Stopping Maryland's run game is top priority for Rutgers defense
Saturday's game against Maryland represents a chance for the Rutgers football team to prove its worth in the Big Ten. Going into the season, the feeling was that the Scarlet Knights would be able to handle Illinois and Purdue, but the Terrapins were a program on the rise with strong recruiting classes putting them ahead of Rutgers in the rebuilding process.
But Maryland's starting and backup quarterbacks both went down with season-ending injuries and the team is down to its third-string quarterback in Max Bortenschlager. All of a sudden, a victory is very much within reach for the Knights.
Despite the quarterback play, the Terrapins boast a star running back in Ty Johnson that has given Rutgers fits in the past and will likely be a featured part of the offense on Saturday.
And to say Johnson has given the Knights fits would be a huge understatement. In 2015, when Rutgers blew a 21-point lead to lose the season finale, Johnson had two carries. The first carry? A 43-yard touchdown run. The second? A 44-yard touchdown. Maryland went on to win that game, 46-41.
In last year's season finale, he ran for 168 yards on just 11 carries, good for 15.3 yards per carry.
"He's a guy that makes a lot of people miss. It's gotta be a team tackling effort," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "It's about great angles, great technique, but it's also about people getting off their blocks and getting to the football ... It's gonna be a group effort and it (has) gotta be a situation where you swarm (to the football)."
Junior linebacker Trevor Morris was on the field when Johnson torched them a year ago and has been right in the middle of what has been a disappointing Rutgers run defense this season.
And despite leading the team in tackles this season, Morris is often targeted by opposing running games, forcing him to elevate his level of play. He remained confident in the linebackers and defensive line, as he noted that they are ready for any challenges Maryland throws at them.
"They have good running backs obviously," Morris said. "We just need to focus on us and that's stopping the run. We look in the mirror and we know that we haven't been able to do that. We showed signs that we can do it so we just really need to focus and emphasize this week stopping the run."
On paper, the matchup does not favor the Knights, as the Terrapins have the fifth-best rushing offense in the Big Ten, averaging 173 yards per game. Meanwhile, Rutgers is second-to-last in the conference, yielding just over 181 yards per contest.
Saturday will be a big test for a unit on the defense that has not been very good, especially in conference play. The pressure is on Morris and junior middle linebacker Deonte Roberts to neutralize Maryland's offensive strength and give their team a chance to win.
"We gotta really stop the run, I know they have a good running back, that's a challenge that we accepted and we're just gonna have to get after it," Morris said.
The pressure isn't entirely on the linebackers though, as the defensive line has not played at a high enough level. Despite moving defensive tackle Kevin Wilkins to defensive end to give the line three starters that are over 300 pounds, the unit has struggled to get penetration in the backfield and has especially struggled to get to the opposing quarterbacks.
While Wilkins has put up a good number so far — he leads the team with five tackles for loss — he noted that defensive line coach Shane Burnham is never pleased with the output of his players.
"Coach Burnham, he's one of those coaches that's never really satisfied," Wilkins said. "Some people may look at that as a bad thing, but it's actually a good thing because you always find a way to improve something."