Physical, mental presence needed for Rutgers to take down Morgan State
To put it simply, last week was not pretty.
Staying behind or drawn with a Mid-American Conference (MAC) team like Eastern Michigan for virtually the entire game — save six minutes in the third quarter — is not a good or even serviceable look for a team from the Big Ten.
As expressed throughout the week time and time again, no team wants to be on the receiving end of an early-season upset, especially if that team has had trouble knocking doubters from within its own fanbase for quite some time.
That would be the Rutgers football team.
As the Scarlet Knights (0-2) get set for a Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m.) battle against Morgan State (0-2) at High Point Solutions Stadium, few things remain abundantly clear.
Chief among them is the fact that fluke or not, Rutgers needs to get better. Every coach on the staff and every player on the sidelines will agree. Eastern Michigan did not simply beat a Knights squad that was off its game. The Eagles beat Rutgers because they were better, plain and simple, on Saturday, and acknowledging that has been an integral element of the week leading up to the Knights' fight against the Bears.
"After (Sunday's) practice, I feel just as positive about this football team right now today as I did before we started because of the response that I saw from these players," said head coach Chris Ash. "They are upset — they are disappointed. They went out and had a very focused practice yesterday. Flushed that out of our system and we've moved our focus on to the next opportunity to go out and play and get better."
That next opportunity is the Morgan State Bears, who have stumbled their way through their first two games — amassing a whopping total of 0 points in losses to Towson and Albany.
With that, it would almost seem that anything less than a shutout for Rutgers would be a disappointment.
But even before the Knights start thinking about "how much," it's necessary to think about "if." While a win against Morgan State would seem like a foregone conclusion, the same could have been said about Eastern Michigan.
Coaches always warn against complacency when coming up against lesser teams, and due to Rutgers' loss last week — of which much could be chalked up to complacency — it will be at the forefront of the players' minds heading into Saturday.
While mental obstacles are only half of the fight, the players know that in order to win — as simple as this sounds — they need to have a winner's mentality. Losing 11 games in a row can debilitate any side psychologically and there needs to be some confidence within the team that it can pull out wins despite below-average circumstances.
"We need to believe that we can win. …(2016) wasn't a very successful year," said graduate transfer quarterback Kyle Bolin. "A lot of these guys haven’t tasted a win in a while. ... Once we get that mindset we're going to be very good."
But of course, that other half is physical.
That half did not show up last Saturday. With the offensive line having trouble protecting the backfield, Bolin failing to string together passes until late and throwing critical interceptions and the secondary being outran by a majority of Eastern Michigan's receivers, the entire team from unit to unit struggled mightily against the Eagles. While there were a few bright spots — fifth-year senior wide receiver Janarion Grant and the running game — the Knights were unable to find its footing against an inferior Eastern Michigan side.
Lacking both physically and mentally, Morgan State comes to focus. Many of the coaches have praised their players throughout the week in practice, citing their spirit and maturity in bouncing back from Saturday's defeat.
"Energy," offensive line coach and assistant head coach AJ Blazek said, on Tuesday's strong practice. "Our guys were flying around. They come get their work in, do it right, that’s part of the maturing process."
Saturday's matchup against Morgan State will be a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B for Rutgers. The physical and mental sides of the game cannot be substituted for each other, and it takes practices like those this week to have both come Saturday.
"We just gotta continue to lessen the mistakes," Grant said. "Come out here and practice hard each and every day and just believe in each other."