Rutgers playing with confidence as it heads to Nebraska for Big Ten opener
To put it lightly, the Rutgers football team was not very good in Big Ten play a year ago. The Scarlet Knights were 0-9 and were outscored by an average of 30 points per game.
They have a chance to put that in the rearview when they open up conference play at Nebraska on Saturday afternoon in Lincoln.
Rutgers (1-2) is coming off a 65-0 blowout victory over Morgan State while the Huskers (1-2) were just upset at home by Northern Illinois.
Despite the recent results, Nebraska is at the advantage, playing at home in Memorial Stadium, one of the most well-known college football venues in the nation and one that holds 90,000 fans and is always sold out above capacity.
"It's going to be a tough challenge to go into a hostile environment like it is in Lincoln and has been for so many years," said head coach Chris Ash.
The Knights have played in Lincoln before, in a 42-24 defeat back in 2014, their first season in the Big Ten.
Graduate transfer quarterback Kyle Bolin has plenty of experience in raucous environments from his days at Louisville and is no stranger to the big stage. He threw for 381 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 2014 season finale and went on to throw for 300 yards in the Cardinals' bowl game against Georgia.
Offensive coordinator Jerry Kill noted that his experience is invaluable and will be key in the Rutgers offense being able to move the ball up and down the field.
"I think (Bolin's experience is) very important," Kill said in his weekly press conference Monday. "He's gone in and played in front of big crowds and I think that helps our team. It really does."
With the youth that the Knights have on offense, it will take any bit of experience it can. Senior running backs Robert Martin and Josh Hicks both played at Nebraska in 2014, while graduate transfer Gus Edwards, despite playing the ACC at Miami, played in Nebraska as well in 2014 with the Hurricanes.
Running back coach Lester Erb cited their experience as a plus and does not expect them to approach the game any different.
"They've been in big games, they've been in loud stadiums," Erb said. "For them it's just going to be business as usual."
While the assistants praised the experience of their groups, Ash is focused on the opponent at hand. The Huskers' defense is unique, as they tend to only rush three players — as opposed to the normal four — and drop eight players into coverage.
Junior offensive lineman Tariq Cole and tight end Jerome Washington both said on Monday that the Nebraska defensive scheme was one that neither of them had seen before, taking into account teams from both the Big Ten and ACC.
As for the Husker quarterback situation, it will be a familiar face for Rutgers, as junior Tanner Lee started for Tulane back when the Knights hosted the Green Wave in 2014. Lee went out with a shoulder injury in the first half, throwing for just 81 yards. Rutgers would go on to win that game in dominating fashion, 31-6.
But Lee is a different player now with a more complete offense and Ash is aware.
"Offensively they can run the ball. Obviously Tanner Lee can throw the ball around pretty good," Ash said." They have a unique style on defense that's different than what we've seen and probably will see the whole year, and they are good on special teams. They returned a kickoff for a touchdown and they do a pretty good job on their special teams unit, too."
Even if Nebraska is in a rut, it is a big name team that serves as another good measuring stick for the Knights.
It is the conference opener for both teams and Rutgers will be looking for its first conference win since it beat Indiana in October 2015.
"First Big Ten game for them, first Big Ten game for us," Ash said. "They will be ready to play a great game. We have to do the same and that's really what it's all about."