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The key to Big Ten success for Rutgers football

The Scarlet Knights played clean football in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Can it continue?

Delaware v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Rutgers begins the Big Ten schedule after having completed non-conference play undefeated for the first time since joining the league in 2014. A clear reason why is that the Scarlet Knights have played mistake free football. In order to produce three or more Big Ten wins to achieve bowl eligibility, they need to continue following that same blueprint for success.

Through three weeks of the college football season, Rutgers leads the nation in fewest penalties per game (2.33) and net punting average (51.5 yards). They are just one of four teams that have yet to commit a turnover. In addition, they are third in turnover margin and fifth in turnovers gained.

For context, consider this mind blowing fact from ESPN researcher Jared Berson: Rutgers is the first team since 2008 National Champion Florida to force 8+ turnovers without committing one through their first 3 games of a season.

Respectfully, don’t book those plane and hotel reservations for the college football playoff just yet. Even so, it really captures the imprint that this coaching staff has made on the program this early into the rebuild.

Figuring out the key for the Scarlet Knights to have success in Big Ten play is not rocket science. Playing clean football was the key to beginning the season 3-0 and will continue to be paramount for continued progress to occur the rest of the way. As the competition significantly increases, the margin for error is much slimmer.

Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano touched on the importance of limiting turnovers and penalties following last weekend’s win over Delaware.

“I think it’s very important. We can’t overcome when we make those kind of mistakes, not yet,” said Schiano. “Sometimes you can when you’re really, really talented and really, really primed and it’s the same guys and you’ve had them forever. You know what, that’s when you almost, what’s the big deal, we’ll make it up. That’s not us right now. We have to play that way. And I think the two big things, the biggest thing is taking care of the football. The guys have done a very good job with that and the second is if you play efficiently and don’t give back yards, you have a chance.”

Despite surprising most by going 3-6 in Big Ten play last season, tying a program best since joining the conference, Rutgers struggled limiting mistakes. In doing so, it prevented the Scarlet Knights from maximizing opportunities given by opponents including one score losses to Michigan and Illinois. In nine conference games, Big Ten foes committed the third most penalties against Rutgers and the defense forced 19 takeaways, tied for second most in the league. However, RU was second to last in penalty yards per game and turned it over 14 times. While RU was fifth in turnover margin at +5, two teams with fewer takeaways finished ahead of them in that category.

For Rutgers to equal or exceed three Big Ten wins this season, improving on turnover margin and reducing penalties is a must.

Looking at this weekend against Michigan, this will be extremely important if they hope to be competitive in the Big House. Per ESPN researcher Jared Berson once again, Saturday’s matchup between Rutgers and Michigan is the first game this century in which both teams had zero turnovers this late into the season. The importance of playing clean football is even greater against an opponent like the Wolverines who are accustomed to doing the same. Schiano emphasized how this mindset has become a core part of the program’s culture.

“I think it’s a serious commitment and buy-in by our players to what we stress. We believe very deeply that the ball is the program,” said Schiano. “Kirk Ciarrocca brought that here, and that’s stuck with us everywhere we’ve been. And it’s very important to us that you realize that when you carry that ball, you’re carrying [the program] because — as crazy as it is, right, you need that ball to score every way except the safety. If you don’t have the ball, you can’t score. To simplify it to the most simple degree, our number has to be bigger than their number otherwise we lose. So kind of common sense, we have to take care of that thing and they are doing a good job of it. We have to continue it, right. The minute you take it for granted, it spills.”

In last season’s wild triple overtime game that Michigan won 48-42, both teams turned it over once and no points were scored off them. However, Rutgers committed 12 penalties for 99 yards compared to 5 penalties for 40 yards for the visitors. While the Scarlet Knights still had an opportunity to win the game, it was a big issue in the loss.

The good news is that while Michigan dominated non-conference play this season with wins over Western Michigan, Washington and Northern Illinois, outscoring opponents 141-34, they only forced three turnovers in three games. If Rutgers wants to seriously put Michigan on upset alert on Saturday, the offense has to continue to take care of the football and the defense has to generate turnovers of their own.

Rutgers certainly needs to produce big plays on offense against a Michigan pass defense that is somewhat vulnerable in order to have a chance to pull the upset on Saturday. However, sustaining drives and not putting its defense in a hole with a short field due to turnovers is extremely important as well. Limiting costly penalties that are drive killers on offense and gift Michigan better field position have to be avoided too.

Another huge key in this game is not just limiting mistakes, but handling them well when they do occur. It’s the first Big Ten home game that Michigan fans can attend since 2019 and its homecoming. The Scarlet Knights have to maintain their composure and not let a penalty or turnover snowball into a bigger mistake. This will be the case throughout Big Ten play and has been an issue over the years. Momentum shifts will occur throughout a game, but Rutgers needs to make sure they aren’t the cause for opponents gaining an edge in this area. Mental toughness and the “keep chopping” mentality have to present in a big way.

If Rutgers is going to end its 30 game losing streak against ranked opponents dating back to 2009 this Saturday at Michigan, playing clean football at the Big House will likely be a major reason why. And if achieving bowl eligibility this season is going to be possible, limiting turnovers and penalties will have to continue.