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Does Rutgers have a great or even elite defense?

The identity of this team is on that side of the ball, but how good is it?

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Syracuse
Olakunle Fatukasi has a hit on Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito. Fatukasi is the star leader of the Rutgers defense
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers defense is good. That’s a statement Scarlet Knights fan were used to hearing during Greg Schiano’s first tenure. After a truncated 2020 season and two games into Schiano’s second game in his second go round—Rutgers defense is good. That isn’t exactly ground breaking analysis but it’s becoming ever the more obvious this 2021 team’s identity rests in its defense.

Can Rutgers defense be great, though? Can it be elite? It has been through two games, but how long can that last?

Grain of salt included, after two non-conference games, Rutgers is ranked 17th in the nation in yards per game, giving up 259.5 on average to Temple and Syracuse. The Scarlet Knights are also 20th in yards per play as teams average 4.15 through the two early contests. Yardage can be a little misleading, but the early picture is painting one of a stingy Rutgers defense.

One important aspect of the Rutgers defense so far, however, has been their stellar 3rd down play. Conversion percentage isn’t as easily skewed as yards and the Scarlet Knights are among the top teams in the country in the early going. Opponents have converted 4 of 27 3rd down attempts, and that .148 percentage is good for tied for fourth in the FBS. Syracuse was 2 of 14 on 3rd down this past weekend.

The Scarlet Knights aren’t giving away free yards, either. To date, Rutgers has committed 5 penalties in two games on defense, which puts them tied for second in college football. To start the season, Rutgers is also among the best teams at keeping teams from extending drives. The Scarlet Knights have allowed 26 first downs total, good for tied for 11th.

Another astounding aspect of the defense thus far has been the creation of turnovers. It might be the biggest reason Rutgers is 2-0 to start the season. The Scarlet Knights have recovered five fumbles and intercepted three passes, putting them tied for 2nd in turnovers gained. They had three turnovers against Syracuse and five against Temple.

All of this points to how Rutgers fans have come to know a Greg Schiano-led team. Schiano, defensive coordinator Robb Smith and their staff have leaned heavily on an opportunistic, swarming defense to start the season and come away with two impressive performances. They had their defense playing at an elite level for both games— but holding Syracuse’s rushing attack to 67 yards on 30 carries may be the most impressive part of this start.

Maybe the most important aspect to the start of the season for Rutgers’ defense so far has been the number of players making the plays. The Scarlet Knights are getting great play from all three levels of their defense and from most members of their two-deep. Sure, Olakunle Fatukasi is an absolute star, but he’s not the only one wreaking havoc on opponents. This bodes well for when the Scarlet Knights get into the tougher portion of their schedule with their Big 10 opponents. Max Melton has also starred in two games, with two interceptions, three pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Avery Young and Christian Izien are second and third on the team with 11 and 10 total tackles, respectively. Julius Turner and Mayan Ahanotu have been clogging up the middle while contributing a sack each and a total of 3.5 tackles for a loss. And Mohamed Toure is turning into a nice pass rushing specialist with 2 tackles for a loss, a sack and another QB hit.

It might be foolish to think Rutgers could keep this sort of dominance going all year long, they still lack the overall talent needed to be a top defense in the country. But they should be improved from a 2020 season that saw them finish towards the middle of the pack in most defensive ratings categories. Also, last season saw them hold six of their nine opponents under 30 points and in three of those games they gave up a total of 70.

How good this defense ends being up will depend on how long they can keep up the turnovers and play stout third down defense. The coaching has been top notch on that side of the ball and the players have rewarded them with two impressive showings. Fatukasi is one of the best playmakers in college football and Melton is showing a nose for the ball in the secondary.