By Gabe Sustick
The first regular season in the Big Ten Conference is in the books for Rutgers, and it brought some great moments along the way, but it’s clear that there are still some growing pains for the program to work through.
The Scarlet Knights’ first game of the season began on the west coast against Washington State. It was a high scoring affair as Rutgers escaped with a 41-38 victory thanks Paul James’ 173 yard 3 touchdown performance. It was Gary Nova’s first game with new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, having two touchdowns and an interception. Leonte Carroo also had a good day with 151 yards and a touchdown. The Knights also saw a large hole in their secondary made by quarterback Connor Halliday who had 533 yards in the air, none the less, a great first win for Rutgers.
Week two brought a feisty Howard team in the first home game against Rutgers, eventually leading to a 38-25 win. This game once again highlighted by Gary Nova who had 282 yards and four touchdowns, while Paul James added one rushing and two receiving touchdowns. A good sign that Nova was getting comfortable with the new offense with much tougher teams to come.
The Big Ten debut came for the Scarlet Knights against Penn State at night in High Point Solutions Stadium. The feeling there was electric as the noise from the crowd never seemed to stop, this was the Big Ten atmosphere Rutgers was looking for. It was a tough game for Rutgers as Nova gave up five interceptions in the game as the rest of the offense struggled as well. The defense did everything they could to keep Rutgers in it, but a late game-winning touchdown by PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg to make it 13-10 brought a hush to the Rutgers crowd. It was a disappointing game for the Scarlet Knights, the chance of getting that first Big Ten win and going 3-0 on the season became a distant dream.
An away game against a tough Navy team helped the Scarlet Knights get back on track with a 31-24 victory. It was a nice bounce back, but it didn’t come without the loss of Rutgers running back Paul James to an ACL injury. This would not be the first time Rutgers has been without James in the backfield, but it put into question how the Knights would fare with the running game for the rest of the season.
A dominant performance for the Rutgers in a 31-6 win against Tulane led them to a 4-1 record. Another showing by Nova who had four touchdowns and one interception in the game, three of those touchdowns going to Carroo with 140 yards as well. In this game, Nova became the all-time leader in passing touchdowns in school history passing Mike Teel.
It was quite a celebration when the Scarlet Knights knocked off Michigan for their firs-ever Big Ten win. (Photo Credit: John Munson | NJ Advance Media)
The yearly blackout game was the scene of Rutgers next Big Ten matchup against Michigan, with possibly even more energy than the Penn State game. It was another back-and-forth battle for the Scarlet Knights through the entire game, forcing the memories of Penn State game out of the fan’s heads. Nova shined in the game with a career-high 404 yards and three touchdowns, along with an amazing blocked field goal by Kemoko Turray, bringing the first Big Ten win to Piscataway. A stunning scene ensued as the students swarmed the field to celebrate the victory. There will be criticism of the team Rutgers played, but history was made and it should be celebrated.
The euphoria of the win did not last long as Rutgers was dealt a crushing blow in its first game at the Horseshoe losing 56-17 to Ohio State. The first game where Rutgers would begin to see some of the growing pains that come with joining the Big Ten. The defense looked baffled by the dual-threat quarterback J.T. Barrett, and the offense struggled against Ohio State’s stout defense. Don’t forget that it is Ohio State who was playing really great football at that point in the season, but there is always a lesson to learn. Rutgers needs to get bigger, that will come with time, but it needs to happen with the new change in conference.
With Nebraska up next, the Scarlet Knights fared better than against Ohio State, yet still fell 42-24. Another game where Rutgers’ defense was put into question allowing Ameer Abdullah’s 341 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. Once again Rutgers facing bigger players than they are accustomed to and the running game not producing since the Paul James injury. Both this game and the one at Ohio State gave Rutgers a look at Big Ten crowds playing in front of over 90,000 in Nebraska, and 100,000 in Columbus.
Then came the infamous homecoming game against Wisconsin, getting blanked 37-0 for their third loss in a row. A cold and rainy day added to the pain Rutgers fans had while watching their team falter on both sides of the ball. The Scarlet Knights, whose defensive line was praised early on in the season, was unable to contain the running game of Heisman hopeful Melvin Gordon who ran for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns.
After a tough losing skid, the Scarlet Knights were able to regain some ground beating Indiana 45-23 to become bowl eligible. This game was a tale of two halves for Rutgers as they came out in the second half to score five touchdowns. A game where Rutgers also saw some production from their young running backs in Josh Hicks and Robert Martin, both combining for four touchdowns on the day.
Heading to East Lansing the next week did not help Rutgers, who go trounced by Michigan State 45-3. Rutgers did not stand a chance against this team, they were outsized and could not make tackles in the open field. Another time where entering a new conference showed the difficulties teams have to deal with.
RU grabbed its seventh and final regular season win in comeback fashion against fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland. (Photo Credit: Nick Wass/Associated Press)
It all came down to a game against Maryland, the other team to join the Big Ten this year. This game was the difference between a 6-6 and a 7-5 season. It was also a game between the little brothers of the Big Ten, a game to prove who was better in the eyes of the big brothers. It did not look good for the Scarlet Knights, looking flat on defense and the offense struggling as well. After going into the half down 35-17 it looked like the games against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, but the first drive of the game for Rutgers showed that this was different. A 71 yard punt return by Janarion Grant gave the Scarlet Knights great field positon and a Martin touchdown three plays later showed that there was still life in the guys in white. Rutgers took a 41-38 lead with 4:45 left in the game after a Kyle Federico field goal. A late fumble by Martin that gave Maryland the ball brought the fear into Rutgers fans that everything could end terribly. But the defense came out and stunned Maryland by stopping them on a fourth and one play to seal the game for Rutgers. History was made that night as Rutgers made the comeback after being down by their largest deficit of 25 points. It was Nova’s last regular season game as a Scarlet Knight and he made the most of it with 347 yards and 4 touchdowns and having three receivers with over 100 yards in the air.
That Maryland game seemed to incorporate all of the ups and downs that Rutgers went through the entire year. In the first half, Rutgers could not stop the run of both the running back and dual threat quarterback, which they had problems with against Nebraska and Ohio State. Then offensively Rutgers could not get a rhythm going, which was seen in the games against Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. Then it got to the second half, and Rutgers showed their perseverance to keep on fighting. Nova came out with an amazing performance, similar to the Indiana and Michigan games, along with the strong defensive play late to help seal it in the end.
What happened in the Maryland game connects to the thoughts that everyone had on the year for Rutgers. The end of the first half was similar to the beginning of the season, not having too many expectations for anything big to happen. The second half evoked the mindset of the fans at the end of the year, amazed at how far and how much this team persevered to get where they are. A 7-5 season and their ninth bowl appearance in 10 years is something neither the fans nor experts could have predicted. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, this team has a lot of questions and concerns to answer before returning next year. If anything, this season may have given people more expectations for next year, but that remains to be seen. But before you start to worry about how the team will do next year, take a step back and appreciate what they did this year. At the end of the day Rutgers made history, proving many of its doubters wrong. They are a long way from where they want to be, but they have taken the first step and that’s all that should matter.