Defensive woes continue against Maryland

Five games into the season and the Rutgers football team sees itself in a similar predicament as last season — just without several pieces including former head coach Chris Ash, offensive coordinator John McNulty and sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski under center.

A similar storyline from 2018 has persisted on the defensive side of the ball in what has been a year filled with change. Stopping opposing running backs has been a struggle for the Scarlet Knights (1-4, 0-3). Last season, they ranked second to last in the Big Ten averaging 214.8 rushing yards per game.

With a new defensive coordinator in Andy Buh, the storyline had promise to change. Rutgers added several new defenders including sophomore linebacker Drew Singleton from Michigan and true freshmen like defensive lineman Malachi Burby, who has yet to see the playing field. But, the Knights simply see themselves back in a similar position with their run defense.

Rutgers ranks last in the conference with an average of 199 rushing yards to opposing backfields. In its 48-7 loss to Maryland at SHI Stadium, the Knights had a tough time stopping the Terrapins' (3-2, 1-1) two-headed monster in Anthony McFarland Jr. and Javon Leake. Both combined for four touchdowns, with two apiece, while compiling 153 yards on the ground.

McFarland Jr. came into Piscataway having been named to the Maxwell Award Watch List, given annually to the top all-around football player in the nation. With his two touchdowns against Rutgers, McFarland Jr. surpassed his season total of four touchdowns a year ago, with six scores in 2019.

Last weekend was a step backward for the Knights' rushing defense, who allowed 141 total rushing yards against No. 16 Michigan. Leake and McFarland Jr. exploited countless holes found in the trenches to run up the middle and on the side, burning Rutgers' defensive group.

Both of Maryland's top two running backs averaged over a first down on each carry — Leake with 13 yards per carry while McFarland Jr. had 12.4 yards on each of his seven attempts. 

The Knights' defense had a difficult time tackling the Terrapins players back behind the line of scrimmage for any loss of yards. McFarland Jr. only lost 1 yard the entire game, racking up 87 rushing yards. In the third quarter, he exploded for an 80-yard touchdown just several minutes after Leake returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown.

Leake was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for his 100-yard touchdown against the Rutgers' special teams unit.

For the Knights and Buh, who also served as the defensive coordinator in College Park, Maryland, this marked the second time this season that they allowed at least 200 rushing yards to opposing backs.

Rutgers will look to defend the run game better this weekend when it heads to Indiana for a matchup against a well-refreshed Hoosiers (3-2, 0-2) team that enjoyed a bye week.

Indiana is not a run-heavy team, which should be of notice for the Knights. The Hoosiers are averaging 110.4 rushing yards per game, with the majority of their touchdowns coming from Stevie Scott III. He leads all backs with four scores on the season while averaging less than 60 yards per game. 

Scott III, a Syracuse, New York, native, has a season-high of 97 rushing yards this season, which he had against UConn, a former rival of Rutgers back in the now-defunct Big East Conference.

If there is one unit on the defense who should have no trouble stopping Scott III, it would be the linebacking group, lead by junior linebacker Tyshon Fogg. While his teammate junior linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams paced the Knights' defense with seven tackles last Saturday, Fogg put pressure on Maryland's running backs.

Fogg, a team captain, has broken out this season, leading the team with 46 total tackles on the season. He's two shy of surpassing his season total from last year, which he is poised to do in Indiana this weekend.

Buh and safeties coach Noah Joseph used different defensive backs this game. Sophomore free safety Tim Barrow, who saw some time during last season, was fourth on the team with five tackles against the Terrapins. He has already made more tackles this season than his total as a redshirt freshman, which was six.

"At the end of the day, we just gotta continue to get better," Fogg said after last Saturday's game. 

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