Bye week allows Knights to start anew heading into Illinois bout
Fourteen days separate the Rutgers football team's last game from its next, and still the stench of a 56-0 loss to Ohio State at home wafts in and out of the Hale Center, as the team tosses over its options heading out of the bye week.
It could not have come at a more opportune time — injuries have hampered all phases of the game, and the offense found itself two Saturdays ago anemically attempting to gain any leverage on a stout Buckeye defense.
Nine days removed from arguably the worst loss of the season (yet), the Scarlet Knights find themselves even worse off than last year — at least in the win-loss column — and questions pervade the air as to how the team will respond on Saturday.
Its approach to the bye week should at least provide some indication.
"We spent a lot of time as a staff going back through and doing a self-scout study on ourselves," said head coach Chris Ash. "We do it each week, but never enough time to do it during the season and we use that bye week to go back through and really take a hard look at all three phases and look at what we've done well, what we haven't done well, and try to identify the reasons for that."
It was a "spring ball approach," Ash said, and the team is better off from having a week to reflect on what exactly went wrong at High Point Solutions Stadium that night.
As all things in football go, one of the first questions centers around the quarterback.
With graduate transfer Kyle Bolin failing to give his offense any spark with a 5-14 line amounting to a measly 56 yards against the Buckeyes, it was up to backup freshman Johnathan Lewis to pick up the pieces.
Instead, Lewis threw two interceptions that sapped some confidence in his ability to throw the ball at least for his first season.
The bye week was supposed to solve that.
"We opened the quarterback position up during the bye week," Ash said. "There has not been a final decision yet on whether Kyle will continue to start. Kyle's still in the mix. A lot of it is not necessarily about the quarterback, it's about the surrounding pieces."
Those surrounding pieces include a banged up offensive line — amplified by the loss of sophomore right guard/center Jonah Jackson — and a receiving core that recorded zero receptions against Ohio State. The unit loses two players in sophomores Jawuan Harris and Rashad Blunt to the defensive back position, perhaps the most affected by the recent string of games.
With Blessuan Austin ruled out for the season with a torn ACL in the loss to Nebraska and Saquan Hampton out indefinitely after suffering a shoulder injury versus Ohio State, Kiy Hester — who has been hurt himself — and Isaiah Wharton remain the only two starters in the secondary.
With players shifting positions and second-string guys seeing time with starters, there is an unfamiliarity among the unit that could be exploited in upcoming games.
"We haven't played a full game with the new guys yet, so we don't know how teams are gonna attack us," Wharton said. "But we will prepare for that and make sure everybody's ready."
That first full game waits just a few days away, as Rutgers will make its way to Champaign to take on an Illinois side that has seen plenty of its own struggles as well.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the Knights is the Illini's 28-6 loss to Nebraska at home — on the road in Lincoln, Rutgers hung on until the final stretch only to be beaten by the Huskers 27-17 .
Though talk constantly floats around about winnable games for the Knights — Nebraska being one of them — Illinois is a must-win by all standards. There's a certain faith that needs to be restored in this Rutgers side, and stealing a victory off of another Big Ten team will at least somewhat make up for a first half of a season filled with missed opportunities.
Maybe the bye week helps.
"Coming out of the bye week, I feel like we're in pretty good shape mentally and physically right now other than a couple spots," Ash said. "But I like where we're at and excited to get back and play again."
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