Rutgers host Illinois on Homecoming to kick-off second half of season
The Rutgers football team is halfway through its first regular season under head coach Chris Ash, where the results have been far from optimal.
The Scarlet Knights are 2-4 through six games, having been outscored 287-62 in the process of facing 3 of the top 5 teams in the nation throughout the stretch.
The worst has come in the Knights’ two most recent games at No. 2 Ohio State and at home against No. 4 Michigan, where they completed just five passes and gained 155 total yards en route to losing both games by a combined 156-0.
Things can really only go up from here.
“I told the players, sometimes in life you hit rock bottom before you bounce up and go swinging and go in the right direction,” Ash told reporters in his post-practice availability Thursday. “We can’t deny, I mean, we hit rock bottom last weekend.”
Rutgers’ first opportunity to dig itself out of the basement of the Big Ten comes on Homecoming against a fellow conference bottom-dweller in the opposite division in Illinois.
The Fighting Illini (1-4, 0-2) hobble into Piscataway on a four-game losing skid after winning their season opener against FCS program Murray State, the latest setback coming in the form of a 34-31 overtime loss to Big Ten West division rivals Purdue.
Starting quarterback Wes Lunt’s status for Saturday is still unknown after he left the game against the Boilermakers early in the second quarter with a back injury, so the Knights have been forced to prepare for both him and backup quarterback Chayce Crouce.
Crouce, who has taken snaps in three games this season, presents a more mobile, dual-threat skillset than the traditional, drop-back pro-style skillset Lunt has used to earn projections as an NFL prospect.
“It definitely affects (our preparation),” said defensive backs coach Bill Busch on the quarterback uncertainty. “(Crouce) can throw it too. He’s a quarterback that can run the ball extremely well, his size and speed, he plays really hard. They’re a little bit different offensively with what they can do because of the true quarterback run game that he has and the ability to scramble, so for both parts right there, it does make it difficult and it makes it difficult for one reason — they’re both really good.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Illini present a front seven ranked 16th in the nation and fourth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss per game with 8.2.
The offensive line playing across from them is coming off its worst game of the season against the Wolverines, giving up 13 tackles for loss, four sacks, five quarterback hurries and countless throws forced out-of-bounds to avoid any of the above in the 78-0 loss.
Starting left tackle Tariq Cole didn’t participate last Saturday, but he participating in the only practice open to the media this week Tuesday, albeit wearing a green practice jersey indicating he’s limited. His return would be a boost to a unit offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer said had most of its players “living in their own world.”
“There wasn’t very much communication going on in there. You saw people trying to survive. And we’re not gonna be successful trying to do that,” he said. “We have to keep our heads up, we have to keep our eyes up, we have to communicate. Any offense in the country, regardless of what you do, if there’s a lack of communication, there’s a lack of vision of what’s going on up front with the defensive pressures, you’re not gonna have any chance for success.”
After getting smacked in the mouth — a phrase Rutgers coaches have used to describe its losses to No. 5 Washington, the Buckeyes and Michigan — the Knights will need to be as concentrated as they can in order to reverse the spell of games that’s gotten national media attention on them for all the wrong reasons.
The first half of the season is over and gone with it is a group of teams Rutgers has lost to that have gone a combined 21-2. In comes the second half of the season in which the Knights six opponents are a combined 17-14.
If there was ever a time for the Knights to salvage its season and its disappointing start, the final stretch of six games is the time to do it.
“You look at the rest of the season, we're excited to get the second half started, and it starts with a game here against Illinois,” Ash said in his weekly press conference Monday. “They've got great players, but we're focused on the second half and getting ready to prepare for an Illinois football team that's coming in and very similar to us ... It's a 1-4 football team, but one that I think keeps getting better as you go through the season. And they'll come here ready to play and try to get a victory just like what we want to.”