In the second half of the ninth straight Big Ten game in as many weeks, the weight that Rutgers carried on its back during the strangest and most challenging season that I’ve ever witnessed finally broke them. Three 90 yard plus touchdown drives later for Nebraska proved that notion to be true, resulting in a season ending 28-21 defeat.
After becoming the first team in the conference to play out the entire season, with only Penn State still able to equal that feat with a scheduled game on Saturday against Illinois, it was injuries and not COVID-19 that took the greatest toll.
Rutgers didn’t run out of gas, it ran out of depth. They never stopped fighting, they just lost too many key players to put up a strong enough of one.
Head coach Greg Schiano said after the loss, “There was certainly a lot of people that weren’t playing. You know, there’s a reason that guys are first-team players and second-team players and third-team players. You do stack them by who is performing the best at the time.” He continued, “So when you lose several of those guys, you’ve got to, famous word is next man up. Well, we tried. Next man up tried to do it. Coaches tried to do it.”
In the win over Maryland, Schiano said he was forced to check on the health of players on the field more than any other game in his entire coaching career. It certainly changed the way Rutgers prepared for Nebraska in a short week.
“We changed our practice week, obviously, for the shortened week, but we literally didn’t put pads on them this week. We couldn’t. They just weren’t physically able to do that, not even one day. We just didn’t think their bodies would hold up,” Schiano said. “So I’m really proud, because they did, they gave it everything. Their energy in pregame, I really said, man, these guys, they are going to spill it here. But I think as some things went, injuries, the guys really started to feel it, it was hard to focus on the things that were most important to win this game. That’s what gets you is you get a little bit off and not against a team like that. They are big and they are talented.”
Even though Nebraska came into Friday night’s game with just a 2-5 record, they had lost three games by one score. From a pure talent perspective, their five previous recruiting classes were ranked in the Top 25 nationally and top five within the Big Ten each year.
The difference in talent on the field due to a lack of depth for Rutgers in this game was painfully obvious. It was like the good guy in a movie slowly bleeding out on screen and watching it happen helplessly. You are still rooting for them to survive, but you know their fate is sealed.
The defense in particular was without three of its best players for most of the game. Brendon White and Michael Dwumfour, transfers from Ohio State and Michigan who improved the frontline talent in their respective position groups this season, both sat out with injuries. The leading tackler in the Big Ten and in all of college football, Olakunle Fatukasi, left the game in the first half with an injury and never returned. Late in the game, Avery Young, who made 11 tackles in the game, left with an injury. Tyshon Fogg, the four year warrior doubling as linebacker, was limping around trying his best to keep things together but it wasn’t enough.
On offense, Artur Sitkowski played for injured starter Noah Vedral and was unable to move Rutgers with any regularity. He finished 10 of 20 on pass attempts for 122 yards. This wasn’t a performance coming close to several disastrous one’s during his freshman campaign, but it also wasn’t one that inspired hope he was the answer moving forward.
The offensive line exceeded low expectations this season and were led extremely well by assistant Andrew Aurich and offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson. However, even though Bryan Felter and Brendan Bordner played well at times this season, I think we can all agree starting a true freshman and converted defensive lineman most of the season highlights the lack of depth in this critical position group.
Nebraska dominated in the trenches on both sides of the ball in this game, serving as a reminder how far Rutgers needs to go in order to physically compete against a good portion of the Big Ten.
When asked if this season was the most difficult of his coaching career, Schiano answered, “Nothing will ever match the year with Eric LeGrand. As far as circumstances unrelated to us solely, this is the toughest thing we’ve had to deal with.”
Whether this season will actually serve the program well long term in benefitting from such difficult circumstances during a global pandemic, Schiano thought it would. He said, “I do think that in many different ways it did that, including the one that I said earlier. I saw how much it meant to certain people because the things we asked them to do were not easy things to do.”
Schiano continued, “It’s all about how important is this game to you and how important are your teammates and this program to you. That to me is what sets programs apart. And when you get an unselfish group of people that are willing to do things for each other, (the) sky’s the limit. So I think that there’s definitely growth that is going to come as a result of this. But that’s a football team you’re talking about. There is tragedy all over. So it hard to even put into context.”
As for this season, Rutgers made dramatic improvement in Schiano’s first year back leading the program. Yes, this team tied the program high mark for Big Ten wins with three, which was also previously done in 2014 and 2017. However, notable and rare achievements occurred on both sides of the ball.
Rutgers forced 19 turnovers this season after book ending the season with seven takeaways in the opener at Michigan State and four takeaways in this loss, all by Christian Izien (two interceptions, two fumble recoveries). BTN reported the 19 takeaways in a season was the most for the program since 2012, when arguably the best defensive in school history patrolled the banks.
Offensively, the Scarlet Knights finished with program bests since joining the Big Ten seven seasons ago by averaging 26.7 points per game and 339.1 yards of total offense per game. The offense averaged 5.7 points in Big Ten play last season. After scoring 20 points or more in just 12 of the program’s 52 contests since joining the conference, this season’s team exceeded that total in eight of nine conference games.
After signing the highest rated recruiting class for the program since 2012 earlier this week, which included high profile transfers in Joshua Youngblood from Kansas State and Ifeanyi Maijeh from Temple, the talent in the program is being upgraded. As for moving forward, Rutgers will continue improving or level off due to how successfully the coaching staff identifies players and then develops them.
A big part of this offseason starts with getting this team healthy. Schiano explained, “We’ll have some surgeries that have to get done this week, so that’s a big thing that has to happen. We actually have quite a few. That’s what a nine-week physical season bears on a team. A lot of guys played through pain that they knew eventually they were going to have to get surgery.”
In regard to the outlook for the program after the first year back for Schiano, he commented, “I’m very excited about coaching this team and as I said, disappointed about tonight for sure. We had an opportunity to do something that no Rutgers team has ever done and that’s win four games in the Big Ten.” He continued, “And as I told them, winning four games would not have been taking that trophy and putting it up here. But it’s a step on the way. So we didn’t get there. We won three. So we’ll go back to work after like I said, we take a rest, get back to work and keep building this thing. But I’m really pleased with our guys and looking forward to the future.”
Rutgers lost six Big Ten games this season by an average margin of defeat of 11.7 points and only once by more than two scores. Last season, Rutgers lost nine Big Ten games by an average margin of defeat of 33.8 points per game and all were by more than two scores.
There were many major improvements this season, but none were greater than with the coaching staff. There’s always room to criticize decisions and play calls, but the trajectory of the program is headed straight up due to the remarkable job Schiano, his assistants and support staff have done this past year. Their expertise and preparation are sustainable assets that will serve the program well once talent and depth improves.
The most important part of this season was building a strong foundation for success in the future. Having the opportunity to play was crucial towards Rutgers being able to do that.
Schiano stressed, “Every single day we talked about our No. 1 opponent being COVID and if we were able to defeat our No. 1 opponent as a program, that we would have the opportunity to get better.” He continued, “You get better in practice, but you also get better in live competition in games. We were able to improve. We won some, we lost some, but we got better. And a lot of guys got valuable experience that moving forward is going to be very beneficial. It’s really good. I wish we could have won tonight. We had a chance and just couldn’t quite finish the job.”
Rutgers had a chance against Nebraska, just like they had a chance in every game this season. That fact is an easy way to determine that significant progress was made this season, one year removed from when Rutgers never had a chance in any Big Ten game it played.