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Biggest issue for Rutgers shows up in loss to Penn State

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Saturday’s defeat highlighted the lack of talent and depth on the roster as the Big Ten grind is taking its toll.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday marked the most disappointing performance by Rutgers this season, as they lost decisively to Penn State. After trailing 17-0 at the half, they continued to battle the entire way and were close to making it a one score game at times, but ultimately fell 23-7. After last week’s upset victory over Purdue, there was hope this team had turned a corner and were going to finally beat the Nittany Lions for the first time as Big Ten foes. Despite a down season for Penn State, it was clear after this game that their talent level, depth and overall potential is far above that of Rutgers.

Head coach Greg Schiano was blunt in his assessment, saying after the game that “The players fought throughout the game. But overall we didn’t coach well enough or play well enough to win, so Penn State deserved to win today more than we did.”

Rutgers has made plenty of mistakes in every game this season, but they’ve also made big plays as well. In Saturday’s loss, the latter part was absent, especially in the first half, their worst played 30 minutes since the start of the Ohio State game. In addition, it appeared that a gear was missing with the team on Saturday.

Schiano elaborated on their performance, stating “We just — we didn’t play clean. Our guys played hard. It wasn’t — they fought the entire game to the last snap but hard isn’t good enough in this league. This is big boy football, and you’ve got to play clean. You’ve got to play precise. You’ve got to coach that way, and just as an organization, we didn’t do well enough.”

There were some questionable coaching decisions, including two first half calls to go for it on fourth down that left Penn State with great field position. The first call was questionable in regard to not punting it away in hopes of pinning PSU early on, while the second time it was the play call itself that was troubling. Regarding the plays, Schiano said “I believe that we can convert those. We just didn’t do it. There’s been many times we have and that didn’t happen this time.” A big reason why was due to the most disturbing issue in this game, which was the way Rutgers was physically beaten on both sides of the ball in the trenches.

The biggest concern about this team entering the season was the lack of depth and talent on the roster. Satruday’s game seemed to highlight both issues in a neon bright kind of way that hadn’t shown up yet this season. That’s actually a credit to Schiano and his staff, as well as the players, rather than a criticism. The reality is Penn State dominated Rutgers on the field more than the scoreboard indicated and it’s not an easy fix.

While Schiano did a masterful job improving frontline talent through the transfer portal and has done a good job on the recruiting trail so far, it’s going to take several cycles to significantly improve both the level of talent and depth needed to be able to compete with the best of the Big Ten on a regular basis. Penn State may have had only one win entering this game, but they have top of the league talent. The disparity was painfully obvious.

Managing COVID-19 has been extremely important this season and Rutgers has done a good job with it, as they are just one of four Big Ten teams that haven’t had a game cancelled this fall. However, avoiding injuries is crucial and while Rutgers hasn’t had any significant players suffer long term setbacks, the grind of this super squeezed season appears to be taking its toll on the team.

Schiano said earlier this week at his Monday press conference that “Some guys are bumped up. We have to make sure they are getting treatment and it will be a week where we really have to get our guys feeling well physically.”

The physical toll of the Big Ten grind is wearing down Rutgers.

Injuries happen to every team and the lack of a traditional offseason along with a shortened preseason camp was a challenge for every Big Ten program. The idea of playing eight regular season games in an eight week period, followed by a ninth game for Big Ten Championship Week right after, seemed like a pipe dream in regard to it being executed successfully. Not having bye weeks built in to account for teams that have COVID-19 issues was a mistake that became impossible after the Big Ten fumbled it’s decision process before calling an audible in September to play the season after all. Even so, the original August announcement that the season would begin in early September before the first practice had even taken place seemed like a recipe for disaster in regard to injuries.

Overall, Schiano and the strength and conditioning staff deserve praise for the way they have rebuilt the players to emphasize speed and agility over sheer size and strength. It’s evident it’s helped on the field and despite a disjointed offseason, they’ve stayed relatively healthy. However, the lack of depth is showing now that some front end starters are slowing down due to injuries.

Two key defensive players, Brendon White and Tyshon Fogg, have missed time leading up to this game and neither made an impact in this game. White didn’t play for the second time this season and Fogg tried to go but ended up not playing much. They are arguably the two best defensive players behind Olakunle Fatukasi, who is challenging for All-America status and was leading the Big Ten in tackles even before 18 tackle performance on Saturday.

On the defensive injuries, Schiano said, “With Tyshon Fogg, he had an injury he fought through this week but really, didn’t get enough practice and was able to do some things. I think as the game went on, it maybe wasn’t strong enough to go anymore. So you know, he tried.” As for White, he added “Brendon wasn’t good enough to play health-wise, so we didn’t — we didn’t risk that.”

Offensively, two players who missed last week’s game were Noah Vedral and Raiqwon O’Neal. Both were able to go today, but it was unlikely they were injury free. While Vedral displayed his usual toughness, scrambling out of pressure to throw a touchdown pass and leading RU with 56 rushing yards, he didn’t look completely right throwing the ball. In addition, leading receiver Bo Melton, who caught the lone score with an athletic grab in double coverage, left the game late after another acrobatic catch. Hopefully, he’ll be okay after jogging off the field.

Rutgers has inspired the fan base and changed perception across the Big Ten with the way they have played week after week for the new coaching regime led by Schiano. They have “chopped the moment” to respectability, despite having enough deficiencies as a team to warrant their 2-5 record. Saturday’s game was the most disappointing this season because of how they had exceeded expectations in the previous six games. The encouraging part is that even though they played their worst game of the season, they were not closed to being embarrassed, which they were so many times in recent years.

The Scarlet Knights are no longer a laughingstock. The culture is strong and this team fights to the bitter end. It’s just that the program has a long way to go before they become a winning one. The loss to Penn State made it clear that the talent and depth of Rutgers isn’t close to where it needs to be. The necessary steps still needed to make this a successful rebuild long term are going to take time.