Rutgers focuses on fixing defense for No. 16 Michigan
Rutgers focuses on fixing defense for No. 16
Dropping two straight out of its past three games, the Rutgers football team made history for the wrong reasons during that stretch.
With 52 points surrendered at Indiana, 49 yielded against No. 1 Ohio State and 48 relinquished at Wisconsin, the Scarlet Knights (3-5, 1-4) have given up at least 45 points or more in three consecutive contests for the first time in the program’s 146-year history.
To one of the newest members of the units young secondary group, that nugget is enough to drive the defense insane.
“It just messes with the head because you feel like you’re around the ball, and then you seek out and then you just look up and it’s just 40, 50 yards down the field,” said redshirt-freshman Kiy Hester. “It just gets to you a little bit, but you’ve gotta strap up, get ready for it and come back for the next play and the next series.”
The strong safety is just one of the Knights forced to grow up fast in an inexperienced secondary. Starting in place of junior Davon Jacobs, who has now been out for the past two weeks against the Buckeyes and at the Badgers with an upper body injury and remains out for Saturday’s upcoming Big Ten matchup at Michigan, the lineup of powerhouse programs hasn’t been kind to Hester and Rutgers.
Despite his touchdown-saving interception in the back of the end zone where he tiptoed his feet inbounds against then-No. 4 Michigan State, Hester and the secondary weren’t able to do enough to keep Connor Cook from carving his way to 367 yards and two touchdowns.
The Spartans eventually outlasted the Knights 31-24, in the primetime game at High Point Solutions Stadium on Oct. 10.
Then, before two interceptions fueled a few defensive stands for the eventual comeback win at the Hoosiers, Nate Sudfeld racked up 464 yards and four scores on 76.2 percent passing.
It didn’t get easier when JT Barrett completed 77.7 percent of his passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns to zero interceptions for OSU.
And most recently in Madison, the latest blow came when Joel Stave fired a 4th-and-7 strike from 31 yards out to Alex Erickson on a day where the senior quarterback made plays to complement a powerful running game in the Knights’ last blowout loss.
But the most head-scratching statistic that stands out from a stretch where opposing offenses have gashed Rutgers for a walloping 49.67 points per game centers on the unit’s opportunistic four picks in the past three times out.
“The main thing is just all 11 guys swarming to the ball and everyone doing their jobs and just finishing,” Hester said. “That’s what the coaches have been stressing to us — finishing and backside pursuit and just everyone getting to the ball.”
Another angle to the problems on defense may derive from where each and every play begins along the line of scrimmage.
Head coach Kyle Flood addressed the lack of a pass rush, suggesting opposing quarterbacks have had far too much time in the pocket to get into a rhythm and make throws down the field.
“(Increasing the pass rush is) something we're focused on, and every week we're trying to find out the matchups and attack the schemes how we can to make sure we get to the quarterback,” Flood said. “… You don't want it to be all pressure because if it's all pressure every time and it's man coverage, the other team's got good players, too. It's going to make it very tough on those corners.”
As a whole, the Knights’ defense ranks 111th out of 127 teams in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, surrendering 454.8 yards per game. Their scoring defense isn’t too far off, giving up 34 points per game at 100th in the nation.
But one surprising slide that could be telling to those two nuggets is the fall of the run defense.
Entering the week of OSU, Rutgers stood at 30th in the country against the run. But two weeks later, after facing the likes of Barrett, Ezekiel Elliott and Corey Clement against Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Knights’ unit fell to 55th at 155.9 yards per game on the ground.
Regardless of where the actual problem resides, Julian Pinnix-Odrick said all aspects are correctable elements if Rutgers simply executes its individual assignments by the position.
“When you look at the tape, it’s just little things. It’s not like we’re out there getting pushed around, but it’s little stuff, and so I think the little things are what makes a difference in a football game and are extremely important, and they’re enough to psych you out,” the junior defensive tackle said. “But at the same time, when you fix those and correct those, I mean, we can play good defense.”
From the days of a defensive-minded Greg Schiano to a nationally-ranked unit led by former defensive coordinator Robb Smith just three years ago in 2012, a unit known for its ballhawks and swarming schemes was once a prominent brand of football on the Banks.
The latest stretch questions whether or not any of that pride may return anytime soon, but one of its current leaders remains confident in the ability to make necessary corrections before the season entirely snowballs out of control.
"Momentum is real in football. But at the same time, we come back in every Monday, every week and so I don't think it's gonna have a snowball effect," Pinnix-Odrick said. "... You wanna see what's similar and what we have to get better at and then, at the same time, what are we doing well. And this week, it's gonna be details."
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