Rutgers can assert its status out of Big Ten basement with win over Indiana
The Rutgers football team — especially head coach Chris Ash — will not admit to it, but having a reputation as the worst football school in a top football conference is not a great label to have.
It can be wearing on a team to be expected to lose every week, but gradually throughout this season, the Scarlet Knights has taken steps to amend this.
With two games remaining in the 2017 season, it is safe to say that Rutgers is not the worst team in their division.
This Saturday at noon, the Knights (4-6, 3-4) have an opportunity to double down on that when they head west to take on Indiana (4-6, 1-6) at Memorial Stadium.
With the Hoosiers planted in the Big Ten East cellar, the Rutgers win would firmly cement it above both Maryland and Indiana, with wins over each this season.
But the Knights will come into Saturday's contest off of a setback in the form of a 35-6 loss at the hands of then-No. 14 Penn State. Missing from that game, as has been the case throughout the season, was the passing game, as junior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno failed to get anything going in the air, throwing for 43 yards on a 7-20 line.
This has been a well-publicized issue for Rutgers this season, one the side cannot really shy away from as bowl eligibility still hangs in the air. Ash maintains that despite all the problems the team has been able to resolve from last year, some things are just still on the table.
"It's tough to fix all the issues that we had in one year, and we're working on it," he said. "We're working on it every single day. We have conversation about it, about our passing offense every single day."
Fortunately for the Knights, there will not be much of an opportunity for passing on Saturday, as forecasts predict rain and wind throughout the day. That will leave the visitors to hone in on what they do best on offense — run the ball. They outran the Nittany Lions last weekend, 157-90, behind the reliable one-two punch of graduate transfer Gus Edwards and senior Robert Martin.
As for the Hoosiers, their one-two punch exists under center, where quarterbacks Richard Lagow and Peyton Ramsey have shared snaps all throughout the season. The duo have strikingly similar numbers — each throwing for 10 touchdowns and attempting 207 (Lagow) and 205 (Ramsey) passes.
But as far as the Rutgers defense is concerned, the similarities stop there. Preparation involves accounting for each player's specialties, even though head coach Tom Allen announced Lagow as the starter earlier in the week.
"(Ramsey) is more of a runner, and (Lagow) is more of a pocket passer," said fifth-year senior nose tackle Sebastian Joseph. "Having to adjust to that is tough, but we're watching the film."
If there is any unit that can adjust to a new environment in a week, it is the defensive line. The group has emerged as one of the most improved from last season, its exploits on full display last week against Penn State.
The Knights recorded two sacks on Trace McSorley and held now-former Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley to 35 yards. The defensive line let Barkley run all over it in last season's fixture, but there's one factor that has proved the difference this year.
"Just the leadership in the room driven by Sebastian (Joseph) and Darnell Davis and guys like Jon Bateky and myself," said junior defensive end Kevin Wilkins. "I feel like our whole room just has a bunch of leaders in it, and even the young guys."
Reforming the defensive line has been a massive step toward climbing out of the hole that the Hoosiers now finds themselves in. The "one-game-at-a-time" approach has worked in the Knights' favor so far this season, but it doesn't stop with this season.
It doesn't stop with fourth place in the Big Ten East, and taking down teams they should beat, like Indiana, is just one part of the operation.
"It's just trusting the process. Everyone will say it's hard to win college games, you just gotta trust the process and keep going," Wilkins said. "It's coming on late in the season, it's better now than later. I'm really happy with the success of the team, you can tell that we're improving each and every week."
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.