PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Midway through coach Chris Ash’s first season, Rutgers is exactly where most prognosticators thought they would be.
The Scarlet Knights (2-4, 0-3) are struggling.
“You guys (the media) are the experts, and in listening to the experts after the first six games, I bet each one of you in this room would have probably put us at 2-4,” Ash said. “Probably not with the types of losses that we had in the last two games.”
The issue for Ash is the way Rutgers has lost. Aside from a 14-7 loss to Iowa — where Rutgers lost top playmaker Janarion Grant — the Scarlet Knights have been blown out by three Top 5 teams by a combined score of 184-13. After a 48-13 loss to open the season at No. 5 Washington, Rutgers was shut out at No. 3 Ohio State two weeks ago, and this past week at home against No. 4 Michigan.
The past two weeks, the first without Grant, the Scarlet Knights’ offense was barely able to move the football. Rutgers completed five passes in the last two games. It took until late in the second half to gain a first down against Michigan in a 78-0 loss.
Quarterback Chris Laviano was pulled in both games. Against Ohio State, freshman Tylin Oden saw action in the second half. TCU transfer Zach Allen played the second half against Michigan.
Neither sparked the offense, and Ash said Laviano will remain the starter against Illinois (1-4, 0-2 Big Ten) on Saturday.
Rutgers is in search of a dual-threat quarterback to run coordinator Drew Mehringer’s power-spread offense. Oden is the only quarterback with the athleticism to play in the system, but the coaching staff is clearly not ready to trust his throwing ability.
Ranked last in total offense among the FBS teams, Rutgers suffered its largest loss against an FBS team since 1888 in that 78-0 rout by Michigan. Six Michigan players had more individual yards than Rutgers’ 22 total yards. Rutgers didn’t convert a first down until the fourth quarter, making it the first team since Western Carolina in 1990 to not get a first down in the first three quarters.
What concerns the coaching staff the most is not the play of the quarterback but the offensive line.
“If we don’t protect, it doesn’t matter what plays you call, and we didn’t do a good job of that,” Mehringer said. “There were people in the backfield. We didn’t identify pressures. So it’s hard. If you look at a majority of the incompletions, they’re throwaways. People trying to make sure we salvage yardage and not take sacks, so we got to do a better job there.”
The issue along the line has been a lack of communication.
“Just knowing when exactly certain blitzes are coming,” center Derrick Nelson said of the problem. “There’s different nuances of the defense that we need to look at to realize what they’re doing. It’s all pre-reads basically that we need to get better at.”
As for salvaging the Scarlet Knights’ third year in the Big Ten, senior captain Julian Pinnix-Odrick is relying on a book he’s reading, “The Obstacle is the Way,” by Ryan Holliday. It’s about overcoming adversity.
“Not many people in this world understand the concept of overcoming obstacles when everybody is looking at you,” Pinnix-Odrick said. “We represent something bigger than ourselves, everybody has an opinion, wants to say more. Everyone becomes an expert. Most of the people (the media) in this room had us picked to lose. So it is what it is. So if I paid attention to all of them, we’d lose every game for the rest of the season, so I’m not really concerned with that.”
The defensive lineman says the players know what they can do.
“I just have to make sure we know that every day in practice and that we lean on the guys in the room,” he added. “… You can’t lean on anyone else because you’ll fall on your face.”
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org