There was plenty to be frustrated about but also encouraged by in Rutgers’ 20-13 loss to Michigan on Saturday. In the Big Ten opener for both teams, it really was a tale of two halves. The Scarlet Knights trailed by 17 points at the half, but fought back only to fall short in the end. They proved they can compete against anyone in the Big Ten. Here are five takeaways from the game and what we learned about this team in the process.
Penalties rear ugly head
Rutgers came into Saturday’s matchup with Michigan having committed the fewest penalties per game in the country at 2.33 per contest. They ended up committing the same amount of penalties against Michigan that they had through three games this season. Seven penalties for 42 yards was more than RU could afford in this loss. While the targeting call against Julius Turner appeared to be questionable, losing him for the entire second half due to being ejected was a big loss.
The most painful one though came with the Scarlet Knights on the Michigan 7 yard line on 2nd and 6 trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Troy Rainey, who overall played really well after being thrown into a starting role after Reggie Sutton suffered a season ending injury on Wednesday, was called for a false start. I don't like bringing it up because Rainey’s performance was admirable and showed he has a bright future. However it’s impossible to ignore as the drive failed after ending with Valentino Ambrosio missing a 29 yard field goal attempt.
For Rutgers to win Big Ten games this season, they have to avoid costly penalties and there is no doubt Rainey will learn from this one. It does raise a concern about the lack of experience behind the two deep and if injuries pile up, penalties is an area that could become more of an issue.
The Isaih Pacheco we thought he was
A thrilling part of the second half comeback was seeing Pacheco knife through the Michigan defense the way he did. His running helped shift momentum in the game as the offense was able to control the game with sustained drives. Pacheco has had a tendency at times of getting away from running north to south, but in the second half against Michigan he looked like the back we all expected him to be this season. After rushing for just 152 yards on 3.4 yards per carry through the first three games, Pacheco finished Saturday with 110 yards and 5.4 yards per carry. If he can build off of this performance and be as effective the rest of the way, it will bode really well for the offense.
Both lines battled back
A more surprising development to watch in the second half of the game was watching Rutgers win the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Shorthanded a starter with right guard Reggie Sutton out injured and defensive lineman Julius Turner missing the second half after being ejected for targeting, both lines pushed Michigan around. The talent and depth is not comparable between the two teams in the trenches, but that didn’t matter on Saturday. After years of watching Rutgers get bullied by the opposition, Saturday’s second half was a sight for sore eyes. Coaching matters and so does having players who work hard and fight like hell. Rutgers had that in spades along both lines on Saturday and it is another encouraging sign for the rest of the season.
Big Ten teams can neutralize return game
Michigan’s Jake Moody had five kickoffs and they all resulted in touchbacks. Aron Cruickshank, the explosive returner for Rutgers, never had a chance to run one back. While Michigan’s Brad Robbins had five punts, two were fair catches and Cruickshank only had had one punt return for 8 yards. It was a lesson that in Big Ten play, there will be kickers and punters good enough to prevent Cruickshank from having the opportunity to change the game on a return. He is a major weapon for Rutgers and he was a non-factor on Saturday.
Noah Vedral is a warrior
The entire Rutgers team displayed tremendous heart and fight on Saturday. However, it was their leader under center that epitomized those traits above all. Vedral demonstrated poise, patience and pure guts in leading the offense in the Big House. He handled pressure well and took some hits in order to get the ball to receivers in the right spots with open space. Most importantly, he never panicked, made his progressions and led Rutgers in engineering back to back 12 play drives that made it a one score game in the fourth quarter.
Vedral finished 18 of 31 for 156 yards and one touchdown, as well as 46 rushing yards. He did have a costly fumble on the last drive of the game that sealed the victory for Michigan, but even so it was only his first turnover of the season. It’s no secret the captain is an unquestioned leader on this team and has handled himself with class in his two years at Rutgers. He has improved as the season has gone on. If he can play at the level he did on Saturday, while not elite, he will give Rutgers a chance to win several Big Ten games this fall.