As a kid I remember watching a 1987 VHS tape featuring the “great” and the “not so great” moments in sports sponsored by Monroe Sensa-trac. In a way, I felt like I watched the Rutgers Football version of that this weekend. This event however contained a slight variant, in the form of everything exciting and everything boring somehow melted together, then gift wrapped in one single Rutgers Football game.
Exciting: A win is a win. This is Rutgers’s 31st season of football since joining the Big East conference and essentially, big time college football. After Saturday’s victory over Illinois, the Knights now have only seven winless conference campaigns, but have only won three conference games or more ... twelve times. They still have a shot at matching that number and last season’s total which is at least reason to tune in the rest of the way.
Boring: The win was against Illinois. The Knights beat Illinois, who Rutgers has beaten before and brings no real buzz. The Illini had themselves just beaten a top 10 Penn State team in the first nine overtime game in NCAA Football history a week ago, but that looks like an outlier in their otherwise dreadful season. Defeating the 7th ranked team in the country on their home turf is a tremendous accomplishment for the Illini, especially when Rutgers has not beaten even a top 25 team in the past decade, by far the longest drought of any Power Five team. That said, Fighting Illini fans must be frustrated and perplexed after their roller coaster ride hit another valley against Rutgers. It sure would be nice to get some positive press and the jolt of a big time win Rutgers hasn’t had in years.
Exciting: The comeback avenged last year’s embarrassing loss. This game provided the classic fan ups and downs a few times over, ending on a high note. In a way it was the complete reverse of the game a season ago. Rutgers only had one conference victory heading into last year’s matchup at home, but Illinois was awful up to that point and decimated by injuries, including covid related absences that prevented them from even holding regular practices leading up to the contest. Rutgers outplayed the Illini other than an inability to stop 3rd down QB scrambles from a guy now playing wide receiver, Isaiah Williams.
Boring: Retread QBs. The two teams have been led by recycled Big Ten quarterbacks, Noah Vedral for Rutgers with Brandon Peters (formerly of Michigan) and the injured Art Sitkowski for Illinois. The transfer portal has plenty of pros and cons, but watching your team try to achieve competence almost every year with guys who weren't the answer for other ball clubs, programs that have more talent around them is not exactly the peak of the fan experience. Don’t get me wrong I’m happy for Noah Vedral who made some challenging throws and did what he had to do to win even at the expense of his health, but hopefully this won’t be needed much longer because ...
Exciting: Gavin Wimsatt. Hope in the form of Wimsatt doesn’t come along often, but he got one play and converted a critical 4th down that set up the go ahead touchdown. His instincts, foot speed, throw power, and throw accuracy were all on display in one single snap. Read more here.
Boring: Third down woes. It makes sense Rutgers inserted Wimsatt when they absolutely needed to make a play because RU was an abysmal 3-15 on third down attempts. On the flip side, Illinois on offense was only 3-12 themselves which was a product of both their own ineptitude and some good Rutgers defense at times. Of course don’t get me wrong, seeing Illinois go 7-16 a year ago including at least four conversions on third and very long, I’m glad the Rutgers defense was more prepared this time around.
Exciting: Fourth down juggernaut. As bad as 3rd down was, Rutgers was three for three on 4th down conversions including the aforementioned play by Wimsatt. The other fourth downs came on a tricky direct snap to Isiah Pacheco who faked a handoff to his then lead blocker Johnny Langan, then shortly thereafter a pure Langan run against an Illini defense that was tired from being on the field so much and likely feeling the effects of their marathon with the Nittany Lions a week ago. Throw in 2-3 field goals from Valentino Ambrosio, a vintage Adam Korsak performance, and the defensive stand ... and voila, a win!
Boring: Both teams’s best players are punters, from Down Under. It was a touching moment to see Blake Hayes finally re-unite with his parents after 649 days separated mostly due to some incredibly restrictive Australian quarantine policies. Hayes and Korsak may be the nation’s two best punters, and yes it’s cool that they both came all the way from Melbourne. And yes you need a good punter when your team is near the bottom of the conference, but hopefully soon each team can have a best player who suits up at a more premium position for the fan sake.
Exciting: Hard working players rewarded. The game’s big plays were provided by Rutgers players who have paid their dues. Johnny Langan made a tough catch down the sideline and epitomizes the team first mentality that RU needs to have as they work to rebuild the talent on the roster. Johnny even had a lead block on the Vedral TD run. He has done everything the staff asked him, this article has aged well. On the defensive side, Kessawn Abraham who for years could never get time at cornerback, had already stepped into a starting role before the secondary was ravaged in recent weeks. His instincts that we saw on special teams as a gunner were exactly what he needed to stop the Illini on their final drive. Read more here.
These are examples of how player development is so critical to program building and seeing upperclassmen play their best ball is so important at the college level.
Boring: “Smash-mouth football?” I put quotes because this did not exactly look like the 1972 Dolphins out there. To Football junkies, a game filled with old school running the ball that finished in a tad over 3 hours is exactly what the doctor ordered. To the casual fan (assuming any were actually watching), that was a snooze fest. Despite both teams’ impotence on 3rd downs, they were both still content to set up third downs and often run the ball or throw it well short of the sticks. If I were an Illinois player I would be asking, how the heck they did not get the ball to Williams as a QB, RB, or even screen passes after he torched the Scarlet Knights last year. Rutgers did run for 207 yards, but that number could have been way more if they could threaten with any sort of pass against single coverage.
Exciting: Rutgers did not get lucky to ice the game. After missing an opportunity to score a touchdown with four minutes remaining and converting a field goal instead, Rutgers would not force their defense to stop two Illini possessions. After a productive Illinois drive was halted by Abraham’s tackle and the underrated run stops on second and third down to set it up, Rutgers regained possession at their own 38 yard line with 1:08 showing on the clock. Since Illinois had three timeouts, Rutgers could not kneel down without achieving a first down. On 3rd down and six, Noah Vedral did what he does best and ran a QB option to gain nine yards as Rutgers sealed the interior nicely against an exhausted defensive front. Credit the RU offensive line including the underrated return of Raiqwon O’Neal, who did their job in run and pass protection (zero sacks allowed) all day long.
Boring: End of Illinutgers for now. Illinois-Rutgers VIII is the end of the generally competitive series of crossover matchups that will now be replaced by Iowa for the next six years. Though officially due to some fuzzy standings math, Iowa is a perennial top three team in the Big Ten West. The Hawkeyes may give RU a chance for ranked wins which of course comes with the fact they are simply better than Illinois every year. For Iowa, this gives them a chance to make even more inroads in New Jersey recruiting, an area that has been fruitful for them in the past.
Exciting: A bowl invite is still a possibility. Rutgers sits at 4-4 overall and all four remaining opponents have been up and down this year just like the Scarlet Knights. It’s almost impossible Rutgers takes all four games, but if they can manage a split, it would make the season an absolute success. Even if the Knights win just one more, the rebuild is on or ahead of schedule. When we look back in five years or more, this win will look a lot better in hindsight as they always do, especially if it gets Rutgers into postseason play for the first time since 2014 and/or allows a top recruiting class to stay intact. With this program, we simply look for signs of progress and especially on the offensive line and 3rd down defense, we saw that Saturday.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and I am so glad Rutgers won their first conference game of the year.