Rutgers was blown out by No. 11 Ohio State on Saturday by the final score of 52-13. The loss was extremely disappointing but it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. The lack of competitiveness certainly was though. The Scarlet Knights need to regroup quickly as an undefeated and nationally ranked Michigan State team looking for payback after last season comes to Piscataway next week. Here are five takeaways following the worst defeat of the Schiano 2.0 era so far.
The fake punt was an unnecessary risk
I love how the Rutgers coaching staff plays to win with aggressive game plans, but the fake punt from midfield on the first drive of the game was a terrible mistake. I know the Schiano defenders will scream that if it had worked, it would have been a brilliant call. Absolutely not. When you have Adam Korsak and lead the nation in net punting average coming into the game and have an opportunity to pin an explosive offense like Ohio State deep in their own territory to start the game, you do it. Make the Buckeyes go the length of the field against your defense rather than gift them great field position that puts your team in a major hole right out of the gate.
Schiano addressed the call after the game and he was right in that the play didn’t cost Rutgers the game. The Scarlet Knights were thoroughly beaten in all phases on Saturday and it wasn’t ever close. However, making such a risky call with the game scoreless reeked of desperation and it set a bad tone for the rest of the afternoon. It wasn’t even a run fake but rather a pass play, making it even more of a high risk attempt.
Rutgers wasn’t going to beat the Buckeyes straight up and the coaching staff needed to pull some tricks out of their sleeves to even stay competitive. However, they outsmarted themselves by keeping their best weapon on the sidelines and instead used a backup tight end to throw into coverage. It would have been one thing if it was called late in the half and the game was slipping away. The timing of certain calls have been questionable this season and this one goes to the top of the list.
Depth a concern
Bo Melton left the game after taking a big hit while trying to make a tackle on an interception and the severity of his injury has not been disclosed. Raiqwon O’Neal had a boot on while standing on the sidelines after leaving the game after the first series. He is the second starting offensive lineman with an injury as Reggie Sutton was declared out for the season prior to the Michigan game. Naijee Jones was ejected for a questionable targeting call and will miss the first half of the Michigan State game because of it. The secondary is already thin with starter Max Melton and Chris Long suspended after an arrest involving a paintball gun incident. It’s still possible there will be other injuries revealed in the days that follow as Rutgers always seems to get banged up following a blowout loss to Ohio State.
Hopefully, Melton and O’Neal aren’t out for a long period of time. The defense can’t really afford to lose another starter either. There is little doubt that Rutgers entered the season with the best two deep in a long time. The question was always the lack of depth and experience behind it. It was encouraging to see Cole Snyder take advantage of his opportunity against the backups of Ohio State. Several younger players saw extended action like Tyreem Powell and former 4-star Alijah Clark, in addition to Kyonte Hamilton and Rene Konga getting playing time as well. Even so, as the midway point of the season approaches, the concern with the Scarlet Knights suffering significant personnel losses has grown.
Defensive takeaways have disappeared
After starting the season with eight takeaways in the first two games against Temple and Syracuse, the Rutgers defense hasn’t forced any turnovers in the last three games. That’s a huge part of what this team wants to do and relies on to be successful. Without turning its opponents over, it puts more pressure on the offense to sustain drives and rarely gives them good starting field position. If Rutgers is going to equal or exceed last year’s Big Ten win total of three, the defense has to get back to forcing turnovers. Michigan State comes to Piscataway one year removed from the Scarlet Knights forcing an eye popping seven takeaways against them in an upset victory. Hopefully, the RU defense can be disruptive and force the Spartans into more mistakes next week.
Ohio State still a class above the rest
The alleged decline of the Buckeyes was greatly exaggerated. Even OSU in a supposed down year is most likely still the best team in the Big Ten. They are easily the most talented by a wide margin with perhaps the only exception being Penn State. Ohio State has sixteen former 5-star recruits on its roster and RU has zero. While Rutgers’ performance was extremely disappointing, keeping it in perspective related to the big picture is important. Until Schiano can stockpile the roster with better talent, being competitive with OSU doesn’t look possible anytime soon.
Year 2 can still be a success
Rutgers is 3-2 entering homecoming against Michigan State, which is either what most hoped or expected them to be at this stage of the season. Facing the Spartans will be a intense battle and while the Scarlet Knights are rightful underdogs, this is a game they can win if they play to their potential. Even if they don’t, that matchup is followed by three opponents with offenses that lack firepower. Northwestern, Illinois and Wisconsin all average between 18-22 points per game. Those are teams that the Rutgers defense can be successful against.
Obviously they need to play well in all three phases to win those games, but there should be hope that RU can win at least one game during that stretch. The fact remains that the Scarlet Knights have a legitimate path towards gaining bowl eligibility, which would make this season a resounding success. There will be days like this in the early stages of a rebuild, but the outlook for the rest of the season should still be an optimistic one.