The 2021 season is officially over for Rutgers football after finishing with a 5-7 record. Now it’s time to start assessing the state of this team with five reasons for optimism and five reasons for pessimism for next season. Below are five reasons for pessimism and click here for the five reasons for optimism.
Offensive line didn’t improve
Greg Schiano was blunt in stating the team would go as far as the offensive line could take them. The good news is they were capable enough against most winnable games this season. Rutgers went 5-2 in those contests. However, the the loss to Northwestern was an example of the offensive line sabotaging the offense’s ability to do much of anything. And of course, against the power programs of the Big Ten, the line had little success outside of the Michigan game.
The reality is for Rutgers to take a true step forward and be a bowl eligible and winning team, the offensive line has to improve dramatically. There are some pieces to work with moving forward, as Hollin Pierce has potential to be great, while Gus Zilinskas and Troy Rainey got a ton of experience and showed flashes as true freshmen. They are all building blocks but Rutgers needs serious help in the transfer portal for next season. While they hope that some of the incoming 2022 recruiting class can make an impact quickly, it’s less than ideal to play multiple first or second year players on the offensive line in the Big Ten.
The key is now that Rutgers has been in that position for too long, they need to develop the one’s that have played earlier than preferred into being long term, reliable options. Until the offensive line gets to a Big Ten level, the Scarlet Knights are going to struggle scoring points consistently.
A lack of playmakers on offense
Gavin Wimsatt didn’t play enough this season to showcase his full promise, but his skill set and natural tools make him an intriguing option at quarterback moving forward. The question for next season is who is going to make plays alongside him?
Isaih Pacheco has declared for the NFL Draft but Kyle Monangai showed real promise running behind the four year starter. Aaron Young had a few moments and obviously this group as a whole struggled at times due to the lack of help upfront. Jamier Wright-Collins could be in the mix next season more so and 4-star Samuel Brown is on the way.
In the receiving core, there is far less to feel optimistic about. Bo Melton was the best playmaker on offense the past two seasons and he is gone. Aron Cruickshank had some big moments but his season ended early with an injury. He has one year left of eligibility. Shameen Jones has had some moments but was never consistent enough to be considered a reliable option. Isaiah Washington never got going. There are a lot of young receivers on the roster and hopefully some can take the next step in their development for next season. This is an area that the transfer portal would be key in helping with.
The tight end position never seemed utilized in the way it should have in the passing game. Johnny Langan is a big play guy and Victor Konopka has shown flashes to give hope this position could produce more next season.
Rutgers sorely needs more production from its skill players next season if the offense is going to improve even in a modest way.
2022 schedule more difficult on paper
Replacing Syracuse with Boston College is is a slight increase in difficulty for next season. The Orange went 5-7 this season that could have been better after losing three ACC games by 3 points each. The Eagles went 6-6 and are on the up with Jeff Hafley as head coach. It is certainly not a given that Rutgers can count on winning in Chestnut Hill to open the 2022 campaign. Temple on the road is by definition more challenging and will be against a first year head coach after Rod Carey was fired. The third non-conference opponent is not determined yet but likely will be an FCS team similar to Delaware this past season.
The deeper concern is replacing Northwestern and Illinois with Nebraska and Minnesota. Don’t let the Huskers record fool you. all nine losses were by single digits including against six ranked foes. Minnesota is much better than the Illini and Wildcats. Swapping Wisconsin for Iowa is pretty much a wash. The issue is Rutgers really needs to win one game against a West opponent each season to become bowl eligible playing in the loaded East division. Playing Nebraska at home for the Big Ten opener is probably their best chance.
Getting to six wins overall next season won’t be easy unless Rutgers improves in multiple areas.
Replacing top playmakers on defense
Olakunle Fatukasi and Julius Turner were the two best defensive players for Rutgers the past two seasons. While younger players have showed promise this past season, losing the type of production and impact RU is with those two mainstays is significant. Kyonte Hamilton is in line to replace Turner and has looked really good while Tyreem Powell was a factor at linebacker this past season. Khayri Banton is a former 4-star recruit at linebacker who also gained experience and has a lot of potential. Aside from developing the young talent on defense, which there appears to be a lot of, replacing the production of O3 and Turner is key to next season in the defense remaining solid.
Home field problem
Rutgers has now lost 19 straight Big Ten games at home. Yes, the streak began at the end of the 2017 season under former head coach Chris Ash, but the Scarlet Knights are 0-9 in the past two seasons under Schiano. To be fair, there were no fans in 2020 and this past season RU did have to play three ranked foes in Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconson at home. However, they were blown out by Maryland as well. They were outscored 174-45 in four conference home games this season, completely non-competitive in all of them other than the first half against Michigan State.
Speaking of fans, even though there were marquee opponents and a degree of optimism heading into each of the four Big Ten home games, the turnout was extremely low. SHI Stadium appeared to be less than half full for most of that stretch.
To take the next step as a program, Rutgers needs to win home games in conference play. While the positive of winning five road games the past two years is noteworthy, its not sustainable enough to push this team up the standings of the East Division. It won’t be easy in 2022, as they host Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Penn State along with Indiana. Winning one would be a step forward but ideally they need at least two victories in Big Ten play at home to have realistic shot at qualifying for a bowl game.