Rutgers won its first Big Ten game of the season in a 20-14 victory over Illinois on Saturday. They improved to 4-4, which is the latest the program has been .500 or better this late in a season since the 2014 campaign. There were plenty of reasons why and here are five takeaways following a season saving victory.
Gavin Wimsatt’s poise is beyond his years
The highest rated quarterback prospect in Rutgers history made an unprecedented jump by foregoing his senior year of high school three games into the season to join the program a year early. It was fair to estimate that in order to be able to graduate early and be able to handle such a drastic transition almost overnight, Wimsatt had to have a good head on his shoulders. All reports, including this fantastic profile from James Kratch, raved about his strong character.
With all that being said, the biggest takeaway in Wimsatt’s spectacular debut play of his career is the way in which he handled the moment. We know Wimsatt is a highly skilled quarterback who has all the physical attributes. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been rated a Top 100 recruit and top 10 quarterback in the class of 2022.
What we now know in watching him execute one of the hardest passes for a QB to make, in a high pressure moment nonetheless, was that Wimsatt has exceptional poise. He was asked to deliver in a huge spot in essentially a must win game within a matter of seconds as starter Noah Vedral came off the field injured.
Chris Carlin did note on the radio broadcast that Wimsatt was the only quarterback with his helmet on standing next to offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson in the second half, so it’s likely there was a plan to get him a snap at some point. Even so, what a trip for Wimsatt, one day removed from his 18th birthday and less than two months since he played his last high school game. To be able to handle the moment both emotionally and mentally as well as he did is an extremely encouraging sign regarding his future.
One play doesn’t make a career, but the mystique of Gavin Wimsatt grew significantly in Saturday’s win with a signature moment to begin his time at Rutgers.
The 1-2 punch at running back was huge
A major reason why Rutgers was able to beat Illinois on Saturday was the way Isaih Pacheco and Kyle Monangai both ran the ball. Pacheco had a team high 91 yards on 21 carries for 4.3 yards per carry, while Monangai rushed for 77 yards on 15 carries for 5.1 yards per carry and a team leading fourth touchdown. Noah Vedral had several big runs as well, including his 15 yard dash for the game winning score. He finished with 56 yards on 6 carries for 9.3 yards per carry.
Overall, Rutgers amassed 17 rushing first downs and held over 35 minutes of time of possession in the game. Absurd statistics for an offense that hadn’t run this way for almost the entire season. In being able to do so, it allowed the Scarlet Knights to control the game and limit the Illini run game from establishing any rhythm. Credit the offensive line for creating opportunities for the run game as well. The biggest takeaway from the run game though was that Rutgers is better on the ground when both Pacheco and Monangai are contributing. They have different styles and when both are able to generate drive sustaining runs, the offense is much better because of it.
When Rutgers defends the run well, they can win in the Big Ten
In the 20-13 loss to Michigan in the Big House in late September, Rutgers held the then top rushing team in the country to just 112 yards on 2.9 yards per carry. Because they could defend the run, the Scarlet Knights won the time of possession battle and were in position to win the game. A lack of execution on offense was the reason. The run defense was why they had a chance in the first place.
One week after Illinois gashed then No. 7 Penn State for 357 yards on 5.3 yards per carry, the Rutgers defense held the Illini to just 107 rushing yards on only 3.6 yards per carry. Chase Brown, who ran for 223 yards on 6.8 yards per carry in the upset win over PSU, was held to 67 rushing yards for just 3.7 yards per carry. Granted, the Scarlet Knights stacked the box and sold out against the run. They can’t do that against most Big Ten opponents. It even hurt them in the first half when Illinois was able to throw for over 150 yards, including touchdown passes of 26 yards and 52 yards. However, RU was able to make adjustments and tighten up the secondary in the second half to shut Illinois out after the break.
On a crucial fourth and 1 from the Rutgers 34 in the closing minute of the game, Kessawn Abraham made a huge stop on Brown to end the game. When you can stop the other team’s best stuff, you usually win the game and that’s why Rutgers was victorious against Illinois.
It’s not a coincidence that when they’ve played their best two Big Ten games, their run defense was excellent. It’s going to take time to get the defense to where Schiano and defensive coordinator Robb Smith want it to be. But the blueprint for success is there. The fact that this team can execute it so well even some of the time with a defensive line nowhere as deep as they want it to be long term is impressive.
Rutgers is a mentally and physically tough team
Noah Vedral epitomizes the toughness of this team and displayed it in abundance in the win over Illinois. He left the game twice due to injury and returned both times. He ran for the game winning touchdown in the fourth quarter right after returning the second time. Vedral also ran it for 9 yards for a first down with the clock winding down to clinch the victory. It was pure guts that led to glory for Vedral. His performance as a quarterback has been fairly questioned, but his warrior like mentality and willingness to keep getting back up should not be understated. He is a true leader for this team and his toughness is infectious.
This team is still missing key players, including Aron Cruickshank and Tyreek Maddox-Williams, who were unable to play due to injury. Raiqwon O’Neal and Bo Melton had missed time recently but played today. While this team definitely got some players some much needed rest and healthier with the bye week, there is no way most of the regulars are close to 100%. That’s the case for every team but coming in on a four game losing streak, to play as hard as they did speaks to the program’s culture and mental toughness. They never quit and stuck together.
The offensive and defensive lines of Rutgers were the tougher side against Illinois. They controlled the game with their ability to run and stopping the Illini from doing the same. Despite the adversity this team went through with injuries to several key starters and being mired in a four game losing streak, Rutgers got stronger from it and won against Illinois because they were tougher.
Coaching staff showed their worth coming off bye week
As bad as the loss to Northwestern was, it was fair to be frustrated with the coaching staff. Rutgers really was beat up heading into that game and they looked like a team with nothing left. It was alarming for sure and fans had a right to not only be concerned, but worried if another win would even come this season.
Not only did the players answer the bell in the win over Illinois, but the coaching staff deserves praise as well. Rutgers was prepared, limited mistakes (zero turnovers and three penalties), and made big plays in key moments of the game. The offensive line played better and allowed the offense to sustain drives with the run game. In the second half, the defense completely shut down Illinois and the play calling was really good on both sides of the ball.
Schiano and Gleeson’s call to bring Wimsatt in for a huge spot paid off in a big way. It changed the game with a key conversion that gave the team a much needed lift. It was a gutsy play call that was a major gamble and it paid off. Schiano has handled the PR of the Wimsatt situation with perfection by being transparent about his development but also never shying away from the possibility that he could play. It’s obvious there was always a plan for Wimsatt to play this season and Schiano said after the game he will see more action the rest of the way. I wrote upon Wimsatt’s arrival that it was critical for Schiano to handle his development flawlessly in order to maximize the program’s future. So far, so good.
If there was ever a doubt how much this team has bought in and how strong the culture was, the road win over Illinois should end that line of thinking. This team hasn’t given up and because of their win on Saturday, they now have plenty to play for in November.