Rutgers running backs remain strongest offensive threat going into Purdue matchup
As a general rule in football, more is good.
No team is going to complain about more touchdowns. No team is going to complain about having four capable running backs at its disposal.
The Rutgers football team has yet to have the former on a consistent basis this season, but it has four capable running backs that have shown up in flashes this season.
That is until last Saturday when each member of the Scarlet Knight backfield found his role in the system and played it to near perfection.
The running backs combined for 5 rushing touchdowns against Illinois, charging up the field for 232 rushing yards to grab the team's first Big Ten win in two years. In total, the team ate up 274 yards on the ground, thanks to junior Giovanni Rescigno and freshman Johnathan Lewis.
But anyone who watched Saturday's game knows that the offense started and stopped with the running backs.
It started, as it has all year, with graduate transfer Gus Edwards, who won the starting job out of camp in the summer from senior Robert Martin. And even with the strong performances from his teammates at the position, there doesn't seem to be any shifting in the balance. Saturday's game in Champaign, Illinois remains one of the best showcases of each of their talents to date, and working them into a rotation has been a strength for the offense so far.
While Edwards has not been as explosive as some of the others through the first half of the season, running backs coach Lester Erb lauds him in different areas. His pass protection, his communication with the coaches off the field and his production when he is called on to perform remain the reasons why he falls into that starting role.
Ninety-one rushing yards and 2 touchdowns will do the trick as well.
But "explosive" is one of the first words many would use in describing freshman Raheem Blackshear. Unlike the others in the unit, Blackshear is proficient in speed rather than power and he highlighted his skills last weekend when he made a few good cuts en route to a 19-yard touchdown run to open the scoring. Not to be outdone in the power department, he leveled an oncoming defender before stepping into the end zone.
As with Edwards, it is the off-the-field matters that catch Erb's attention.
"The thing that's most impressive about Raheem is just how mature he is," Erb said. "The way he approaches things, and that's not typical of a freshman just walking in the door."
Those intangibles always work their way onto the field, which was the case for Martin during Saturday's game. After fumbling the ball in his first carry in the opening minutes, Martin didn't see the field again until the third quarter.
He spent that time reinforcing why he is one of the senior leaders of this squad, supporting his teammates in between game time and earning his way back into the fold in the second half. Like Edwards, Blackshear and senior Josh Hicks, Martin eventually found himself in the end zone off of a 16-yard rush.
"I just had to regroup ... cheer my teammates on and be ready," Martin said on bouncing back from his fumble. "And that's what I did. I was being patient, cheering my teammates on, going out there and trying to do my job."
It cannot be downplayed just how valuable the running backs have proved to the offense through six games. With Rescigno assuming the starting role coming into the Illinois matchup, he had his backfield to rely on if his passing was rocky, which was bound to happen, considering the wide receivers' play as of late.
Though the receivers snuck their way into the game at times Saturday — thanks to the return of fifth-year senior Janarion Grant — there is still a massive disparity in performance between them and the running backs. The "more is good" tag applies here — Rutgers has amassed 1,044 rushing yards this season compared to its 848 passing yards, 150 of which have come from Edwards, Martin and Blackshear.
Their impact has been felt in all phases of the offense, and against a side like Purdue this Saturday — one that has allowed 1,050 rushing yards itself — there is no reason to believe the backfield can't double down on its good fortunes.
To head coach Chris Ash, that comes with a reset button once the week turns over. It's not about the 274 rushing yards last week or the 5 rushing touchdowns.
"Our guys have to show up, they gotta grind, and they gotta work and they gotta keep trying to get better every week," said head coach Chris Ash.
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