It was an all hands on deck effort in Rutgers’ 18 point comeback win over Michigan State on Saturday. In the epic fourth quarter, the offense was led by Gavin Wimsatt making some clutch throws and Kyle Monangai running wild for over 100 yards. It was the offensive line that came through late in the game to help both make critical plays down the stretch.
While this unit allowed a season high three sacks in the game, the fourth quarter saw them come together. It was a new look offensive line that had two players starting for the first time this season. The line as a whole clicked in the fourth quarter, providing good pass protection and generating real push in the run game.
For the first time this season, all five lineman played the overwhelming majority of the game. Reggie Sutton continued his remarkable journey back from devastating injury in starting at right tackle. Curtis Dunlap was at right guard for a second straight game after switching back from the left side. Gus Zilinskas started at center once again. Bryan Felter made his first start at left guard and Hollin Pierce remained the anchor at left tackle. They all played at least 60 of 67 possible snaps in the game.
At times this season, Rutgers head coach has referred to needing to watch the film before assessing the play of the offensive line after a game. On Saturday, he saw enough up based on how the game finished to know the impact this group made in the victory.
“Yeah, we are getting better on the offensive line. It’s hard for me to tell you how well they did this or they did that because you know, I have the worst seat in the house. It just seems like a mush there. But you know when a back has opportunities like Kyle did, that people blocked well,” explained Schiano.
He also emphasized how impressive it was that the offensive line played as well as they did against the Spartans.
“Make no mistake about it. Michigan State’s defense is really a good defense. They are second in the country in third down,” Schiano stated. “They have got some really big defensive linemen, which for us can be an issue. They are really big and strong. So I was pleased.”
In starting Felter and Sutton, Rutgers has elevated two lineman who weren’t even in the mix to start in the preseason based on reporting. Both have emerged in recent weeks and Saturday’s result was positive.
Felter is extremely active and his versatility has been key in allowing Curtis Dunlap to switch back to right guard.
Sutton wasn’t expected to be counted on at all after not playing in a game since September 2021 due to a serious knee injury. In just his third game of the season since returning, he’s found opportunity at right tackle. He went down after one play early in the game, but only missed one snap. Sutton played 65 snaps in the game which is remarkable considering he didn’t make his debut until the Wagner game on September 30.
“I thought it was a special moment,” Schiano explained. “Reggie started today. He’s going to be super sore. But you talk about a warrior.”
During his Indiana game week presser on Monday, Schiano was asked about the offensive line rotation tightening up. For the majority of the first half of the season, Rutgers rotated between 9-11 lineman per game. While Schiano said in the preseason the goal was to find five starting lineman, the staff continued to work different lineup combinations through the first six games. Saturday’s contest was the first time a true group of five lineman was utilized.
The clock killing drive to seal the victory saw the entire line barrel forward through the Michigan State defense. This was despite the fact that they knew the run was coming. Kyle Monangai was able to run for four first downs on the final drive to prevent the Spartans offense from getting a chance to tie or win the game. It was a show of force from the offensive line that was extremely encouraging. Credit offensive line coach Pat Flaherty for getting improved results from a unit that had the most uncertainty entering the season.
“I don’t know if the rhythm has anything to do with it. I think what’s happening is cumulative repetitions is starting to take ahold, and we are getting better,” stated Schiano. “It’s slow progress but we are getting better. As I said, it’s just got to continue and as I said there are some guys right on the cusp behind them, young guys figuring out how to play. It’s definitely arrow up, but not as fast as I would like it to be. You know, that’s life.”
Even if the offensive line isn’t at the level that Schiano and Flaherty wants them to be at yet, it’s clear they’re getting better. For a Rutgers team that needs its offense to continue to improve, the offensive line is key in doing that. There was plenty to be encouraged about in the comeback win. However, the way Rutgers ran over Michigan State down the stretch is arguably the most positive development of all.
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