Notebook: running backs, penalties highlight season opener win for Rutgers
For the first time in head coach Chris Ash’s term at the helm of the Rutgers football program, the Scarlet Knights won their season opener against Texas State on Saturday.
In the first meeting between the two teams, Rutgers cruised to victory over the Bobcats, 35-7, a nice bonus to introducing the new HighPoint.com Stadium name to fans.
A solid game from start to finish for the Knights, the team took care of business and jumped out to an early 21-0 lead at the end of the first half, before the Bobcats put their lone point on the board off a pick-six. Rutgers was able to put things away and add a defensive touchdown of its own at the end of the game to close things out in style.
Here are three major takeaways from the win, three things that will be key to focus on as the season progresses and especially focus on as the Knights open up Big Ten conference play next week at No. 5 Ohio State:
Careless mistakes can be costly game changers
Penalties are a serious problem for some teams. They can be make or break situations that ruin a team’s momentum. During Texas State’s first drive, it managed to hold on to the ball for approximately 8 minutes of play. Why you ask? Because Rutgers had two penalties called against it at the worst times.
First, with the Bobcats waiting on fourth down and 2 yards to go, junior defensive tackle Willington Previlon jumped the snap too early and went offsides, gifting Texas State a fresh set of downs.
Then, after the Knights brought the Bobcats back to a punting fourth down, sophomore defensive back Lawrence Stevens roughed the long snapper on the play, giving the ball back to Texas State for yet another first down.
Sure, it’s just the first game of the season and the Bobcats didn’t end up scoring on the play anyway, but careless errors like these may come to haunt Rutgers...
Sitkowski went from hot to cold
…And haunt it did. The debut of true freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski, the first true freshman to start a game for the Knights since 2001, was going exceptionally well through nearly the first two quarters.
With a little more than 3 minutes to go in the first half, Sitkowski had thrown 13-16 for 153 yards and a touchdown. Rutgers was at the Texas State 12-yard line, and Sitkowski threw a line drive pass to senior tight end Jerome Washington for a touchdown — until it was called off due to an illegal formation penalty. The very next play, Sitkowski threw an interception. Things seemed to spiral from there for the rookie quarterback, who threw another two interceptions in the game.
Keeping a blind eye to the three interceptions, you could say that Sitkowski had a solid debut, going 20-29 for 205 yards and the 1 touchdown. He will have a lot to learn from his first game in scarlet and will surely have the support of his teammates as the season goes on.
Running backs steal the show
The Knights seem to have a Batman and Robin situation going on from themselves in the running backs room, because sophomore Raheem Blackshear and graduate student Jonathan Hilliman put on a show for the 40,124 fans in attendance.
Blackshear got the start for Rutgers and produced right out of the gate, running in a touchdown for the Knights on their first drive to open up the 2018 season. Hilliman followed things on the very next drive with a 3-yard rushing touchdown to put the team up 14-0.
After Blackshear tacked on another touchdown — through the air this time from Sitkowski — Hilliman ran in another touchdown to give the duo 2 scores each on the day. Blackshear was also the leading receiver on the day for Rutgers, catching seven passes for 56 yards.
Overall, the duo combined for 122 yards on the ground — 62 for Blackshear and 60 for Hilliman — while true freshman Isaih Pacheco cruised past them both when he was input late into the game, running for 76 yards on 11 carries, including a long run for 28 yards. Look for this group of backs to make a serious impact this season.
“I’m just trying to do whatever is going to help my team win,” Blackshear said after the game.