Rutgers must battle complacency, mental errors in Eastern Michigan matchup
The Rutgers football team chipped away at its year-to-year deficit in the Washington fixture last week, scraping off 19 points from the 2016 season opener.
To begin 2017, the team fended off the Huskies for much of the first half only for the visitors at High Point Solutions Stadium to take control and put the home side behind.
The scoreline came to a halt at 30-14 in favor of Washington. When compared to a 48-13 blight on the schedule last season, there is no doubt that improvements are abound across the board. The coaches have said so throughout the summer, and the players are buying into — and in many ways, affirming — those sentiments.
But complacency is fickle and self-defeating, and the Scarlet Knights (0-1) will put their mental fortitude to the test against Eastern Michigan this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at High Point Solutions Stadium.
In a week across the country where upsets by non-power five teams and even Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams were plentiful — ask Baylor — head coach Chris Ash's players are going to need to be in excellent shape mentally. In fact, mental errors have been a strong point of emphasis and improvement over the week after Rutgers' loss to Washington.
"The number one thing is just mental errors," Ash said. "That's what cost us in the (Washington) game, we just had too many in all three phases. We need to clean that up."
And there is a base for complacency in the Knights' recent past. Though the first half proved moot as the game came to an end, Rutgers found itself behind Howard through the first quarter at this point last season. The team was caught wildly off guard by a Howard squad that should have been put away with in the early going, but it took a 14-0 deficit five minutes in to set the Knights off.
But of course, not all of it can be chalked up to mental strength, or lack thereof, as Rutgers has shown through its first game that it is mounds better physically from last year.
One of those bright spots is its running game, which sports as much versatility as it does skill.
Leading the charge is graduate transfer Gus Edwards, who rushed for 79 yards on 24 attempts last Friday, as fellow graduate transfer Kyle Bolin found himself turning to his backfield in various high-leverage situations.
Edwards is backed by senior Robert Martin and freshman Raheem Blackshear, who got their fair share of playing time, with Martin outgaining both Edwards and Blackshear in yards-per-carry.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line, despite losing much of its starting core following last season, put ample pressure on Washington quarterback Jake Browning throughout the game.
Fifth-year senior defensive end Darnell Davis made the most of his good play, leveling Browning with a sack that made the rounds on social media in the days following.
This week, Rutgers has quarterback Brogan Roback to focus on, as he threw for 267 yards on a 22-31 line in Eastern Michigan's 24-7 win over Charlotte in week one.
"I've been impressed with him. He's a big guy, he's strong, he runs well, he throws the ball accurately," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "He's a playmaker. He's definitely what makes their offense tick."
The Knights will line up against an unfamiliar Eagles squad from the Mid-American Conference (MAC), a conference very familiar to a major figure on the Rutgers coaching staff: offensive coordinator Jerry Kill.
Kill coached for Northern Illinois from 2008 to 2010, and he understands firsthand just how important a game against a Big Ten team is for a non-power five team like Eastern Michigan.
"Eastern Michigan will come in here, and this will be one of their bowl games," he said, owing to the Eagles' extra motivation to come into Piscataway and make a statement against a Big Ten team.
It all trails back to questions of mental strength that will certainly play out Saturday afternoon. If the Knights find themselves complacent as many teams tend to be in the early season, it could all fly in their faces due to a "bowl-game mentality" from Eastern Michigan.
Kill ties all of that into a fairly simple mantra ahead of Saturday's game.
"Our kids are gonna have to be ready," Kill said.