Rutgers football improved to 5-5 on the season and 2-5 in Big Ten play with a dominant 38-3 victory over Indiana on Saturday. It was the largest margin of victory for Rutgers in a Big Ten game in its eight seasons as a member of the conference. The Scarlet Knights are one win away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014. Here are five takeaways on the triumphant performance against the Hoosiers.
An instant defensive classic
Saturday’s defensive performance was extremely impressive, even if it came against an Indiana offense that has been struggling and one of the worst in the Big Ten. It was more than forcing six turnovers. Rutgers allowed the fewest amount of points in a Big Ten game since joining the league. It’s also the first time they held a Big Ten opponent without a touchdown. They also allowed a program low of 262 yards of total offense in a Big Ten game. Indiana was just 1 of 14 on third down conversion attempts and 1 of 4 on fourth down.
The fact that the Scarlet Knights were able to dominate in this manner without all three starting linebackers missing the game due to injury makes it all the more stunning. In the absence of All-Big Ten performer Olakunle Fatukasi, as well as multi-year starters in Tyshon Fogg and Tyreek Maddox-Williams, it was Drew Singleton who led RU with 10 tackles in the game while freshman Tyreem Powell had 4 tackles and an interception. Mohamed Toure stepped up as well with 5 tackles and a sack.
While the secondary got the typical solid contributions from Avery Young and Christian Izien, who were second and third in tackles, Robert Longerbeam stepped up with 3 tackles, a forced fumble and two pass break ups. Max Melton also had a huge interception near the goal line.
Along the defensive line, true freshman Kyonte Hamilton had 5 tackles, including one for a loss, adding to the usual impact that Julius Turner makes.
When the defense plays well, Rutgers has either won or had the chance to win each time it happened this season. While they struggled against certain competition, overall the defense has taken a significant step forward this season. The most encouraging part is the legitimate depth that is being established by several younger players earning bigger roles this season.
Road magic is real
The Scarlet Knights went to Memorial Stadium on Saturday and dominated the game in a place they lost by a combined 76-0 in their previous two trips there. Rutgers took full advantage of Indiana’s fumble on the first play from scrimmage and never looked back. They have now won back-to-back Big Ten road games for just the second time since joining the conference after beating Illinois two weeks ago. The first time was last season when RU beat Purdue and Maryland in back to back away games.
In the first six seasons as a member of the Big Ten, Rutgers went 3-23 on the road against conference foes. Since Greg Schiano took over last season, Rutgers is 6-3 on the road overall and 5-3 when traveling for Big Ten play. Granted there were not fans in attendance last season, but a clear trend is developing. This team’s best four performances this season all came on the road. A win at Syracuse in addition to the two Big Ten victories as well as the one score defeat to Michigan. The only true bad road performance since Schiano’s return was at Northwestern before the bye week this season. For a team in true rebuilding mode, that is really encouraging.
While RU has obviously struggled at home this season, something has been clicking for this team on the road. There are several reasons to believe that Rutgers has a chance to beat Penn State next weekend, which we will get into this week, but their ability to play well on the road is certainly one of them.
Noah Vedral’s impact more than meets the eye
The much maligned starting quarterback for Rutgers was just 9 of 17 for 97 passing yards and one touchdown on Saturday. However, he had zero turnovers and ran for 28 yards on six carries, including a 9 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. The run for the score was quite satisfying to watch, even though having him out there still made little sense. While Vedral didn’t have a great game and wasn’t the main reason RU won, his impact on this team is far more than any stat sheet is able to show.
Regardless of your views on his ability as a quarterback, and I think he is better than he gets credit for, it’s impossible to not respect the way he plays the game and the toughness he brings to his play. Rutgers has been dealing with a lot of injuries and Vedral had left the previous four games with some type of issue. Last week appeared to be the most serious occasion as it was the first that Vedral wasn’t made available in the postgame. And yet, there he was on Saturday, leading the offense to its fifth turnover free game of the season and not coincidentally, fifth win as well. The last season Rutgers had five games without a turnover was 2009. Let that sink in. I understand he doesn’t take a lot of chances downfield by design, but it’s still noteworthy and part of why this team has won five games.
It’s hard to quantify his impact emotionally for this team and we aren’t in the locker room, but I have to imagine Vedral’s willingness and ability to play today had a positive influence on his teammates. Vedral is like Rocky and the Big Ten is Apollo Creed, baffled that he keeps getting up for more punishment. And like Rocky, Vedral just keeps coming. Rutgers has been hurt in certain games because of Vedral’s limitations as a quarterback, but they’ve benefited more from what he can do well and what he brings to this team. A warrior mentality and it showed again on Saturday.
The 2021 season is a success no matter how it ends
It’s no longer a question and even though there were plenty of times that doubts loomed large, winning 5 games this season makes it definitive that progress has been made this fall. Now it is only a matter of to what degree has it occurred. Yes, winning a sixth game and earning the program’s first bowl bid since 2014 would be monumental and make the season an unmitigated success. It would send a clear message to recruits and the rest of the Big Ten that Rutgers is making real strides very quickly in the Schiano 2.0 era. However, even if it doesn’t happen, this program has taken another step forward after going 3-6 with a Big Ten only schedule in Schiano’s first season back on the banks.
It hasn’t been pretty at times and there have been reasons to worry, but this team has continued to work. The win clinched the fact that Rutgers will finish out of last place for just the fourth time in eight seasons. It was just twice in six seasons before Schiano arrived. If you want to dream big, Rutgers could finish in fourth place in the Big Ten East this season if they can beat both Penn State and Maryland to close things out. Even if they lose both games, while it would be disappointing, it wouldn’t erase the legitimate step forward this program has taken.
This win shines light on a positive future
The most impressive thing about this win was what Rutgers had to fight through to get it. They suffered the worst loss of Schiano’s second tenure last week against Wisconsin. They were embarrassed and beaten badly on its home field in a game that was non-competitive. Rutgers has been dealing with a lot of injuries on the two deep and aside from those who didn’t play against Indiana, there are plenty of players playing with some type of issue.
This win showed the resolve of this team and the strong culture in place. While the effort was questionable in the disheartening loss to Wisconsin, this team responded the best way possible. The poor performance of a week ago was in the rearview mirror and they played inspired football the next time on the field. That is the sign of a healthy locker room and a coaching staff that the players are fully aligned with. It’s a positive development that highlights this program is headed in the right direction, now and in the future.