Rutgers inches toward progress despite 35-14 loss to Michigan
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — For head coach Chris Ash, there would be no talk of 78-0 for the Rutgers football team going into Saturday's game.
"That's not even in our thoughts or our conversations," he said, in the days leading up to the weekend.
So when the Scarlet Knights (3-5, 2-3) fell to the Michigan Wolverines (6-2, 3-2) by a score of 35-14, it felt like a loss all the same.
A loss is undoubtedly a loss, but this time around Rutgers at least has some positives to take away.
"It's signs of progress hopefully," Ash said. "Our guys compete and they play for four quarters, they don't quit. I couldn't have said that about our football team last year."
For much of the first half, the Knights kept the Wolverines close, at least stalling their passing game, as starting quarterback John O'Korn could only muster up 13 yards on a 3-6 line for Michigan.
Though the home side got on the board first off of its versatile rushing offense — with three rushers collecting at least 30 yards on the day — Janarion Grant responded with a run of his own, bursting up the middle off of a direct snap for 65 yards to lock the score at 7.
The fifth-year senior wide receiver benefitted from the wildcat scheme called often early in the game, passing Brian Leonard (4,643) to move into third in school history in all-purpose yards, sitting at 4,757 following Saturday.
It was all Rutgers could get going in the first half, and Michigan caught on quickly, leaving the Knight offense at a standstill until the third quarter, where it put together a strong 11-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a two-yard rush touchdown rush for graduate transfer running back Gus Edwards.
"Our ability to consistently do that or do that more throughout a game is what we've gotta get figured out," Ash said. "But it was a good drive, and again, real testament to our players, there was no quit."
But in between Rutgers' 2 touchdowns on the day, the Wolverines put up 3 of their own, with running backs Karan Higdon, Chris Evans and Kareem Walker sharing the spoils.
Those three, alongside Ty Isaac, headed a backfield that had no trouble charging past the Knights' defensive line Saturday, rushing for 320 yards. Michigan's running backs routinely found holes through the middle and often swept to the outside for runs down the line. Once backup quarterback Brandon Peters replaced O'Korn, the Wolverines hit their stride through the air, as he threw for 124 yards, including the 20-yard touchdown pass to Evans.
Peters diversified an offense that had primarily gone to the rush under O'Korn, and the Rutgers defense could not compete. Michigan took advantage of mismatches, most notably on that Evans touchdown, where fifth-year senior defensive end dropped back to cover the running back on the pass.
But the struggles were not restricted to the defense. From the start, Rutgers' offensive line had trouble containing Michigan's linemen, as junior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno was sacked five times during Saturday's game, the most of any Rutgers quarterback in a single game this season.
"They're a great defensive front, but at the same time it was a lot of stuff, we just had ourselves on the foot," said fifth-year senior left guard and captain Dorian Miller. "It wasn't necessarily all them, obviously credit is given, they took advantage of our mistakes. But a lot of stuff, as a unit, we could've cleaned up on our end."
Despite Rescigno finding himself on the ground often Saturday, he was able to get off strikes to his receivers later in the game in high-pressure situations, escaping oncoming rushers and converting three of 11 third downs on the day.
Rescigno involved all facets of the offense in the passing game, with junior tight end Jerome Washington, freshman wide receiver Hunter Hayek and senior running back Josh Hicks each collecting at least 20 yards.
Though Ash maintained he would focus on this Saturday's game without paying mind to last year's, he and the rest of the squad recognize the steps made. Three years ago, Rutgers recorded its first ever win in the Big Ten against Michigan. The results got progressively worse going forward, but the Knights flipped the script somewhat in their favor Saturday.
Some players on this Rutgers side were there for the 2014 win and all of the losses following. It is their hope that Saturday's game — in slashing 57 points off of the deficit from last season — can only mean good things for the team in the years to come.
"I was having a conversation with (Michael) Maietti on the sideline ... he's a redshirt freshman, so he's got a lot of time left," Miller said. "I was just telling him just use all of these experiences as ... a building block and a time to really look around and make sure you take in everything that happened today and went on this season."
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