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Rutgers Football 2020 season in review: Game-by-game analysis and team MVP’s

Let’s take a look back on what was a hectic but exciting season for the Scarlet Knights.

Rutgers v Purdue Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

It has been three weeks since Rutgers’ football played their ninth and final game of the 2020 season. The Scarlet Knights were manhandled by Nebraska but they were able to accomplish something much bigger than a Week 9 victory.

Rutgers navigated a national pandemic and all COVID restrictions to complete their eight-game regular season schedule plus one. Head coach Greg Schiano made a huge impact right away during his first season back, on and off the field.

On the field, the Scarlet Knights entered the season on a 21-game losing streak in Big Ten games. They were able to finish the season with a record of 3-6. Amazingly, all three wins came on the road. This is a program that has been a doormat in the Big Ten Conference but turned the corner and played competitive football this season. Well, for about seven out of the nine weeks. That still marks significant progress.

Before we get into the game-by-game breakdown of the schedule, let’s look and see who were the top performers this season.

Offensive MVP

WR Bo Melton: 47 receptions, 638 yards, 6 touchdowns, 6 carries, 69 yards, 2 touchdowns, 58-yard punt return touchdown

There was no player who benefited more from offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson and wide receivers’ coach Tiguan Underwood more than Melton. The Mays Landing, NJ product turned into a legitimate star and did it from Week 1.

Melton scored twice in the second game of the season against Illinois. This was one of three games where he finished with multiple touchdowns. Melton was as reliable as there was on the outside. He will return to Piscataway next season and that is a huge boost for the offense of the Scarlet Knights.

Defensive MVP

LB Olakunle Fatukasi: 101 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 force fumble, 1 pass defended

Like Melton, Fatukasi has committed to returning to the banks for the 2021 season. Both MVP choices were no-brainers. Fatukasi led the Big Ten with 101 tackles and 11.3 per game. He finished second in tackles for loss with 11.

In six of the first seven games of the season, Fatukasi logged double-digit tackles. This included a season-high 17 against both Michigan and Penn State. In Week 1 against Michigan State, Fatukasi finished with 10 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. He was named the Bednarik Award National Player of the Week along with the Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week.

Special Teams MVP

WR Aron Cruickshank: 29 returns, 679 yards, 2 touchdowns

This was a close battle between Cruickshank and punter Adam Korsak, but how do you not go with someone who was named the Big Ten’s Return Specialist of the Year?

Cruickshank came to Rutgers and was as dynamic as they come. He finished with two kick returns for touchdowns and averaged 23.1 yards per return. In 2021, Rutgers will have two of the best returning kicks in Cruickshank and Joshua Youngblood.

Team Leaders

Passing: Noah Vedral - 136-for-221, 61.5%, 1,253 yards, 9 touchdowns, 8 interceptions

Rushing: Isaih Pacheco - 515 yards on 116 carries, 4.4 ypc, 3 touchdowns

Receiving: Bo Melton - 638 yards on 47 catches, 13.6 ypc, 6 touchdowns

Tackles: Olakunle Fatukasi - 101 tackles

Sacks: Mohamed Toure - 4.5 sacks

Interceptions: Christian Izien - 4 interceptions

Forced Fumbles: Avery Young - 3 FF’s

Fumble Recoveries: Christian Izien - 3 FR’s

Game-by-game analysis

Week 1: at Michigan State, W 38-27

Rutgers traveled to East Lansing for a Week 1 matchup against the new-look Spartans. The season got off to about as good of a start as anyone could have hoped. And it began right away on the first drive. Isaih Pacheco capped off the first drive of the season with a 12-yard touchdown run as the Scarlet Knights drove 75-yards in 10 plays.

The Scarlet Knights were outgained 369-276 in total yards in this game. They turned the ball over three times and committed nine penalties. In game one, the defense was up to the task and stole the show. Rutgers forced seven Michigan State turnovers, including three in the first six possessions for the Spartans.

This 11-point victory gave Rutgers their first win of the season but it did more than that. This win gave fans some hope for the season and for the future under Schiano. The Scarlet Knights showed toughness and grit during this game, which is what was to be expected with Schiano back on the sideline. Following the win, it was a good week for Rutgers and their fans as they prepared for the home opener.

Week 2: vs. Indiana, L 37-21

The hope continued into Week 2 when the Scarlet Knights hosted No. 17 Indiana. The Hoosiers were coming off a surprising victory, at the time, against No. 8 Penn State. Unranked coming into the season, no one knew how good Indiana actually was but they quickly showed it against Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights led 7-3 after the first quarter but Michael Penix Jr. was able to settle in from that point on. Indiana outscored Rutgers 17-0 in the second quarter to gain control. Penix Jr. finished 17-26 for 238 yards and three scores. This 37-21 loss knocked Rutgers’ fans back down to Earth a bit after flying high for a week following the victory over the Spartans. It also created some nervous feelings about the fundamentals.

For the second week in a row, the Scarlet Knights turned the ball over three times and committed nine penalties. At 1-1, Rutgers entered Week 3 facing an impossibly scenario but they were able to make the best of it.

Week 3: at Ohio State, L 49-27

It is hard to imagine a game with a halftime score of 35-3 turned out to be entertaining. Unless you are a fan of the Buckeyes. Well, that is what we got in Week 3.

Justin Fields carved up a struggling secondary for Rutgers. He finished 24-28 for 315 yards and five touchdowns. Garrett Wilson totaled 104 yards on six catches while Chris Olave was able to get into the end zone twice. Yes, this was a game that Rutgers was never going to win no matter which way you discussed it. Rutgers did do one thing on this Saturday night — they opened the playbook and made the game fun to watch.

The Scarlet Knights outscored Ohio State 24-14 in the second half and did it with trickery. this came in the form of a Raiqwon O’Neal touchdown and a punt return score by Bo Melton on a heave across the field. In a way, this loss said a lot about what Rutgers is going to be with Schiano and Gleeson.

Week 4: vs. Illinois, L 23-20

And then, Week 4 came. The Scarlet Knights were prepared to host the Illini in a game they were favored in. Was this the most disappointing loss of the season? Many fans will say yes, but we will get into that in a bit.

The Scarlet Knights built a 10-0 lead after the first quarter. They regained their 10-point advantage in the third quarter after a 66-yard touchdown from Melton. From that point on, there is not much to say. The defense was bad and Vedral was worse. Rutgers could not stop Isaiah Williams on the ground as he rushed 31 times for 192 yards and a touchdown. Vedral threw three interceptions, two coming at crucial moments in the fourth quarter.

A James McCourt 47-yard field goal gave Illinois a 23-20 victory. In a way, disappointment can be a good thing. This means that the team is heading in the right direction and expectations are beginning to change. In every other way, this loss against a mediocre Illinois team was bad. No excuses, onto Week 5.

Week 5: vs. Michigan, L 48-42, 3 OT

In Week 5, Michigan came to Piscataway as the Scarlet Knights were looking to put up a better performance than they did against Illinois. And they did. Nonetheless, a triple-overtime loss to the Wolverines tops the list as the most disappointing loss of the season, but for different reasons.

It is never easy to lose a game you are expected to win. It might be more difficult to have a game that you were not expected to win stolen from you. That is what happened on that Saturday night in Piscataway. Vedral delivered a much-needed bounce-back performance. He finished 29-43 for 381 yards and three touchdowns. This included an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cruickshank to cap off the best drive of the season.

Trailing 35-27, the Scarlet Knights got the ball back with 5:07 left in the game. Vedral led Rutgers on a 16-play, 75-yard drive. He was able to get in the end zone for a two-point conversion to tie the game following Cruickshank’s touchdown reception on fourth-and-nine. Three overtimes later, it was Michigan who was able to make the defensive stand to secure the 48-42 victory.

This two-week span was gut-wrenching for the Scarlet Knights and their fans. A victory over Michigan would have made up greatly for the Illinois loss and given the team a statement win. At 1-4, things were expected to snowball moving forward.

Week 6: at Purdue, W 37-30

Week 6 showed the toughness of a Schiano-coached football team, especially when Vedral was ruled out with an injury. Artur Sitkowski was prepared to make the start on the road against Purdue.

This game had plenty of moments that made us say “here we go again.” The Scarlet Knights got off to a good start and grabbed a 13-7 lead after 15 minutes. The second quarter saw the Boilermakers outscore Rutgers 16-0. Here we go again. Coming out of halftime, the Scarlet Knights put together one of their best quarters of the season.

Rutgers scored on all three possessions in the third quarter. It began with a 62-yard touchdown pass from Johnny Langan to Kay’Ron Adams. After Purdue answered, Cruickshank returned the kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. The Scarlet Knights then regained the lead on an Aaron Young touchdown run. Everyone got in on the action in this game and it was a true team victory.

Week 7: vs. Penn State, L 23-7

The inconsistencies of an improving team, but one that is not quite there yet, showed throughout the 2020 season. They were never more visible than against Penn State. Coming off the high of a road victory against Purdue, the Scarlet Knights returned home and completely laid an egg against the Nittany Lions.

There is not much to say about this one. Rutgers was completely manhandled. They were held to 205 yards and gained just 12 first downs. They lost time of possession by over 13 minutes and totaled just 83 rushing yards.

Take this one on the chin. On to the next.

Week 8: at Maryland, W 27-24, OT

Coming into the season, there were not many games that Rutgers was expected to win. This was one of them. Maryland has been struggling and was a beatable opponent when looking at the schedule in the preseason.

The first half went as expected. Maryland led 3-0 in a snoozefest. The second half saw both teams wake up a bit. Rutgers scored 14 points in the third quarter to gain the lead but Maryland tied them up in the fourth. In overtime, a 42-yard field goal by Valentino Ambrosio gave the Scarlet Knights the lead. Maryland went backwards on the ensuing possession and missed what would have been the game tying field goal.

This gave Rutgers their third in of the season, all coming on the road. They finished the regular season with a record of 3-5.

Week 9: vs. Nebraska, L 28-21

Was it the daunting task of playing nine Big Ten games in nine weeks? Was it injuries? Whatever it was, Rutgers did not matchup in their final game of the season against Nebraska during Championship Week.

The final score is not indicative of the game. Nebraska picked up a 28-21 victory but it was not that close. Rutgers held a 14-7 lead at halftime but fell apart from there. The Cornhuskers outgained Rutgers 620-252, won the first down battle 27-9, and gained 365 yards on the ground. This was a physical beatdown in the trenches.

Season Overview

Is a 3-6 season ever a success? Sure, there are teams judged on Conference Championship victories and National titles. It is not easy to get to that mark. Remember Schiano’s first season during his first tenure on the banks? These things take time.

All we know is that there was a different football team on the field week in and week out from what we have seen in recent years. Rutgers was able to win three games and had a chance for more. This is all we were looking for during Schiano’s first season back. Now, he will be able to get his recruits in the door and have his coaching staff develop them the way they want.

No matter what level it is, coaching is key and Rutgers has a good one. There are still some transfers waiting to make their decisions and some have a chance of landing in Piscataway. The 2020 season brought three wins. This was the total from the previous two years combined. Fans should fully expect more moving forward.

On to 2021.