Rutgers comes into final game of season playing for pride against No. 21 Michigan State
How does a team reconcile a 41-0 loss to the worst team in its division?
Head coach Chris Ash, his coaching staff and the players around them have to answer that heading into the final matchup of the season.
Needing to win out in their final two games of 2017 in order to be eligible for a bowl game, the Rutgers football team fell in the one they were favored in — hard.
Last year was supposed to be the year of big shutout losses — Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State all had a hand in that.
This year, the Scarlet Knights had cut that down to just Ohio State before last Saturday.
Now, Rutgers (4-7, 3-5) turns its attention to No. 21 Michigan State (8-3, 6-2) in the fixture that was supposed to be the toss-up for the Knight's bowl game contention.
It'll be the last time some Rutgers players step into High Point Solutions Stadium, and for them, it really does not do to dwell on what could have been for this team. Even for the ones who will still be here come next fall, moving forward is the only option, especially after such a disastrous loss.
"There's just so much unfinished business," said junior cornerback Isaiah Wharton. "We want to change this culture. We want to go back to bowl games."
The best way for the Knights to do that is to beat the Spartans, but that is asking a lot out of a team that just got blown out by Indiana.
In order for Rutgers to even have a semblance of a chance this Saturday, it is going to need its offensive line to step up to the quality it was at before the Hoosier defeat.
Junior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno was sacked four times in the game against Indiana, a product of both his inability to get rid of the ball and the offensive line's inability to protect him.
Strides are going to need to be made in both areas come Saturday, especially against a Michigan State side that ranks 16 in the nation in total defense, allowing only 314.6 yards per game. Much of that success is due to its rushing defense, giving up only 109.2 yards per game on the ground.
Though the Knights' running game has traditionally been their saving grace on offense this season, perhaps the receiving corps' performance against Indiana could be a sign of things to come. Freshman tight end Travis Vokolek got on the board against the Hoosiers, and if they can string some receptions together, they could prove troublesome for the Spartans' pass defense.
But of course, Michigan State's pass defense being worse than its rush defense does not mean the former is bad at all. In fact, the Spartans' defense has been an integral part of the program's reconstruction from last year's abysmal 3-9 showing.
Ash hopes to use Michigan State's defensively-minded rebuild as a model for Rutgers in the years to come.
"At the end of the day if we can play great defense, play great special teams and we can run the football, you're going to have a chance to win games," Ash said.
Seeds of that are already starting to grow for this team, though maybe not as quick as some would have liked. No matter how much Ash wants to avoid the discussion, bowl games are a point of motivation for college football programs, and another year without one is another year on the outside looking in.
Still, the Knights will suit up and play Saturday in a game that is, above all else, a celebration of the seniors. They have seen this team through a host of coaching, style and identity changes in the past few years, and to defeat Michigan State in their final game would certainly be worth all of that. Ash knows so, and there is no greater motivator for this team than seeing the senior class go out with a win.
"They have believed in our vision when others haven't," Ash said. "They stayed the course when others have told them they shouldn't. They believe in our plan and our process, and because of that, we've continued to develop our culture. It's become stronger, our brotherhood, and the product that we have put on the field has gotten a lot better, and it's because of the senior class."
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