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Rutgers football is fun again

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A spirited second half effort fueled by daring and creative play calling officially turned a page on the joyless football we’ve witnessed in recent seasons.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers took an expected loss on Saturday at the Shoe against no. 3 Ohio State, it’s seventh consecutive defeat at the hands of the Buckeyes since joining the Big Ten. Coming in more than five touchdown underdogs after losing by an average of 47 points in six previous meetings, it didn’t appear this night would be much different as OSU led 35-3 at halftime.

And then something strange happened in the second half. Rutgers outplayed the best team in the Big Ten. They outscored the Buckeyes 24-14 after halftime and it was almost by even more before Artur Sitkowski fumbled in the red zone on the last drive of the game. The offense had 290 total yards and 16 first downs, while the defense held Ohio State to only 164 yards and 9 first downs. It was an inspiring effort that gave hope that this team will continue to improve as the season progresses.

“The fact that we were able to do better in the second half, we need to build on that,” head coach Greg Schiano said after the game.

After an awful start against Ohio State, they made it close enough that the Buckeye starters stayed in for a fight they didn’t expect to be in late in the game. However, it was how Rutgers came back that made it so interesting.

The Scarlet Knights let it all hang out, both with the play calling from the coaches and the players executing those calls, which resulted in some big plays. The team played with far more confidence and were much looser in the second half after making several key mistakes in the first half.

For the first time in a long time, Rutgers was competing at a high level against a top ranked opponent. And they looked like they were having fun doing it.

After the game, head coach Greg Schiano responded to how important having fun is in regard to playing well by saying, “That’s an old chicken and the egg (scenario). When you are doing well, you have fun. Are they playing looser or because they are playing well, does it look like they are having more fun?”

As for his approach with the team, Schiano said, “I don’t ever want our team to be tight. I want them to be confident that they’ve prepared. That’s where real confidence comes in. You’ve paid the price in the six days between games and are prepared. That’s physical, mental and emotional preparation. That’s when you play loose. Certainly once you start making some plays (it helps).”

As for how he and the team were feeling after the loss, despite the strong finish, Schiano explained, “You literally mourn it when you lose. I know many people didn’t expect us to win but we did. We expected to win and we didn’t win, so we are mourning this right now. It’s hard.” He continued, “You have to learn from it. Look at the tape right away and learn from it with the players. It starts with me and it goes through the staff. We have to be the teachers and convey it to our players. That’s the essence of coaching and we all have to do a better job, starting with me.”

One week after catching two touchdowns, Bo Melton led Rutgers with 170 all-purpose yards, including 7 receptions for 86 yards and a 58 yard punt return for a touchdown. On what changed in the second half, Melton said, “Coach Schiano came in (at halftime) and told us to do our job. The way we fought in the second half was amazing. We just have to come out sooner. They are the no. 3 team in the nation and are a great team. I’m happy we fought in general, but we have to keep working and chop every moment that we have.”

While Schiano and the players keep chopping, fans are having more fun following this team than in a very long time. Last week there was the trick play that resulted in almost a dozen laterals on a 4th and 32 that produced a touchdown, only to get called back due to an illegal forward pass (by an inch). It launched a day long debate on Twitter between fans on whether the play should have counted and how much the refs decided to stiff it to Rutgers. It was the right call, but the most important part of it was the message it sent. This team plays to win and has a never say die attitude, which has empowered the players to respond in a big way.

Saturday’s game at Ohio Stadium took things up a notch, as trick plays and unorthodox play designs helped key the results that Rutgers was able to produce and make it a game at the end.

There were onside kicks with variations, laterals on kick and punt returns and the now expected Johnny Langan package that produced two touchdowns, one by air and one on the ground. However, there was so much more in this game.

On the opening kickoff, Aron Cruickshank caught the ball around the 7 yard line and proceeded to toss it across the field to Melton, who glided to the Rutgers 35 yard line. It didn’t produce a game changing play, but it set the tone that the Scarlet Knights didn’t come all the way to Columbus to lay down and accept their fate.

The game changed for Rutgers around the 9 minute mark of the third quarter when offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson called a play for Isaih Pacheco to take a direct snap. It resulted in a 66 yard run down to the Ohio State 4 yard line. Cruickshank was in motion and both he and quarterback Noah Vedral sold the trick play well with fakes.

Schiano said of the play, “When PAC took that one up the sideline, you saw how fast he really is. He cooked it pretty good for a big back.”

That run by Pacheco set up the first touchdown of the game, but from an unlikely player. Left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal lined up as a tight end and Vedral rolled out to the right and then tossed it back near the left sideline behind the line of scrimmage to around the 10 yard line. No one was near O’Neal, who showed off soft hands and capable feet as he ran across the goal line untouched.

O’Neal was asked about the play after the game, saying “Yes, it was the first time I ever scored. It’s what we did all week. We knew what to do and executed it perfectly. Without the guys blocking for me, I wouldn’t have been able to score.”

Asked how it felt, O’Neal stated, “It was exciting, especially when my teammates came to celebrate with me. We know how to chop the moment and just focus on the next play now. We’ve got that one in the books, now go execute again.”

Schiano discussed the touchdown while reminiscing of his first tenure in saying, “It was a really good play call. If you remember, we threw that to Jeremy Zuttah (before) and Anthony Davis in a bowl game. It’s a good play. You get to use it once in awhile. People will be on it now. You just have to come up with new stuff.”

As for whether Rutgers is using too much of the play book too early in the season, Schiano explained why he doesn’t believe in holding back. He said, “That’s what they pay us for. We’ll dream something up. I really believe that every game is a one week season.”

Early in the fourth quarter, Melton was involved in another trick play on a return. This time it was on a punt and Avery Young threw it across the field to him. It resulted in a 58 yard touchdown that gave Rutgers another big play.

Melton said the play was executed because “Avery made a great throw back. My guys blocked for me. That’s all I needed. They did their job. Making people miss is my job. They did their job on that play.”

Cruickshank, who made Second Team All-Big Ten as a kick returner at Wisconsin last season, said of the play that “We expected it because we practiced that play all week. Bo was just waiting for that moment to get that call off and I was excited for him to make that play for us.”

It was more than trick plays though, as Rutgers was able to make some things happen on offense simply due to their effort. Schiano noticed and said, “I thought a lot of guys showed great efforts. We have some weapons. We just have to keep finding ways to utilize them. If the line can continue to improve the way they are, we are going to start to score more points each week. But we can’t talk about, we just have to do it.”

Cruikshank was another player who stepped up and had 127 all-purpose yards that included 7 receptions for 50 yards, 2 carries for 22 yards and four kick returns for 56 yards. On a play early in the game, he was able to avoid going down near midfield and was able to scamper away to pick up the first down and a chunk of yards after contact.

Cruickshank said after the game, “I feel like I left it all out there. I try to do everything i can to support and help my team. Unfortunately, we came up short today.”

Another great play from Melton came late in the third quarter when he gave a Buckeye defender a stiff arm and he was able to pick up another 12 or so yards after contact.

Schiano said of Melton, “I thought Bo had some incredible efforts tonight. Some second and third and fourth efforts that show the player that he is. We are going to need him in a big way going forward.”

As for the Rutgers offense, they have averaged 28.7 points through three games, which is a massive improvement for a team that averaged less than half that in the previous two seasons. Although they couldn’t convert on multiple two-point conversion attempts, they went 3 for 3 on fourth down and seven players had 3 or more catches in the game. The impact that Gleeson and the rest of the coaching staff has had on the offense so far has been tremendous.

O’Neal said of the offensive improvement, “We feel like we can execute anything that they give us. Our guys up front and our receivers and our skills (position), we believe anything the coaches game plan, we will execute it to perfection.”

“We all know what the vision is and what we want it to be,” Schiano said of the offense. He continued, “We’re building something, so we aren’t going to not do what we are building, if it suits this game or that game. We are trying to win every game. These kids have given such an incredible effort to us in these last 11 months they deserve our very best to help them win. That’s what we are trying to do.”

Regarding the entire team effort in the loss to Ohio State, Schiano was hopeful. “I know this, if you chop the way those players and coaches did, it gives you a good chance. Really, that’s what we are banking on right now. Keep chopping and figure it out.”

While Rutgers is just 1-2 this season, they’ve exceeded expectations so far. They’ve competed in every game, including what appears to be against the two best teams in the Big Ten East in Indiana, who at 3-0 also own wins over Penn State and Michigan, as well as the obvious front runner in Ohio State. The offense shouldn’t be confused with any juggernaut, but they are far more capable and have executed more big plays than Rutgers has in several seasons. The defense struggled in the first half, but didn’t quit and held the Buckeyes to just two touchdowns in the second half while also forcing a turnover. Special teams has had moments in every game now. This team is still a work in progress, but it is clear they are much improved.

For Rutgers fans, after years of watching joyless football, this team has become must watch television. The trick plays, as well as the effort and fight this team plays with has been a pleasure to root for. During a shortened season that Rutgers didn’t even hold a practice until late summer, the progress made has been bordering remarkable. Even if they don’t become a winning team this season, it’s safe to say we know they will continue to make things interesting and more importantly, a lot more fun.