but they certainly aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be. After averaging 8.4 points in Big Ten play the previous two seasons, Rutgers is averaging 26.5 points through four games this season.

Positive change happened quickly under new offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson. Bo Melton has emerged as one of the best receivers in the Big Ten and Isaih Pacheco has a chance to do the same before the season is over. The offensive line has been better than expected. Even so, Noah Vedral has struggled at quarterback and It has held the offense back from even more progress.

Despite it all, creativity has made Rutgers fun again, even if they aren’t good. And yet, they have scored 20+ points in all four games after never doing so more than twice in a row since joining the Big Ten in 2014.

Rebuilds are not for the faint of heart. There is a reason attendance in normal years, television ratings and even views on Rutgers sites like this one go down during bad seasons. Fans are made up of all types of people with different levels of commitment. I’m not judging if you checked out during the Ash era or for basketball during the Eddie Jordan era. Losing hurts. Indifference is easier on the soul.

Odds are if you are reading this, you don’t fall in the casual fan category. Embrace the journey. There will be more days and games like Saturday’s loss to Illinois. Two steps forward and one step back wouldn’t be a smooth journey, but it would still be one marching towards long term positive change.

Schiano has never been a perfect coach. Far from it, in fact. His clock management, halftime adjustments, handling of quarterbacks and struggles with poor performances in pivotal games was every part of his first tenure as were annual bowl victories, as well as most seasons having an 8 win floor, signature wins and the success in the 2006 campaign. He was able to build the program into a consistent winner, but it took time. Schiano had plenty of doubters in his first go around and he ultimately proved them wrong.

A fan base that was energized like never before by his return last December took a significant body blow in the loss to Illinois. Get used to it. More are coming. Schiano will continue to build up the program by adding more talent and depth. The culture will strengthen over time. Player development will be the cornerstone for success. This season is about laying the groundwork for those things to happen over time. Saturday’s loss didn’t change that fact, it just made the long road ahead more bumpy.