Rutgers' offense takes step back in loss to Indiana
The Rutgers football team's offense seemed to have turned a corner.
The insertion of sophomore Giovanni Rescigno in favor of junior Chris Laviano at the quarterback position propelled the Scarlet Knights to not only break out of their offensive rut, but to have their strongest and most balanced performance of the season in a 34-32 loss against Minnesota.
With a true dual-threat weapon at the quarterback position the team's spread offense opened up as they threw for 222 yards and rushed for 150 on 4.2 yards per carry, while scoring 26 offensive points on the heels of a combined 14 points in their first four conference games.
But when Rutgers returned from its bi-week against Indiana on Saturday, the Knights' offense reverted back to square one.
Making his second career start, Rescigno posted a Rutgers' season-high in passing yards with 258 (with 68 of them coming early in the first quarter on a touchdown to senior wide receiver Andre Patton), but did so completing just over 52 percent of his attempts. The Knights were even less effective on the ground, rushing for just 93 yards across 34 attempts.
Most notably, Rutgers was a measly 1-for-16 on third downs, tallying 13 first downs and reaching the red zone four times in their 33-27 loss to the Hoosiers.
"First half I thought we moved the ball well, not great, but I thought we moved it well," said head football coach Chris Ash. "Third quarter we really struggled. We had seven straight three-and-outs there in the second half and didn't use much time off the clock, and kept going back out on the field on defense. ... It's just a little discouraging based on what we had done at Minnesota to come back and not to build on that and to continue to improve on that performance."
The most alarming offensive inefficiency to come out of team's loss to Indiana was the Knights' porous performance on third down. Rutgers didn't convert a third down until its first drive of the second half when Rescigno scored on a third-down rush from the goal line.
Before Rescigno's touchdown, the Knights were zero for their first seven attempts on third down and following the touchdown they failed to convert on their final eight tries. Rescingo and company also tallied 11 three-and-outs, which included a string of seven consecutive three-play drives in the second half.
Diving even deeper, on the 15 drives where Rutgers failed to convert on third down the average distance it needed to gain for a fresh set of downs was 9.6 yards.
That means the Knights gained an average total of just .4 yards on its two play preceding the critical third downs.
"There's things that we have to clean up that we talked about the other day, 1-of-16 on third downs isn't gonna get it done," Rescigno said. "We have to do better on first and second down, not to get into third-and-long situations where our percentage of getting that third down is down a lot."
One of the main contributing factors to Rutgers' inability to create more manageable third downs, and subsequently extend drives, was its struggle in the running game. After putting together two consecutive four-plus yard per carry performances, the Knights gained just 2.7 yards per attempt against Indiana.
With junior running back Robert Martin still working his way back to being 100 percent, senior Justin Goodwin continued to play the role of Rutgers' lead back, taking 19 of its 23 rushes from the running back position.
Goodwin had a strong first half, rushing five times for 46 yards, but, as with the Knights' entire rushing attack, saw his production sharply dip in the second half.
He recorded 14 carries in the latter half and gained 44 yards as Rutgers, as a team, netted 30 yards overall on 17 second-half rushes.
Those struggles in the running game, especially on early downs, forced the team into obvious passing downs on third-and-longs, allowing the Hoosiers to play for the pass and drop more defenders into coverage.
But the discrepancies between the Knights' success in the running game in each half doesn't completely fall on the play of the tailbacks.
If Rutgers is going to turn around its troubles on the ground, and in turn extend more drives, it's going to have to start with getting a more consistent performance out of its offensive line.
"If we're gonna be a line of scrimmage football team the five guys up front gotta play really well," said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. "When we get pressures identified, we see them, we make the right calls—good things happen. When we don't, for any football team, you're not gonna have much of a chance. For all (the running backs) they're gonna get all the credit when the rushing yards (and) touchdowns happen. But I think for our guys up front, those are the ones that deserve the credit when it happens and those are the guys we're generally hard on when it doesn't."