To say it’s been a struggle for the Rutgers football program since joining the Big Ten conference would be a massive understatement.
Since adding the Scarlet Knights, along with Maryland, as part of the conference’s expansion in 2014, Rutgers has managed just eight conference wins in total, and has turned in three winless seasons in the conference over the past six seasons.
In an attempt to find its footing in a mountainous climb to respectability in the Big Ten, Rutgers made the only hire it seemingly could make this past offseason with the rehiring of Greg Schiano as its next head coach. Schiano led Rutgers to its best years in the early 2000s, including a program-best 11 wins in 2006, before leaving to take an NFL head coaching position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012.
Schiano’s stint in the NFL lasted just two seasons before he was fired, ultimately returning to the college game as the defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State from 2016-18. Now, he is back at the program he lifted to new heights, and Rutgers seems to be in a better place than it’s been since he left eight years ago.
Still, the road ahead will be long and full of blowouts as Schiano attempts to overhaul a roster in need of depth and sheer talent. While every win Rutgers gets on the field this season is a bonus, Schiano must first start winning on the recruiting trail if the Scarlet Knights are ever to cease being a doormat for the rest of the conference.
For now, Schiano must continue to focus on developing the roster he inherited while finding wins, big or small, wherever he may find them. A big win on Saturday is almost assuredly out of the picture, but perhaps Rutgers can find some small success to build on against an elite Ohio State team with which Schiano has some familiarity. Here is a look at what the Buckeyes can expect from the Scarlet Knights.
It’s difficult to win at any level of football without competent quarterback play, something Rutgers has not known in quite some time. While the Big Ten season is only two weeks old, the answer to the position does not appear to be on the current roster as senior Noah Vedral has struggled to lead a soft passing attack for the Scarlet Knights in 2020.
Vedral has yet to throw for 200 yards in a game this season, amassing a paltry 130 yards in the season-opening win over Michigan State, and just 169 yards in the loss to Indiana last week. To compound his lack of effectiveness, Vedral has already tossed four interceptions this season, including a three-interception effort against the Hoosiers last week.
While the Ohio State secondary showed some flaws last week at Penn State and will be down a critical piece in the secondary in cornerback Cam Brown, Saturday’s matchup against Vedral is primed for a get-right performance for the Buckeye defensive backs.
Vedral has also been sacked six times already, and if the dominating performance Ohio State’s defensive line turned in against Penn State is any indication, it could be a long and brutal day for the Rutgers signal-caller.
Bo Melton is the unquestioned leader of the Rutgers receivers group. After leading the team in both receptions and receiving yards last season, Melton is well on his way to doing the same in 2o20 with eight receptions and two touchdowns.
If there is anywhere for the Scarlet Knights offense to hang their collective hats, it’s in the running game, although that, too, has been a struggle through two weeks. Junior Isaih Pacheco returns after leading the team in rushing a year ago with more than 700 yards on the ground, but he has accounted for just 85 yards on the ground this season.
Pacheco represents, perhaps, the best chance for anyone on the Rutgers offense to get hot, although the Ohio State defense had no trouble in shutting him down a season ago, holding him to just 50 yards on 16 carries. However, Pacheco also figures to factor into the passing game, having caught nine passes this season.
Pacheco will be spelled by sophomore running back Kay’Ron Adams, a Warren, Ohio native who led Rutgers in rushing last week with 63 yards on just five carries.
As would be expected from a Schiano-led team, the most significant leap Rutgers has made in 2020 comes on the defensive side of the ball, although there was nowhere to go but up. Last season, the Knights ranked second to last among all power five teams in total defense, giving up an average of 435 yards per game to opposing offenses.
Those numbers have seen improvement this season, albeit through just two games, as Rutgers is allowing 358 yards per contest. Most notably, Rutgers has been stout against the run, allowing just two yards per carry and 80 yards per game. Against an Ohio State rushing attack that was better last week but is still trying to find the next gear, that matchup will loom large for Rutgers’ chances of staying competitive on Saturday.
A pair of quality linebackers in seniors Tyshon Fogg and Olakunle Fatukasi is a big reason for the Scarlet Knights’ success in stopping the run. Fogg led the defense last season in tackles, posting 93 total stops, and Fatukasi was right behind him with 80 tackles.
The duo has picked up right where they left off a season ago, already combining for 45 total tackles and five sacks. Fatukasi’s 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks last week earned him national defensive player of the week honors.
While success has been found in stopping the run, the same can’t be said for the Rutgers pass defense, which does not bode well against a red-hot Ohio State passing attack led by Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Fields and a stable of playmaking receivers.
Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi shredded the Rutgers secondary for 319 yards and three touchdowns during week one of play, although the Scarlet Knights did force two interceptions, and Indiana quarterback Michael Penix also tossed three touchdowns a week ago.
Rutgers has allowed a receiver to eclipse the 100-yard mark in each of its first two games, and with Buckeye receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson both coming off of back-to-back performances in which they surpassed 100 yards receiving, it seems a safe bet the trend will continue on Saturday.
One bright spot in the secondary for Rutgers has been the play of former Buckeye and Powell native Brendon White, who transferred to Rutgers after entering the portal last fall. White, the Defensive Most Valuable Player in the Buckeyes’ 2019 Rose Bowl win, is third on the team in tackles and has both an interception and a fumble recovery on the season.
If ever there was a coach to lead Rutgers back to respectability, that guy has to be Schiano. Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said during his media availability on Tuesday that it is already apparent the impact Schiano is having on the program given how hard his players are playing. That Rutgers has been competitive in each of its first two games is certainly a testament to the effort Schiano is receiving from his group.
But while consistent effort is a prerequisite to any program build, Schiano’s biggest task in raising Rutgers from the dead will be on the recruiting trail, where he must overhaul a roster that simply doesn’t stack up to the mid to high-level programs in the conference.
The gaping talent gap between Ohio State and Rutgers will be on full display Saturday evening, and while Rutgers will play hard, it will matter little in this colossal mismatch. The Buckeyes roll to a 3-0 record with a 52-10 win over the Scarlet Knights.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.