Rutgers lost to Penn State 28-0 on Saturday in Happy Valley and no new conclusions could really be drawn. The Scarlet Knights still can’t match up with the Nittany Lions in the trenches, backup quarterbacks always beat Rutgers without fail, the offense can’t produce anything against good defenses, which leads to the RU defense wearing out in the second half.
The most important takeaway from Saturday’s shutout defeat is it changes nothing about Rutgers’ ultimate goal: Beat Maryland in the regular season finale next weekend to improve to 6-6 and clinch a bowl berth for the first time since 2014.
The biggest question that emerged from the game was how the coaching staff would handle Gavin Wimsatt against Maryland.
The Penn State game was his third played this season, which means his usage for the season finale is now a major question. Once a player exceeds four games played in a season, they are ineligible to qualify for a redshirt. If he plays next Saturday and Rutgers does win, earning a bowl bid, he would need to sit out the first postseason game in seven years for the program if the plan was to maintain his redshirt. Rutgers could sit him against Maryland with the idea that if they make a bowl game, he will play and can still maintain his redshirt. Or if the plan is already decided that Wimsatt would burn his redshirt if Rutgers does beat Maryland and advance to a bowl game, then he’ll play in both.
It seems obvious now that the plan was always to work towards playing Wimsatt following the bye week after his early arrival to the program in September. He gave up his senior season of high school football to come to Rutgers a year early. He traveled to Syracuse for the second game of the season in his first week on campus even though he wasn’t eligible to play yet. He typically has had an assistant coach next to him on the sidelines discussing and explaining things during games.
The biggest reason that Gavin Wimsatt came to Rutgers a year early, above all else, was to play football. He has now played in three of four games since the bye week in October.
There was his epic debut, completing a fourth and five on what was ultimately the game winning drive in his only play in the victory over Illinois. Last week, he saw action late in a blowout victory over Indiana. Saturday’s game against Penn State was the most Wimsatt has played so far and he even made a throw in the first quarter. However, he didn’t play much until the issue was no longer in doubt at the end of the game. He completed 1 of 4 passes for 2 yards and one interception along with two carries for 9 yards rushing.
The offense struggled mightily, totaling just 160 yards of offense, only achieving 10 first downs, an inefficient 4 of 16 on third down conversions and most importantly, zero points.
Wimsatt might not have made enough of an impact to change the outcome or even make it close if he had seen extended duty against Penn State. However, it is a little puzzling he didn’t play more after appearing in the first quarter for the first time in his career. Rutgers desperately needed a spark on offense and while Schiano said “no doubt” in the postgame when asked if Noah Vedral would remain the starting quarterback against Maryland, Wimsatt has the potential to provide that spark.
After the loss to Penn State, head coach Greg Schiano said, “Sometimes the plan doesn’t come off exactly as you’d like. I’m not going into details because then that would expose our plans, and I’m not going to do that. Then later in the game we played him to just to let him get some experience. He did some good things, he did some things that freshman rookie quarterbacks do.”
While it’s clear there has always been a plan for Wimsatt this season. it’s still very hard to figure out exactly what it is. He was put in a huge pressure spot in his first game, saw mop up duty in his second stint and played a few snaps in the first half of his third game with the score tied at 0-0, only to return late when it was well over.
So what will the Maryland game bring in regard to Wimsatt’s usage? To answer that question, or at least ponder it, there is a bigger one to consider first.
Will Rutgers redshirt Gavin Wimsatt?
The argument for redshirting him is simple. Preserve an additional year of eligibility so that Wimsatt still has four seasons to play. He will have gained some valuable experience, even if it was limited, from this season in anticipation of a larger role next season.
One major point that should be noted, as Rutgers making a bowl game with a 5-7 record no longer looking like a possibility, is that a loss to Maryland would end their season and therefore Wimsatt’s redshirt would be guaranteed. However, if Rutgers beats Maryland, the usage of Wimsatt poses a real dilemma.
Don’t confuse Maryland’s defense with the defense of Penn State. For Rutgers to beat the Terps and earn that elusive sixth win, they very well could need Wimsatt to contribute in some way in order to do it. His lone completion in the win over Illinois changed the game in Rutgers favor. Schiano also always speaks about playing to win and his pledge to play the best players available.
There is no bigger game of the Schiano 2.0 era than Saturday against Maryland with a bowl bid on the line for both programs. Wimsatt has a long way to go, but he also has the most talent by far in the quarterback room. With the season on the line and a tremendous developmental opportunity of playing in a truly big game available, it would be a shame to sit Wimsatt at this point. If you lose and he didn’t play because you are saving him for the bowl game, well Rutgers would look silly and a developmental opportunity would have been missed. And to be clear, beating Maryland is no given and based on the differences between the two offenses, it seems likely that the Scarlet Knights will be the underdog.
While the Terps are struggling, Taulia Tagovailoa is a playmaking quarterback who is having a very good season. He has completed 68.3% of his passes for 3,283 yards along with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. To beat Maryland, Rutgers is going to have to score points.
It seems reasonable to think that if Wimsatt is playing in the first quarter in Happy Valley against Penn State and there was a plan to play him more than he actually did, there is a plan to play him against Maryland.
Making a bowl game would be a huge accomplishment for Rutgers in Schiano’s second season. For a minute, let’s think in terms of RU completing a surprise season by beating Maryland to go bowling.
Schiano has raved about the opportunity to have up to 15 extra practices from the end of the regular season leading up to the bowl game. It would be extremely productive for Rutgers to have these extra practices with so many younger players on the roster and large portion of them needed to step up into bigger roles next season. One of them is Gavin Wimsatt.
I can’t imagine Rutgers wasting an opportunity like a bowl game and the prep time for it by deciding not to play Wimsatt to preserve his redshirt. It seems counterproductive.
What has more value: Wimsatt having four years of eligibility left OR Rutgers having a winning season and a bowl victory with their highest ranked QB prospect in program history having played a role in it along with over a dozen first and second year players? The experience and confidence gained would be significant and put this program well ahead of schedule in Schiano’s second tenure. It would change perception in a big way.
The recruiting impact in regard to playing Wimsatt is nothing but positive as well. A winning season and bowl victory would make a strong impression across the Big Ten and recruiting circles that Rutgers makes a priority. A loss wouldn’t erase real progress already made this season and the message that there is opportunity to play right away like Wimsatt and others would resonate with recruits.
Getting to a bowl and sitting Wimsatt would be a questionable decision. The argument that Noah Vedral deserves to play the entire game due to his contributions in getting Rutgers there isn’t a good one. First off, based on Vedral’s actions and reputation as a great leader, he would be in favor of any decision made to help the team win. Second, just because Wimsatt were to play, the only scenario in which he played more than Vedral is if he got knocked out of the game due to injury.
A major factor to consider in regard to Wimsatt redshirting is the question of whether it’s actually realistic that he will be at Rutgers for five years. If Wimsatt is the quarterback that the coaching staff and fan base think he is, it’s highly unlikely he would stay on the banks for a fifth season. After three years as a starter, if he can fulfill or come close to fulfilling his potential, Wimsatt would likely have a path to the NFL. College football has changed and the best skill position players follow this path typically. And if he doesn’t work out the way we all hope he does, the needle needed to thread for Wimsatt to remain at Rutgers for a fifth year seems pretty narrow. It’s possible, but not a given.
At the end of the day, there is a plan for Gavin Wimsatt. Schiano has said so all season and reiterated that again in the loss to Penn State. For all the reasons speculated as to why Wimsatt came to Rutgers early for this season, the reality is the most important one was to play. His family and the coaching staff must have had a framework for a plan in place since his arrival. Having Rutgers in bowl contention has thrown a potential wrinkle into it and made the decision on playing him a bit more complicated.
Of course, if he and his family want him to redshirt, there is 100% chance the staff supports it. Based on the reality that Wimsatt chose to come to Rutgers early and the way he has been used since the bye week, including in two games in mop up duty that wasn’t necessary, Schiano and offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson opted against avoiding the potential dilemma of playing Wimsatt in the last game of the season. They brought Wimsatt in during a blowout of Indiana knowing they would be one win away from a bowl game with two games to play. They played him in the first quarter against Penn State, which wasn’t a winnable game like Maryland is.
Based on all that, it seems the priority has been on Wimsatt’s development and the likelihood that he plays against Maryland seems high. You can’t plan ahead for a bowl matchup that isn’t officially on your schedule. Rutgers should pull out all the stops to win the game they need in order to get there. An “all hands on deck” approach should be used by Schiano and that makes it hard to envision Wimsatt not playing against the Terps.
If Rutgers does beat Maryland to get to a bowl game, I think the upside of playing him is more impactful from a recruiting and perception standpoint that could help to pay immediate and long term benefits. Saving his redshirt would be convenient and a nice thing to have, but it might not be needed and wouldn’t get cashed in for several years even if it was.
Isn’t the point of Wimsatt being here this season to play and gain valuable experience to be in a better position to hit the ground running next season? The Maryland game and potential bowl game would be pressure spots for him to benefit from greatly the rest of his career.
The college football landscape has changed with the transfer portal and winning right away is much more the expectation instead of the hope nowadays. You need as much talent around Wimsatt as possible, so promoting him to recruits and potential transfer targets by playing him more so seems like a no brainer. Keeping him out of potentially the biggest game for Rutgers in years, whether that’s this weekend against Maryland or a potentially even bigger one in a bowl, also misses on a tremendous developmental opportunity. The goal should be to get Wimsatt as much experience for next season as possible while also trying to win now. He isn’t a finished product by any means, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a real difference maker.
Again, if Wimsatt wants to redshirt than he should. If the staff doesn’t think he is ready for a game as big as Maryland and or the bowl game, then they shouldn’t rush him. However, both parties have moved counter to those sentiments in recent weeks.
We don’t know what the plan for Gavin Wimsatt is yet, but we know his motivation for being at Rutgers a year early is to play. It’s certainly possible that he and the coaching staff want to utilize the redshirt available to him. We have a week to find out how Wimsatt will be used against Maryland and hopefully a Rutgers win makes the plan even more complicated in December.