Rutgers suffers first shutout loss since 2002, fourth Homecoming defeat in five years
Amid a dreary, watered-down atmosphere within High Point Solutions Stadium, Kyle Flood went into the Rutgers football team's locker room and saw nothing but desire.
He saw love and passion. He sensed drive and dedication. This was after the Scarlet Knights suffered their third straight Big Ten beat down Saturday — this time a 37-0 shutout to Wisconsin for the program's first scoreless outing since 2002.
To be sure, there was agonizing frustration, but how Rutgers was coping led its third-year head coach to make a bold proclamation.
"That three-game stretch is going to be something we're going to look back on at the end of the year as one of the points in the history of this program that is going to propel us to great things," Flood said. "The reason I feel so confident in saying that is because of the looks in the eyes of that team. There's frustration, but there was never anything but love for each other, and I can't tell you how critical that is and I can't tell you how hard that is."
But few well wishes followed beneath the dark and gloomy Piscataway skies, where Rutgers (5-4, 1-4) dropped its fourth Homecoming game in five years.
As scattered rain poured down and the floodgates on the field wilted, fans booed and left the stadium in droves. The student section, which never had a raucous turnout to begin with, completely emptied early in the fourth quarter, save for a few dozen faithful.
The Knights had no one to blame but themselves.
For the third straight week, they were completely outmatched, out-executed and outclassed in every facet by one of the Big Ten's upper echelon teams.
Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1), even with three consecutive three-and-outs to begin the game, battered through Rutgers' struggling run defense with 298 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. The Badgers finished with 385 total yards and 16 first downs — twice as many as the Knights.
But so much of it came after Wisconsin practically begged Rutgers to shown signs of life early on — signs that never materialized.
With visibly hobbled senior quarterback Gary Nova starting, who was questionable to play throughout the week with a right leg injury, the Knights stuck to largely conservative play-calling that only generated disastrous outcomes.
Six of Rutgers' nine drives with Nova under center went three-out-out — another produced a turnover on second down — before redshirt freshman Chris Laviano took over once the score ballooned to 30-0 in the third quarter.
"It's been the same repeating kind of thing these past three weeks," said Nova, who passed 5-of-15 for 46 yards with an interception. "The margin of error is so small with teams like this, and when you make mistakes, they tend to hop on those mistakes and make plays. Credit to them, they have a great defense, but we made a lot of mistakes today that we need to clean up."
Exactly what those mistakes are is something few within the program can pinpoint right now.
Effort and energy are never the issue, the Knights insist. Neither is the level of talent and physicality of the Big Ten's elite teams.
Rutgers swears it is learning and improving from these types of losses, but the defeats are only trending downward. Season lows of 139 yards and eight first downs against Wisconsin are proof.
"When you have a day offensively like we did, we're going to look at that film and we're going to see a lot of reasons [for the struggles]," Flood said. "It starts up front, there's no doubt. It always starts up front, but I think there's going to be more than enough responsibility to go around."
Flood said he made the decision to start Nova after watching him in pregame warm-ups. He received medical clearance Friday on Nova's availability, and never thought of pulling from the game at halftime.
That was until midway through the third quarter, when Flood felt the offensive line wasn't blocking well enough.
It is a recurring theme for Rutgers' reeling front, which has allowed nine sacks the last three games after surrendering eight total in the first six contests. Even after preparing all week for the various pressures of Wisconsin's 3-4 front seven, three more sacks surfaced.
"We didn't do a good enough job of blocking them," said junior left tackle Keith Lumpkin. "I specifically take credit for myself. I didn't do a good enough job blocking for [Nova]. We've just got to take this bye week and get better."
Nova said his knee felt fine afterward, despite hobbling on rollouts in the pocket and wearing tape around his ankle. Mobility-wise, he claimed there wasn't anything he couldn't do.
The Knights will need that to be the case as bowl eligibility for this team possibly hinges on Nov. 15's home meeting with Indiana. After that, Rutgers closes its regular season on the road at Michigan State and Maryland.
Flood, after emerging from the locker room to the podium inside the Hale Center postgame, stayed positive.
"I've been a part of teams that when frustration sets in, you see the bickering and the arguing, players turning on players," Flood said. "We're fortunate; we don't have any of that right now. What we have is a group of guys that are really, really desiring to be better."
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