Rutgers run defense ranks in bottom of Big Ten
Of all the questions that faced the Rutgers football team's defense entering its first season under the guidance of head coach Chris Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann — from the insertion three inexperienced linebackers into the starting lineup and the unknown growth of cornerbacks that received baptism by fire the year prior — the Scarlet Knights seemed to have one constant answer since they began camp back in the spring — the defensive line was going to be the strength of the team.
With former Third Team All-Big Ten defensive tackle Darius Hamilton returning from injury, senior Julian Pinnix-Odrick moving back outside and the steady presences of senior end Quanzell Lambert (who has since suffered a season-ending injury) and junior tackle Sebastian Joseph, the Knights' projected front four boasted talent, experience and production.
But two-thirds of the way through the 2016 season, that defensive line, in addition to the underclassman-dominant position groups behind them, has had their fair share of troubles against the run.
Rutgers currently sits in the basement of the Big Ten in run defense, being gashed for 261.1 yards on the ground per game. The Knights are also giving up the second most yards per carry in the conference at 5.7, trailing only Purdue (5.8).
In Big Ten play alone, opposing conference foes are averaging a gaudy 311 yards per game on 6.4 yards per carry, highlighted by the 481 and 410 rushing yards Michigan and Ohio State amassed, respectively.
Of the 351 plays Rutgers' defense has faced in conference play, over 69 percent of them have been rushes. The Knights' 108 passes defended and 157.6 passing yards allowed are good for the lowest and second lowest in the Big Ten, respectively.
Teams simply haven't had to throw the ball against Rutgers because of the high success they've had on the ground.
Save for Rutgers' two blowout losses against the Buckeyes and Wolverines, the Knights' efforts against the run haven't been all doom and gloom, but rather inconsistent.
Against Illinois Oct. 15, Rutgers held the Illini to 95 yards on 21 attempts in the first half, but then allowed 133 yards on 22 attempts in the latter half of a 24-7 loss.
In the Knights' most recent game, a 34-32 road loss to Minnesota Oct. 23, they were blitzed for 119 yards on 17 carries in the first half, as the Golden Gophers scored three touchdowns.
"In the first half I was disappointed, and then I thought the line of scrimmage's were moving in the wrong direction," Niemann said after Rutgers' loss to Minnesota. "We addressed that and I think we got our pads down and played better. Didn't seem like it was a great second half and then I looked at the statistics and saw we only gave up two field goals."
As Niemann noted, the Knights' run defense did put on a stronger showing in the second half. Minnesota pounded the ball even more, rushing 36 times in the latter half but only netting 124 yards (3.4 yards per carry). Rutgers was able to hold the Gophers to 6 offensive points in the second.
But while it was a positive sign the Knights grew stronger in the run game as the game wore on, they know they have to start to piece full games together to avoid teams from putting up consecutive scores.
"I talked to a couple of the guys and I think it's just a point of trying to get settled," said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton after the loss to Minnesota. "But what I've tried to explain to some of the guys I was talking to is: Settling in is one thing, but 21-0 trying to settle in is almost impossible to try and ask an offense to dig out of a hole like that. We just gotta find a way to settle in faster. If we give up seven trying to settle I'm not gonna be upset about it. But 21-0, that's a huge hole to dig yourself up out of."
Rutgers will be looking to halt its struggles against the run this Saturday, when Indiana (4-4, 2-3) pays a visit to High Point Solutions Stadium.
The Hoosiers are averaging 168.2 yards on 4.4 yards per carry across five conference games and are engineered by Devine Redding, who has 720 yards on 4.8 yards per carry this season.
In Indiana's 42-36 win over Maryland last weekend, the Hoosiers raced for 414 yards across 7.3 yards per carry and six touchdowns.
But the Knights are hoping the combination of the bye week and fixing their mistakes can produce a complete game of stout play against the run.
"(Having a week off) can help you allow yourself to be more physical. If you're healed up hopefully you've got a little more pop on all your collisions and those types of things," Niemann said. "But you also have the aspect of just going out there and being able to practice and rep certain things that may be problematic that you're trying to get fixed. Both of those things together will hopefully make for a better showing for us on Saturday and run defense."