For a third straight season, Rutgers football has a 3-0 record. The question now is can this team be different, as in better than the previous two seasons.
In 2021, RU did make it to 5-5 in mid-November, only to lose its last two regular season games by a combined 68-16 to Penn State and Maryland. They then got the late Gator Bowl invite a month after ending its season before losing to Wake Forest 38-10.
Last season, Rutgers only one one of its last nine games. It came against Indiana and what followed was five straight losses by a combined score of 202-48.
While another 3-0 start is a major positive to start the 2023 season, are there signs that this team could have more success?
First, Rutgers has beaten three straight FBS opponents for the first time since 2014. Those schools were Navy, Tulane and Michigan. This time RU beat two power five foes including a conference opponent. It was the first time beating Northwestern as a Big Ten member and it was the first win over Virginia Tech in 13 meetings. Neither are very good teams this season, but it marks progress in Rutgers winning games they should.
The Scarlet Knights were favored by roughly three touchdowns going into all three games and won by a combined 65 points. The offense is averaging 31.7 points per game and the defense has allowed 10.0 points per game.
Of course, there are concerns. Gavin Wimsatt has improved but is still struggling with accuracy, completing just 51.5% of his passes. The offensive line is inconsistent and unsettled. There isn’t a clear No. 1 receiver and the tight ends haven’t been too involved in the pass game.
The biggest concern might not be a position group though.
In nine drives in the third quarter this season, Rutgers has punted eight times and scored a touchdown once. Over the last two games, they punted in all six drives. Against Virginia Tech, RU wasn’t even able to get a first down. Both Temple and the Hokies were able to make it a one score game early in the fourth quarter because of the lack of offense. The defense got worn down some. It was a bad combination that struck two weeks in a row.
When asked after the game if he felt the play calling was too conservative in the third quarter on Saturday, head coach Greg Schiano did not think so.
“No. No. Maybe you go for it on that fourth and one there at mid-field, you know, but up 21 to 3, that’s not what I’m going to do right there in that situation,” explained Schiano. “I’m going to make them go the whole field, and then if they do, they do. That’s part of it.”
The bottom line is that Rutgers isn’t going to be able to hold leads against Big Ten opponents by just running up the middle in the second half. Of course, having a second half lead in conference play would be a sign of progress too.
Perhaps what happened in the last wins will ultimately be a blessing. In both against Temple and Virginia Tech, Rutgers rallied in the fourth quarter to ultimately squash its opponent as they got close. RU scored 23 unanswered points against the Owls. On Saturday, the Scarlet Knights scored two touchdowns over the last ten plus minutes of the game.
“Guys found a way to win the game. We didn’t play our best at times, but our guys figured it out,” Schiano said. “That’s part of it.”
He added, “I think today the whole day was chopping, right? It was all about whether things go good, whether things go poorly, you can’t be thinking about the past and you can’t be focusing on the future. You got to stay right here and chop the moment, and that’s what our guys did. Because sometimes the moment wasn’t great. You swing the axe and it does nothing. It hits and bounces off the tree. What do you do, quit? No you keep swinging it because eventually it’ll do it. We’re really learning how to do that. You have to. We play in the best league in college football. We have to learn how to do that to have a chance.”
With No. 2 Michigan on the road as the next game, Rutgers has to play a lot better than they did on Saturday to have a chance in the Big House. Still, this team is 3-0 and done exactly what they needed to in order to be where they need to be at this point in the season. In year’s past, Rutgers would squander opportunities to get there. The way in which the Scarlet Knights have won feels different. They didn’t play their best and won going away anyway.
Other keys to being 3-0 have been having a +4 turnover margin including just one offensive turnover, converting 48% on third down, allowing just 2.5 yards per carry, solid special teams play, committing only eleven penalties for 36.7 yards per game and averaging over 33 minutes per game in time of possession.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. However, there are signs that this Rutgers team is both different and better than the previous two seasons. Whether that leads to at least six wins and a bowl game remains to be seen. This team will need to win two more Big Ten games to get there. Rutgers has to keep getting better but the progress made through three games gives hope that they will.
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