Rutgers' passing game remains biggest question mark against struggling Maryland defense
When the Rutgers football team comes up against another Big Ten team every Saturday, the running narrative going in is usually the same, save a few details.
The Scarlet Knights often have the disadvantage, coming up against a particularly strong rushing or passing offense, or a defense that stifles their own strong suits in the run game.
Rutgers (3-5, 2-3) welcomes Maryland (4-4, 2-3) into High Point Solutions Stadium this Saturday at 3:30 p.m., and this time around, there is a unit advantage belonging to the Knights that could be strong enough to catapult them over the visiting Terrapins.
Though it has been the worst of the two types of offenses for Rutgers, it has an opportunity to blow past Maryland through the air.
The Terps come into the weekend with the 112th ranked passing defense in the country, having allowed 2,223 passing yards, averaging out to 277.9 yards per game. It is a statistic worth exploiting for the Knights despite their inabilities throughout the season to get their pass game going in any game.
"I think we can take advantage of it especially after watching film and knowing what kind of game plan that we have going in ... I think we have a good opportunity this week to improve in the pass game," said junior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno.
Considering the running game has shared the burden of much of the offense to date, it is hardly a surprise that the team has yet to produce 200 passing yards in a single game this season, its highest mark being 198 against Eastern Michigan.
But in Rutgers' defeat to Michigan last weekend, there were shades of cohesion from quarterback to receivers in the second half that had not been there for much of the season.
An 11-play, 75-yard drive resulting in a touchdown saw the Knights utilize multiple weapons, turning to junior tight end Jerome Washington and freshman wide receiver Hunter Hayek for 30 and 21-yard receptions, respectively. Graduate transfer running back Gus Edwards provided the yardage through the middle, eventually crossing the end zone to collect his sixth rushing touchdown of the season.
Rutgers has shown glimpses of being able to put together strong drives down the field in games — what it has yet to do is do it on a consistent basis.
Much of that — at least against Michigan — could be attributed to the lack of protection given to Rescigno. The quarterback was sacked five times over the course of the contest, losing 25 yards in total.
Before the effort against the Wolverines, the Knights had only allowed six sacks through their first seven games. Coming up against a middle-of-the-road sacking team in Maryland, with 15 on the year, it would not take much for the Rutgers' offensive line to struggle to help out its quarterback.
"We gave up too many sacks, and they're probably gonna try and get to us faster, quicker than that, quicker than they usually do," said junior left tackle Tariq Cole. "So we're gonna have to protect for a longer time and give Gio, or whoever's playing, a chance to throw the ball."
That sentiment was echoed by offensive coordinator Jerry Kill, who knows the Maryland coaching staff will throw all that it has at the quarterback to disrupt whatever passing game he develops over the course of the game.
It has been a theme all week — Rescigno cannot get the ball to his receivers without the help of the line in front of him.
"The bottom line is that we gotta continue to protect the quarterback," Kill said. "I think that's the most important thing and make sure we protect them because they got a good defensive line and good linebackers that come after you. And (Maryland head) coach (DJ) Durkin's going to bring them from all over the place."
Maryland's greatest weakness is with its passing defense while the Knights' greatest weakness is with its passing play. The team has gone entire games without wide receiver yardage — pairing that with gaping offensive line issues could create more problems to deal with going forward.
To head coach Chris Ash, it is not for a lack of trying. He praises the work ethic of the players on this team week after week, but he recognizes that often does not come with the strongest performances once Saturday hits. It is mending that divide that will carry Rutgers over the Terrapins.
"Effort and execution have to get matched together, and we've got to really clean up the details and discipline how we do things if we're going to go and win games here down the stretch," he said.
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