March 20, 2019 | 28° F

Rutgers battles with wear and tear, depth issues in between, within games

Photo by Jeffrey Gomez |

Football is as physical as it is mental, and sometimes those two are not mutually exclusive.

The clock reads 60 minutes, but it is essentially a three-hour affair of game action, position setting, playcalling and timeouts — of which there are often way too many of the media variety.

After practices throughout the week, a battle on Saturday will take its toll on any player, college or professional, but of course, it affects some more than others.

That is never more evident than when injuries hamper the depth of some teams, which is a problem the Rutgers football team has been dealing with on certain units this season, especially in its 27-17 loss to Nebraska on the road last weekend.

"(In the) second half we wore out, just a lack of depth up front on the (defensive) line started to show up there in the third quarter," said head coach Chris Ash.

That lack of depth is partly responsible for the Scarlet Knights' inability to stop the run in the second half Saturday, as the Huskers' running backs Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon rushed for 105 and 79 yards respectively. The team outran Rutgers, 206 to 88, all without its usual starter in Tre Bryant, a fact that should pose major worry squaring up against freshman J.K. Dobbins and run-happy quarterback J.T. Barrett against Ohio State this Saturday.

But the issue does not stop with the defensive line.

If it did, Rutgers' offensive line may have pushed through meaningful 3rd-and-1s and 4th-and-1s late in the contest to move the team upfield — that did not happen.

Where the defensive line has struggled through physical wear and tear brought on by a lack of range at the unit, the offensive line has been subject to its own mistakes, a clear sign of mental fatigue through the Saturday afternoon endurance test that is a football game.

"In both the Washington game and in the Nebraska game, when I felt like we did wear down a little bit — it was really the latter part of the third quarter that that happened in both games," Ash said. "But in the Nebraska game, after you watch the film, it wasn't so much wearing down as it was more of the self-inflicted issues like I just mentioned offensively."

Those self-inflicted mistakes involved a host of needless penalties that resulted in a 97-yard touchdown drive in which penalties extended the possession three times on third down.

Besides some questionable playcalling late in the game — it was the difference between just another loss and the Knights' first Big Ten win in two years, its last coming in the 55-52 win over Indiana on the road back in 2015.

It is fatigue, wear and tear and mental mistakes like those that manifest themselves physically — not just on the offense and defense, but on the special teams as well.

The Rutgers defense and special teams unit were guilty of having slippery hands Saturday, allowing players like Ozigbo and assorted receivers gain valuable yardage up the field.

The most criminal of these examples came at the tail end of the second quarter, when two members of the special teams unit missed clear tackles on Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El, leading to a 63-yard punt return and allowing the Huskers to score a touchdown on the ensuing play.

On all three phases of the game, the Knights find themselves vulnerable to wear and tear both between and within games. With that, the question of whether Rutgers can at least mentally keep with Ohio State this Saturday remains to be answered.

As Ash alluded to in his press conference on Monday, self-inflicted mistakes have been a running narrative throughout the still young 2017 campaign. It is obviously an issue that plagues every side, but it is especially damaging to a Knights team that cannot afford the crutch of mental errors and injuries.

"It's a concern. There's no doubt about it. It's been a concern," Ash said. "We felt like going into the year that if we could stay healthy like we did last year that we would be fine if we got an injury. We're on pretty thin ice and that's where we're at."

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @jon_spilletti and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Jon Spilletti

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