Rutgers drops winnable Big Ten opener on road to Nebraska, 27-17
LINCOLN, Neb. -- It was the most winnable of the "unwinnable" games for the Rutgers football team.
And yet, despite a promising first half, the team bruised itself with missed tackles, dropped passes and careless penalties.
So many of each took the game out of their hands late, as the Scarlet Knights (1-3, 0-1) fell to the Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-2, 1-0), 27-17, in their Big Ten opener and first road matchup of the season.
After an upset at the hands of Northern Illinois and an athletic director firing, the Huskers were vulnerable to a Rutgers win, especially after its thrashing of Eastern Michigan last week, 65-0.
For at least a few minutes, it seemed like the Knights entered Lincoln poised to do just that.
Graduate transfer Kyle Bolin looked more in tact mentally and physically than he has all season in the first half. From the first drive — which like against Washington turned out to be Rutgers' best of the game — Bolin exuded confidence with downfield passes up the middle and first-down completions to graduate transfer Ahmir Mitchell, sophomore Dacoven Bailey, freshman Hunter Hayek and junior tight end Jerome Washington.
Bolin's success did not last though, as he struggled mightily in the second half, throwing a key interception that eventually turned into a Nebraska touchdown to take the lead. He generally looked off later on, turning the wrong way on running plays and throwing the ball away on salvageable plays.
"It's hard to win a football game when we have less than 200 yards of total offense," Bolin said. "And that's not putting the blame on anybody. Nebraska's a big physical defense, and the schemes that they ran today were different than the schemes that we had been preparing for."
Aside from a poor second half for the offense — not just Bolin — another crutch that tore at the Knights were its missed tackles. It has been an issue beyond Saturday's game, but the inability to tackle allowed Nebraska to gain integral yards
But one of Rutgers' greatest crutches Saturday — as it has been for seasons in Piscataway — was its inability to tackle, period. On multiple occasions Nebraska's running backs found themselves the beneficiaries of a few extra yards off of missed tackles by the Knights' rush defense.
The Huskers' running game vastly outplayed the defense before it, amassing 197 total yards compared to Rutgers' 68.
Heading the unit was junior Devine Ozigbo, who collected his career highs in rushing attempts and yards with 24 and 101 respectively.
The defensive backs had similar troubles with loose tackles, and the Huskers charged ahead thanks to both a lack of timing and conviction on the part of the visitors.
"We gotta tackle better as a whole as a defense," said junior safety Saquan Hampton. "We can't miss tackles in critical situations and make critical penalties in critical situations."
But the most egregious of examples for Rutgers was late in the first half, as two players missing tackles on a punt gave De'Mornay Pierson-El a 63-yard return. Just the next play, running back Mikale Wilbon burst up the middle with a four-yard touchdown giving Nebraska the edge before the half.
The secondary, despite missing tackles here and there throughout the game, pounced on quarterback Tanner Lee's mistakes, as junior cornerback Blessuan Austin and junior safety Kiy Hester nabbed interceptions, with the latter taking it to the house on a 33-yard pick-six.
Those interceptions marked Lee's eighth and ninth interceptions so far this season.
Aside from a few tackling errors here and there, the secondary proved one of the strongest units throughout the day for the Knights in a game that amplified depth issues in a few areas, including the defensive line.
Whether it was fatigue or lapses in judgment that did Rutgers in, the cliché stands: the Knights beat themselves. On the road at Memorial Stadium in front of 89,775 people, Rutgers had its first conference win since 2015 in reach, but errors took form.
It is a theme consistent with most of the Knights' games this season — mental errors amid two monumentally differing halves.
"Bottom line is we just made too many mistakes to win the football game on the road," said head coach Chris Ash. "We struggled to stop the run especially in the second half, we wore out up front. Anytime that they can run the ball and we can't run the ball, it's gonna be tough to win football games."
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