Is Rutgers’ defense legit? It sure looks like it
Rutgers opened its season against Temple, Syracuse and Delaware. As expected, the Scarlet Knights went 3-0.
Look, 3-0 is impressive no matter who you face. You know the old “Any given Saturday” cliche. We had to wait until Week 4 to find out if Rutgers was legit.
Based on what we saw Saturday, Greg Schiano’s group might be — especially on defense.
The Scarlet Knights went into The Big House in Michigan and hung with the Wolverines, eventually falling 20-13. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s that Rutgers’ run defense is just as good as it looked in those first 3 games.
Rutgers had the tough task of stopping Blake Corum, the face of Michigan’s run game and the B1G’s second-leading rusher. He was averaging 135.7 rush yards per game entering Week 4’s matchup against the Scarlet Knights.
But the Scarlet Knights defense, which kept its first 3 opponents to 114 rush yards per game, held Corum to just 68 yards on 21 attempts and kept him out of the end zone. They were just about on average against Michigan, holding the Wolverines’ to 112 yards on 38 carries.
Moreover, Michigan’s only touchdowns came from Hassan Haskins — on a 1-yard run in the first quarter and a 3-yard run in the second quarter. The Wolverines’ longest run was 13 yards. That’s how you keep up with Michigan, which isn’t easy this year with some big names in that running back room.
Normally, this would be just a “first B1G game, too small of a sample size” column. But considering just how good Michigan’s running game is this year — 350.3 yards per game entering Week 4 — you have to understand why it was such a big statement for Rutgers, despite the loss.
It’d be one thing if Michigan had more than one way to beat you. But most of the Wolverines’ offense comes on the ground, so the fact that Rutgers virtually neutralized that part of the game plan proves that its defense is going to be a force in B1G play.
Schiano had to be happy with what he saw. In fact, his defense was a big reason why the game was so close. Rutgers fans can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if the Knights had managed to convert a couple fourth downs or if they were more aggressive on offense.
Still, the fact that the defense stood as strong as it did against Corum and Haskins was huge. It could be one of the reasons why Rutgers could make some noise in B1G play, even with some tough opponents looming.
A name to watch the rest of the way is linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, who totaled 5 tackles against Michigan. He entered the game tied for 3rd in the B1G in total tackles with 31 and led the league with 6.5 tackles for loss. He was a First Team All-B1G selection last season and is picking up right where he left off at the end of 2020.
But the thing for Rutgers — and it’s a good recipe for success — is that it was a team effort against Michigan. It wasn’t just one player who dominated. The whole group seemed to contribute, which is what you need when you’re facing a running back group such as Michigan’s. You can’t rely on one player to carry the whole load.
Now, the goal for Rutgers is to build off this performance. The Scarlet Knights have 2 tough, ranked opponents coming up back-to-back in No. 11 Ohio State and No. 17 Michigan State. Ohio State’s run game isn’t as impressive as Michigan State’s, although the Spartans proved they can be beaten based on their performance against Nebraska Saturday night.
Rutgers might not be making a run at the B1G East title this year as Schiano embarks on his second program rebuild. Seriously, it’s in the same division as Ohio State. But a good foundation on defense can set the tone for the years to come.
So far, the Scarlet Knights are off to a great start on that side of the ball.