There were plenty of reasons to believe that the Rutgers defense would be improved this fall before the season began. Many key contributors and the majority of starters returned from last season. The entire defensive staff was back as well. And several impact players were healthy again after suffering injuries last season. On Sunday, the defense showed that the optimism that they can become a top half Big Ten unit is completely warranted.
Rutgers held Northwestern to just 201 total yards in the 24-7 victory, the fewest allowed by the program in any Big Ten game its played. The Wildcats had just 12 rushing yards and averaged 0.5 yards per carry on 22 attempts. It prevented NU from ever establishing a rhythm on offense.
“Yeah, it’s body blows. We just kind of kept hitting them in the gut,” Schiano explained. “They are good up front. They do some things that are unique stunting their front, and we knew it was going to be a challenge to run the ball but we were committed to doing it. Again I think we missed a few big, big runs by a fingernail. So we have to get that cleaned up and we’ll go to work on that tomorrow.”
In addition, the Rutgers defense slowed down the passing game of Northwestern. Quarterback Ben Bryant, who threw for over 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns at Cincinnati last season, had just 169 yards passing along with two interceptions and no touchdowns.
The defense was disruptive the entire game. It was an area that this group struggled with last season. Defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak’s unit gave hope on Sunday that their ability to create havoc for its opponent will be a strength this season. Rutgers was one fumbled punt away from a shutout.
Spurred by a strong effort along the defensive line, the Northwestern offense was uncomfortable all day. Rutgers finished with five sacks, eight tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two quarterback hits. There were plenty of players who each made an impact in the win. On such a hot day, it was needed but also impressive.
“That was our plan we talked about, we are going to roll a lot of guys on defense,” Schiano explained. “I think you’re going to see even more roll as some young guys get a little more experienced. I’d rather play a guy a month late than a day early because it can have an effect on them. But I think we’ll even roll more. But that was key today, as hot as it was, we had a couple issues; I’m sure they did with hydration and cramping and that stuff. We work so hard at not allowing that to be an issue. But a day like today is brutal, especially on that turf. I don’t know what the final temperature was but when you go on that surface, it’s another 12 to 15 degrees warmer. So that was a great job by our training staff and our strength staff and our nutrition staff by keeping those guys out there on the field.”
Linebackers Deion Jennings and Tyreem Powell led the defense with nine and eight tackles respectively. Powell had an impact sack as well.
As for the secondary, both starting corners Max Melton and Robert Longerbeam had interceptions. Safety Shaquan Loyal had a sack on a third down blitz and two pass break ups.
Schiano commented on how the back of the defense performed.
“I thought they played well. I thought we had a chance for a third that was a makeable one, and that’s our goal. We always want to try to get three takeaways,” Schiano explained. “Between the takeaways and the offense not turning the ball over, I thought going into the game, I told the team, if we don’t turn it over, we’re going to win this game. I don’t guarantee many things but I guaranteed that.”
Creating takeaways and producing sacks would go a long way in the defense taking the next step within the Big Ten. On Sunday, Rutgers passed the test with flying colors. Granted they faced what could be the worst defense in the conference. However, the defense was dominant and gave plenty of hope that Sunday’s performance was just the beginning of this group’s impact in 2023.
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