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Bye Week Does Wonders for Rutgers Football

Clean play was a major factor in first Big Ten win of the season.

NCAA Football: Delaware at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

I remember the first time I heard Greg Schiano’s name. I had just arrived on campus for my first year of college and some upperclassmen were talking about the newly improved football team and coach. We were at a frat party and they were commenting on how the football players no longer showed up at parties because Schiano was such a disciplinarian. Apparently, that was a regular occurrence under the previous regime.

I learned two important lessons that evening. One, showing up to a college party at 10 o’clock is a rookie mistake. Two, Greg Schiano was a name I should remember and apparently a tough cookie that had his players under wraps.

In all seriousness, discipline has always been a hallmark of a Greg Schiano team, That, the chop, and aggressive defense. Identity is important to a team and its fan base even when it doesn’t result in on-field wins. If nothing else, a Greg Schiano team was a tough, disciplined, relentless one, which were traits upon which the Rutgers fanbase could hang their hats.

In the first three games of this season, and to an extent in 2021, it looked like this was a hallmark Greg Schiano team. Rutgers was touted as the number #1 in the country in terms of limiting penalties per game and was playing good clean football. That number started to trend in the wrong direction once Rutgers entered B1G play. In the game against Michigan that gave many fans false hope, Rutgers committed 7 penalties for 42 yards as well as their first turnover of the season in the 4th quarter that sealed their fate. Because of the close game and the penalties on both ends, the turnover to me was more concerning than the penalties. I thought that Rutgers had the jitters playing in front of almost 107K reported fans and that the hallmark of clean football would be here to stay. It seemed as though Rutgers was trending in the wrong direction.

After the blowout loss to Ohio State, Rutgers only committed 3 penalties but were never in it. In their next two losses, the penalties increased significantly and the Scarlet Knights were making very basic mistakes. Rutgers would go on to commit 18 penalties over the next two games for a whopping 155 yards. That included 11 penalties for 90 yards in the game against Northwestern when the opposing team only committed 4 for 50. What is interesting to note is that while Rutgers committed more penalties in each game, the yardage per penalty is less. That is neither here nor there and does not make Rutgers penalties less egregious, but more that Rutgers is committing a lot of silly, avoidable mistakes.

It’s a basic tenet of the game of football. Penalties are a momentum killer. Regardless of how well a team is moving the ball, penalties shift the favor to the other team as they can be a punch in the gut for the team committing them. Due to a lack of depth and key injuries, particularly on the offensive line, Rutgers was playing quite a few freshmen or converted linemen which likely lead to quite a few of these penalties (6 false starts v. MSU). These players did not have a ton of experience in their positions or a college game at a position where experience is particularly important and chemistry needs time to develop. This team was struggling, and at least a good portion could be blamed on coaching. I was starting to wonder if Schiano would be able to regain his hallmark this season, or if Rutgers would win another game this season. Schiano asked fans to “stick with [the team]” and this week, the team’s momentum finally shifted in the right direction with their first Big 10 win of the season.

While on paper, Illinois has seemed like a team Rutgers should beat talent-wise in comparison to the gauntlet of talent in the Big Ten East, the results on the field have not always demonstrated it. Ahead of Saturday, Illinois had won in 4 of the last 5 seasons, and it seemed this pairing was the pinnacle of the Scarlet Knights shooting themselves in the foot. Mistakes would gash them in these losses as unlike teams like tOSU and Michigan, it wasn’t that Illinois was necessarily significantly more talented than Rutgers. It just seemed they couldn’t get out of their own way. Even with Schiano back at the helm last year, Rutgers's inability to stop the run and an interception by Vedral in the last 2 minutes of the game lead to a 23-20 victory. Again, clean football can help less talented teams win games. Mistakes are often the nail in the coffin.

So, how would Rutgers respond with a road game against a team that not only has been a thorn in their side since their entry into the Big Ten coming off a bye week, while that team was riding high off of a major upset win against then #7 Penn State in Happy Valley? Apparently, ready to play.

After trading scoreless possessions of their first series, Rutgers would put together a 10-play, 61-yard touchdown series capped by a Kyle Monangai 7-yard rushing touchdown. This article is not meant to be a play-by-play, but what I will say I noticed on the replay is that Monangai had a clear open lane in the red zone. While that would not always be the case with Rutgers red-zone offense, after the woes of the offensive lines with major injuries this season, this was improvement #1 coming off the bye week. Score #1: Schiano and his coaching staff.

The team had its ups and downs throughout the game, including relinquishing some big defensive plays in the second quarter, but in the scheme of playing clean ball and limiting mistakes, Rutgers completed the task. This looked like a hallmark, gritty, play for each other and play for your pride, Greg Schiano team.

After committing 18 penalties in the previous two games ahead of the bye week for 155 yards, Rutgers committed only 3 penalties for 15 yards in the match-up against Illinois. It is worth noting that while Illinois committed the same number of penalties, the yardage lost was almost double (35 yards), making their penalties a bit more costly. Most importantly, Rutgers did not turn over the ball once and allowed no sacks which was another feather in the cap of the coaches for preparedness and good offensive line play. After wanting to skewer the coaches two weeks ago, I will give credit where credit is due. Score #2: Schiano and his coaching staff

It is worth noting that the Scarlet Knights recorded a few key stats coming off of this win. Rutgers is now 10-5 coming off a bye week in Schiano’s last nine seasons as head coach. He is also now the second winningest coach in program history with 75 career wins, just three behind the vaunted Frank Burns.

For those wondering if the power of the bye week is as strong as often projected for a team in crisis, I would say it really depends on the coach and the buy-in of his team. Rutgers has both in Greg Schiano. He and his team may not be perfect, and I will not oversell one win, but on Saturday, Rutgers gutted out this victory doing what Greg Schiano teams do best. This team came together off the bye week to play a signature game, and regardless of what happens in the next four games, the fact that they can “write their own script” in November, the first time since 2014, marks progress. I am officially excited for football again.

What do you think, readers? Do you think the bye week was a key to this win? Share your thoughts in the comments!