There was a lot to like in the 45-13 win over Delaware on Saturday. The most obvious was how Rutgers came out ready to play and put a nationally ranked FCS team on their heels right away. Credit the coaching staff for having the Scarlet Knights playing with urgency and purpose from the outset of the game. It’s also what made it so surprising that the Rutgers defense saw its biggest weakness from last season flare up for the first time this fall.
The Blue Hens rattled off runs of 19 yards, 23 yards and 72 yards on their way to amassing 162 total yards rushing in the game. They averaged 4.8 yards per carry against a defense that has been much improved in this area in the first two games of the season.
The Scarlet Knights allowed 4.5 yards per carry last season and were pushed around at times by Big Ten opponents. It was encouraging to see the defense do much better against Temple and Syracuse. RU allowed just 113 yards on 3.1 yards per carry against the Owls and then went to the Carrier Dome and held the Orange to only 67 yards on 2.2 yards per carry.
Asked about the trouble with defending the run in this game, Schiano said, “Well, it’s not a big mystery. We lost the edge on the long run and we miss the tackle. It’s a 14-yard gain. You don’t like 14-yard gains but you live with them, right and then you go get a six-yard loss and kind of balances out. But you miss, you lose the edge and then you miss a tackle, and now you have a long run and that guy is a good player. He’s a really good player. He was the Player of the Year in their conference last year, so he’s really good.”
Schiano is referring to Dejoun Lee, who was the CAA Offensive Player of the Year last spring along with Second Tram All-American honors at the FCS level. He finished with a game high 121 yards on 15 carries. However, backups Khory Spruill (7 carries for 45 yards) and Quincy Watson (1 carry for 23 yards) had success as well. More troubling is that Delaware had only rushed for 242 yards overall coming into this game and just 2.9 yards per carry in wins over Maine and St. Francis (NY).
Against Temple and Syracuse, both teams gained first downs five times on the ground against the Rutgers defense. Delaware was able to run for first downs nine times on Saturday. While the Blue Hens didn’t have enough firepower to stay close with Rutgers, their ability to be effective in the run game is certainly concerning.
In a game where the offense was the story in the first half and were less so in the second half, it was the opposite for the defense. Schiano explained his thoughts on the defense overall by saying, “Defensively in the first half, I was frustrated. I didn’t think we played like ourselves. We didn’t tackle well. We didn’t cover man-to-man the way we’re capable of. Then we had a discussion about it. They came out and did much better. I think Delaware was three for eight in third down conversions the first half and they ended up three for 13. And you know, I looked at the stats at the half, and they had like 180-something yards and they ended with 260.”
Another area that the defense was not as proficient in on Saturday was takeaways. After forcing five turnovers against Temple and three against Syracuse, they were unable to force any against Delaware. Give the Blue Hens credit as like Rutgers, they have yet to turn the ball over this season in three games. However, generating takeaways is critical for Rutgers to be successful in Big Ten play. Changing momentum and shortening the field will be key against conference foes that are predominately more talented and have more depth.
Rutgers opens Big Ten play next Saturday in the Big House against No. 25 Michigan, who are also unbeaten at 3-0. Last season’s meeting was a wild affair that RU lost in triple overtime by the final score of 48-42. However, the Scarlet Knight defense did a good job against Wolverines ground game, holding them to 147 yards on just 3.4 yards per carry.
It will be extremely difficult for the RU defense to be as effective against the Michigan run game next week. Against Northern Illinois on Saturday, a team that beat traditionally run heavy Georgia Tech 22-21 in their season opener, the Wolverines rushed for a staggering 373 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry in a 63-10 blowout victory. This is a trend though as Michigan has now rushed for 1,051 yards and averaging 7.2 yards per carry through three games. Against Washington from the PAC-12, they rushed for 343 yards on 6.1 yards per carry.
All of a sudden after a performance against Delaware that warning signs showed up for the Rutgers defense, the prospect of facing the Michigan run game is a scary proposition. If they want to be competitive in that game, they have to do a much better job of slowing them down on the ground.
Even if they struggle against Michigan, the real key is how Rutgers does against more evenly talented opponents like Northwestern, Illinois and Maryland. Defense was the backbone of every good Rutgers team in Schiano’s first tenure. If that unit can improve from last season, especially in continuing to generate takeaways, standing up against the run and limiting big plays, it would go a long way towards giving this team a chance to make significant progress this season and even a shot at winning six games.
Schiano was blunt in his assessment, stating, “Much better in the second half, but we can’t go out and do that. We have to play Rutgers defense all the time, Rutgers special teams all the time; and as the offense gets better and better, the offensive line gets better and better, that’s when we can become a team.”
Rutgers has made a lot of progress in starting the season with a 3-0 record for the first time since 2012. The defense was brilliant against Syracuse on the road, so much that we wondered if it was entering elite territory. An uneven performance against Delaware shouldn’t erase the strong performances against the Orange and Temple. Even so, it’s fair to be concerned. As the Scarlet Knights enter Big Ten play, the defense holding up against the run is crucial to making even more progress this season. If they don’t, winning conference games will be a challenge.