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A nightmare performance for Rutgers leaves more questions than answers

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The 52-3 loss to Wisconsin was as bad as they come and that’s saying something for this program.

Wisconsin v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Halloween was last weekend but Rutgers turned SHI Stadium into their very own house of horrors on Saturday. It was a performance that made the eyes of fans bleed from watching it and scream for mercy. Trailing 52-3 with an entire fourth quarter to play was cruel and unusual punishment for everyone involved.

This game was a disaster for many reasons.

They lost in large part due the two turnovers in the second quarter that increased a 10-3 Wisconsin lead to 24-3 with only 14 seconds counting off the game clock. The Rutgers offense was as bad as could be against the top defense in the nation. Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz exceeded the amount of passing yards he had thrown in each of his previous five games by halftime against Rutgers. Injuries piled up in a major way to key players and the team’s depth is now in serious question heading into the final three games of the season.

With all that being said, the worst part of Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin was how uncompetitive it was and how disheartening of a performance it was, both by the players and coaching staff.

Rutgers is predictable in the sense that we know if they make mistakes against good teams, they have no chance to win. We knew in the second quarter they weren’t winning this game. But the third quarter was just brutal. Wisconsin scored three touchdowns and amassed 240 total yards of offense. None of their scores came off of turnovers. It was just a good old whooping. The defense certainly got worn down after the offense did it no favors in the first half. However, the team as a whole completely fell apart in a way that was tough to watch and understand. They weren’t facing Ohio State and the opposition had a one dimensional offense entering the game.

Wisconsin entered Saturday’s game ranked 12th in the Big Ten in scoring and yards per game, as well as last in passing yards and third down conversion rate. The main thing Wisky did well coming in was on the ground as the third best rushing team in the Big Ten. Against RU, the Badgers scored seven touchdowns, including five drives in a row, had 579 total yards of offense, converted 6 of 12 third down conversions and threw for a season high 274 yards. It’s one thing to give up 52 points to the Buckeyes, but to do it to the Badgers is a whole other story.

On the flip side, Noah Vedral had a dreadful performance and while his toughness should never be questioned, his ability to lead Rutgers to a victory against a good team shouldn’t be either. It’s just not happening. I wish it would. He is so likable and deserves a ton of credit for being a stabilizing force for this program in Schiano’s first two years in many ways. But it’s clear he has taken the program as far as he can. And due to pure football coach ridiculousness, Vedral even being physically able to go the rest of the way is in doubt after leaving injured.

Schiano admitted as much after the game, stating “The quarterback one, I kick myself. I wanted to take him out that series. Enough was enough. And we kind of agreed — everybody agreed that we’d give him one more series. That’s my fault. We should have got him out.”

It was 45-3 when Vedral was in the game and suffered the injury. 45 to freaking 3. The game was over at this point late in the third quarter. If Vedral really is the best option at quarterback aside from Gavin Wimsatt, who likely didn’t play in large part due to preserve his redshirt and avoid a physical beating from Wisconsin, then why keep him in for that situation? He has literally left injured in his previous three games. Regardless of how bad this loss was, Rutgers would exit it with a legitimate path to a bowl still visible. Not easy, but possible.

It’s easy to question it after the fact, but if you watched this game with RU trailing 45-3 and didn’t mutter to yourself “what the hell is Vedral doing in there still”, whether it was for reasons of preservation or frustration in wanting the staff to play someone else, my response is you are suspect. This was a really poor decision if you really believe he is your best option at the most important position on the field.

Aside from this tactical error, the real issue though is that Vedral does appear to be significantly better than backups Evan Simon and Cole Snyder. When Vedral exited a fourth consecutive game with an injury, Simon threw an interception followed by Snyder not doing much the rest of the way.

I get being a backup is a difficult challenge when called upon and perhaps if either got a chance to start, they could produce more. Even so, neither has showed enough to inspire hope that the notion is actually true.

I’m not going to criticize the staff for not playing Wimsatt, due to the circumstances, but the offense performed as poorly as possible. Four turnovers against the best defense in the Big Ten is devastating, but 1 of 11 on third down conversions and 4.1 yards per pass attempt are brutal stats in their own right.

As for how things unraveled, Schiano was asked after the game if it was a matter of a lack of effort or execution? He was clear he didn’t think it was an effort issue.

“First and foremost, we played a really good football team today, top 25 team,” said Schiano. “Secondly, I don’t know if it’s execution. It wasn’t effort. They gave effort. I’m not concerned about that. As you get worn down, the effort’s not the same. That’s as big an offensive line and running back as there is in the league. And, you know, you’re getting hit over and over. And, you know, we got some guys bummed. So, then we got down to some younger guys that haven’t played a lot, weren’t accustomed to it. It’s a whole different speed. So, it was a — when you get licked like that, it’s an accumulation of things. It’s never just one thing.”

Schiano is right, Rutgers didn’t lose because of one thing against Wisconsin. It was everything. But it’s fair to wonder how tough this team is mentally after getting run off their own field and never having responded. We have to take Schiano’s word that he didn’t think the team quit, but they quite obviously didn’t fight back.

Wisconsin is one of the best programs in the Big Ten year after year and there is no issue with Rutgers losing to them at this stage of Schiano’s tenure. However, there is a major difference between losing and losing the way Rutgers did on Saturday. This type of loss stinks things up far worse than the smelliest cheese from the state of Wisconsin ever could. It lingers well after the last whistle throughout the fan base, with recruits, and with national perception. It raises more doubts, more questions, more angst.

Losing normally and losing disastrously is still one loss in the standings, but for a program that’s been through as much as Rutgers has in recent years, it’s damaging when it’s so lopsided. It’s also more painful when they finally entered the last month of the season with a chance for a bowl game. This is not the statement you want to make when the opportunity they have is in front of them.

And now with Vedral, Aron Cruickshank and Olakunle Fatukasi suffering injuries in which they could not return from, the health of this team is a serious concern. It’s clear this team was emotionally affected by the injury to Cruickshank, who in his first game back from a shoulder injury, suffered an apparent serious leg injury on a kickoff return that resulted in a turnover against his former team. CJ Oneychi also didn’t play due to an injury suffered during the week. Reggie Sutton has been out for the season for several games. Even Mike Tverdov, a steady veteran presence on this team, was suspended for this game due to a violation of team rules along with Brandon Sanders. It’s too early to know for sure, but the two deep for Indiana could look a lot different than it did entering this game.

I’m not expecting miracles with this team. I picked Rutgers to go 4-8 this season. However, I never expected them to lose in such one sided fashion against a good but not great Wisconsin team. This was the biggest game for the program in the sense of having something to play for this late in the season since 2014. And they laid a complete egg.

That’s the most disappointing and troubling part. Not the loss, but the manner in which they lost. Even Chris Ash led Rutgers to a respectable 31-17 defeat in Madison in 2018 against a 8-5 Badgers team. Obviously, Schiano and the coaching staff have a long way to go in regard to elevating the roster to the talent level and depth level they want it to be at. If that’s the main reason for this type of loss, than it should be a sobering reminder of how far this program has to go.

Asked for his message to the fans after the game, Schiano said, “We’re building something here. And I believe that we’re on the right track. These days happen when you’re doing that. There’s no doubt about it. They’ve happened before. But what we need to do is keep doing the things that we know are right. You can’t get tired. You can’t get tired because someone questions you, you can’t get tired because someone is negative about something. If you believe in it, you just keep pushing it. It’ll get there. And we will get there.”

I haven’t lost faith in the long term trajectory of the program under Schiano in his second tenure. I hope you haven’t either. Even so, it’s losses like this one that certainly make going through such a massive rebuild a difficult process for all involved. How this team will recover and fix several major problems, at least for the rest of this season, is the biggest question of all.

As fans, showing frustration and impatience is only natural after days like this. We are all on the same journey together, including celebrating wins like last weekend against Illinois and suffering through this nightmare defeat to the Badgers.

The good news is the Big Ten has been extremely unpredictable week after week. Rutgers heads to Indiana next weekend against a team that hasn’t won a conference game yet. Anything is possible, but embarrassing blowout losses need to be a thing of the past.