While it was nowhere near a perfect performance on Saturday in the Carrier Dome, Rutgers defeated Syracuse 17-7 to start the season with a 2-0 record for the first time since 2014. Since last season when head coach Greg Schiano returned to lead the program once again, the Scarlet Knights are 4-1 on the road. Both of those facts are head turning with the perspective of how far this program had fallen. Just two games into Schiano’s second season of his second tenure and RU is in a far different situation as a program.
Don’t confuse major progress with being good. Rutgers is making significant improvement, but because the state of things was so poor, they aren’t a good team…..yet.
Saturday’s victory was a perfect example of why Rutgers is 5-6 in FBS games since last season after going just 10-47 the previous five years.
The Scarlet Knights have learned how to overcome shortcomings with talent and depth by playing a tough brand of football and sticking together as a team. They make plenty of mistakes, as they did against Syracuse, but against opponents who are about equal or slightly better, Rutgers has come out on top more times than not since Schiano’s return.
“We knew this was going to be a grimy, tough, gritty game. That’s what it was going to be,” said Schiano.
At least in recent memory, when Rutgers had an opportunity to make an opponent pay for a mistake and failed to do so, it almost always resulted in a loss. Not anymore. Despite not capitalizing on a blocked punt, botching a field goal attempt, failing to convert several short yardage situations or even missing a 29 yard attempt, the Scarlet Knights never wilted.
“I thought we handled it well. We hit adversity several times,” said Schiano. “There are two kinds of adversity. Everything is rolling downhill on you or you do something well and don’t capitalize on it. We had some field position today that you should capitalize on and we didn’t. Rather than sit there and lament we didn’t do that, we blocked a punt and didn’t score, we just came out and played. That’s what chopping is. A sixty minute chop.”
Rutgers never stopped playing hard on Saturday and responded well when Syracuse tied the score at 7-7 midway through the third quarter. Instead of falling under the weight of the moment late in that game, RU finished the game strong and closed out the game on the road against a former Big East rival.
The Scarlet Knights averaged 1.2 yards rushing in this game and only amassed 195 total yards of offense. However, the defense played really well and gave the offense the chance to win the game by executing a few key moments in the second half, which they were able to do.
Kyle Monangai had an 11 yard touchdown run and Noah Vedral found Jovani Haskins for a 30 yard touchdown. Mayan Ahanatou had a sack and caused a forced fumble in the fourth quarter that set up the game clinching field goal by Valentino Ambrosio.
“They have really talented front people. They are big, strong, long,” Schiano said. They have a scheme that is very hard to prepare for unless you are an elite group. We aren’t there yet offensively. I thought defensively we played really well. Those guys kept answering the bell. I did not think our special teams was particularly good. We can play much better than that on special teams. We made mistakes. We did not capitalize on some of the things that I felt we could on special teams. Obviously on offense we have work to do. Defense played well but you are only good as your last performance. We need to get better as a team but as I said last week, it’s nice to do it from the W column.”
A key to this team’s success and improvement so far this season has been their ability to protect the football while forcing opponents into making mistakes. .
“We take care of the football,” said Schiano. “When you don’t turn it over, it gives you a chance to win. We didn’t turn it over, we took it away three times and we blocked a punt. That’s the game.”
Through two games, Rutgers has a +8 turnover margin with zero turnovers and have committed just five penalties overall. Mistake free football can give below average or average teams a chance at winning games they shouldn’t be able to. Or in Saturday’s case, making sure they win games they should.
Of course, it all comes down to coaching. One team had their head coach flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct that resulted in the opponent scoring on the next play while the other team had their head coach getting the most out of his players. The progress made so far in Schiano’s return has been impressive. Aside from the wins, this program has a clear identity now. That being said, staying the course is vital to finishing the season having made significant improvement. If Rutgers can get by Delaware next Saturday, they’ll finish non-conference play at 3-0 and a chance to fight for a bowl. For fans that have watched this program closely over the last few years, getting to October with postseason aspirations still intact would be progress in its own right.