Rutgers opens up season with 35-7 win over Texas State
At the start of every new season lies a chance for a new beginning. Whatever happened the year before no longer matters as every team in the country starts out with a clean sheet.
For the Rutgers football team, that new beginning got off to a nice start thanks in large part to its defense and its youth.
The future shined bright on a sunny Saturday afternoon at High Point.com Stadium as the Scarlet Knights (1-0) cruised to a 35-7 victory over Texas State in its season opener, their largest margin of victory against an FBS school since 2009.
Sophomore running back Raheem Blackshear took control of the tempo right from the opening drive, rushing for a touchdown to give Rutgers an early 7-0 lead on his way to 118 total yards from scrimmage — 62 yards on the ground and 56 yards in the air, adding a touchdown in both categories.
“I’m just trying to do whatever is going to help my team win,” Blackshear said.
His quarterback, true freshman Artur Sitkowski, who connected with Blackshear on a 9-yard touchdown completion in the second quarter, still looked raw but made enough plays to help his team earn the victory.
Sitkowski finished the day 20-29 for 205 yards with 1 touchdown and three interceptions — one of them in the red zone a play after a touchdown to senior tight end Jerome Washington was called back — in his collegiate debut.
He also spread the football around well, finding eight different receivers with sophomore Bo Melton hauling in the most yards with 57.
“I think Art did a really good job for a true freshman playing quarterback in his first game,” said head coach Chris Ash. “It's been a while since he played in a game … Overall I'm pleased with what Art did. He's got to get better. He will get better after this game. But very pleased.”
But the biggest reason the Knights won the game was their defense. The team’s biggest strength all of last season showed up once again to start this season.
After early penalties hurt them and extended the Bobcats’ (0-1) opening drive, the defense responded with a blocked field goal attempt by sophomore defensive lineman Elorm Lumor to keep Texas State off the board.
A little later, senior defensive back Blessuan Austin intercepted a deep ball pass and 3 minutes later sophomore linebacker Rashawn Battle forced a fumble and Lumor recovered it.
In the fourth quarter, sophomore linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi finished off the defensive onslaught with another fumble recovery, this one returned for a touchdown — the first of Fatukasi’s career.
“I'm really pleased with what we did,” Ash said. “Again, I have to evaluate the film, look at some things we got to do better. Obviously we need to get after the quarterback. I think we put some pressure on the quarterback today. We need to put more on the quarterback. We got some takeaways today. Scored on defense.”
Another aspect that Rutgers can be proud of is its running game. Along with Blackshear, graduate student Jonathan Hilliman, freshman Isaih Pacheco and redshirt junior Charles Snorweah all averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry.
For the Knights to be successful this season, their ground game will have to help take the pressure off of their freshman quarterback, Ash said.
“It's very important. We have to be able to run the football. If we can do that successfully, we'll open up the pass game,” he said. “I think you saw Art back there today make some really good throws. He wasn't perfect, but he made some really good throws. If we can run the ball effectively, it's going to help the pass game a lot more.”
Yes, there were and will continue to be growing pains — Sitkowski threw three interceptions and dropped off in the second half and Blackshear muffed a punt return — but for now, for one day, the Knights were able to say they were the best team on the field.
“It was good to get out there and get a W for Rutgers,” Sitkowski said.
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