Two weeks ago. It was 2nd and 5 from the Illinois 15 yard line. Rutgers was on the road and down 14-10. The Knights desperately needed a conference victory after losing four straight games. Noah Vedral, who’d had to leave the game three times due to helmet-jarring impacts, and had just re-entered the game after being out injured the play before, took the snap.
Despite having been banged up numerous times this season, Vedral once again carried the ball himself across the line of scrimmage. Johnny “football” Langan, on this particular play lined up as the A-back, hurried from right to left behind the offensive line to get out in front of his embattled signal-caller. As Vedral proceeded forward, Langan took on imposing outside linebacker Owen Carney Jr., pinning him inside just long enough for Vedral to get the edge. As safety Sydney Brown took an angle toward the ball carrier, Langan persevered forward, bulldozing Brown backward toward the goal line. Vedral, undeterred by previous hits, dove head and ball-first into the end zone. He was met by two Illini defenders, but neither his determination nor his drive could be stopped. Rutgers took a 17-14 lead en route to a vital 20-14 victory.
A week later, overmatched physically and plagued by early mistakes, Rutgers endured an embarrassing 52-3 drubbing to Wisconsin at home. The team was widely and somewhat justifiably panned. Some compared the effort to games reminiscent of the Chris Ash era. In predicting the Indiana game, many understandably questioned the team’s mental state and confidence. A fair amount of writers, including myself could not muster the confidence to predict a Knights’ win. Injuries mounted. Aron Cruickshank was declared out for the season. The team’s top three linebackers were declared out for the game.
Despite those setbacks, Head Coach Greg Schiano declared that games like the one against Wisconsin “...could be discouraging, but its not to me. It’s disappointing, but its not discouraging.” Schiano reiterated that injuries to key players was “...why you build depth. That’s why young guys gotta be ready to step up. Sometimes they’re not young guys. Sometimes they’re guys that have been here for a little bit. Now they get their opportunity.”
Schiano all season has referred to players as tough. He has seemed to consistently paint a picture of their resilience. Coach Schiano knows his team. He knows the players he has mentored, developed, and motivated over the past two years. Going into that game against Indiana, he knew the core of their character. He knew players like Langan were willing to do whatever the team needed from them in order to contribute.
Should he ever have been doubted? After all, fans had caught glimpses of the team’s resiliency and toughness throughout the season. Rutgers survived a hard fought defensive struggle on the road against a respectable Syracuse team that now sits at 5-5. After withstanding a Big Ten onslaught which included three top 10 teams, a 4 game losing streak, the suspension of key players, injuries to star players Bo Melton and Aron Cruikshank, and a huge letdown at Northwestern, the Knights gutted out a close and physical one at Illinois to keep their bowl hopes alive and all of their 2021 season goals ahead of them. That game included a catch by Johnny Langan near the sideline with a hit that would have caused many other receivers to drop the pass, and a cold-blooded pin-point throw by freshman quarterback Gavin Wimsatt on his first ever college play, which just so happened to come on a pivotal 4th down with the team trailing late in the 3rd quarter.
It turns out Schiano was right. These hard-nosed, resilient Scarlet Knights showed up to Bloomington, Indiana last Saturday ready to play. Mentally attuned and primed physically, their performance against Indiana was the epitome of “CHOP”, with everyone fulfilling their role on the field.
In the absence of Rutgers’ top 3 linebackers, former Michigan commit and Newark native Drew Singleton filled in and did his job exceptionally. Singleton could be seen around the ball on a number of game-defining plays, and took excellent angles while absorbing and disposing of blockers time and time again. Freshman Gus Zilinkskas, when switched in at center, made it to the second level of the defense more than once as he helped to open large holes for running backs Isaiah Pacheco, Aaron Young, and Kyle Monongai. Sophomore Ireland Brown, in his 4th consecutive start, could be seen sealing off his man on some of those same runs. The entire offensive line provided gutsy Vedral with enough time to find open receivers down field. The Knights’ defense was opportunistic, pouncing on loose balls during Indiana miscues. Freshman Tyreem Powell continued to shine, snatching a pass out of the air deep in Indiana territory for another turnover. In similar fashion to Noah Vedral two weeks prior, offensive tackle Raiqwon O’Neal caught a backward pass in the red zone, and dove inside the pylon for his second career rushing touchdown.
It seems these Scarlet Knights are at their best with their backs against the wall, in games that might evince struggle, turnovers, and things not going according to plan. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Years of struggles on the field and in recruiting have left Rutgers football at a disadvantage on paper in most contests. But paper disadvantages do not always equate to disadvantages on the scoreboard or in the standings.
In the early stages of a rebuild, football programs must scrape for any edge they can find in order to absorb brutal letdowns and grind out potential wins. In attaining that edge, it is vital that a team develop mental and physical toughness, and the tendency to be resilient. This is especially true in the Big Ten, where big time losses are to be expected in the early going, and where “match up” games become wars of attrition.
These 2021 Knights might not always make it look easy, and they may not win in flashy or pretty ways. They may spend some Saturdays limping off of the field and working to maintain their confidence. But if the 2021 season was ever going to be a successful one, if the program’s goals were going to be realized and the next step in the process was going to be evident, resilience and toughness were going to have to play a large role in the ultimate outcome. We’ve now come to see, they are this team’s defining traits.