Eight times Rutgers has sought to spoil things for a heavily favored Ohio State team since joining the Big Ten in 2014, and eight times it has emphatically failed to do so.
Greg Schiano makes his second trip back to Columbus since parting ways with the Buckeye program following the 2018 season, and he’ll do so for the first time since giving Ohio State its closest encounter to date with the Scarlet Knights – a 49-27 blowout in 2020.
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Rutgers has made real strides in Schiano’s second stint as head coach of the program, albeit small ones, and will enter this weekend’s matchup a massive 39-point underdog to the No. 3 team in the country. The Scarlet Knights hold a 3-1 record on the heels of a loss to Iowa this past Saturday, and the odds will be stacked against them as they attempt to shock the country against the Buckeyes.
Here are five more things to know about the New Jersey-based Knights before they collide with Ohio State for each program’s second Big Ten game of the season on Saturday.
Close games against questionable competition
The Scarlet Knights were undefeated entering Big Ten action this past weekend, but that doesn’t mean their wins were all that impressive. In fact, quite the contrary.
Aside from a 66-7 beatdown of FCS opponent Wagner in Week 2, Rutgers beat Boston College and Temple by a combined three points in two matchups that are likely to portend more problems against in-conference opposition.
In the season opener, it took a fourth-quarter touchdown run with 2:53 remaining for the Scarlet Knights to steal a one-point come-from-behind win over Jeff Hafley and company, who have lost all three games they’ve played against Power-5 opponents this season. Rutgers finished with just 22 points and 322 yards against an Eagles team that ranks 85th in scoring defense and 73rd in total defense this season.
Rutgers’ 16-14 win against Temple in Week 3 may have been even more concerning. The Owls from the AAC lost to Duke, 30-0, in their season opener but managed to hold Rutgers to just one touchdown and 201 yards of total offense in a game that was decided by less than a field-goal margin.
Given those results, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that Rutgers stumbled in its Big Ten opener against an offensively impotent Iowa team with a 7-3 win over South Dakota State on its résumé.
Quagmire at quarterback
Rutgers’ quarterback situation is less than ideal. Veteran signal-caller Noah Vedral underwent preseason surgery that has cost him the first portion of the season, and redshirt sophomore Evan Simon – who was once thought to be the third option ahead of the year – has taken the reins under center.
So far, the first-time starter has just 566 yards, three touchdowns and two picks through four games, and he’s completing less than 62% of his passes. Simon split reps with four-star 2021 recruit Gavin Wimsatt in the first few weeks, but an injury to Wimsatt means Simon has been tasked with operating the offense full-time as Big Ten play begins.
Simon threw for a career-high 300 yards and a score in Rutgers’ Week 4 loss to Iowa, but that came on 49 attempts, and he also threw two interceptions before the game’s end. With Wimsatt, the Knights had a dual-threat athlete that could make plays in the run game, but Simon doesn’t present the same danger in that regard.
Rutgers mustered 110 passing yards or fewer in two of its first four games, even if its last time out seemed to be a breakthrough in overall production.
The preceding two sections have already illustrated some of Rutgers’ offensive ineptitudes, but let’s drive home the point with a look at the Scarlet Knights’ national and conference rankings in several major categories.
With an average of 367.3 yards of total offense per game, Rutgers ranks 97th in FBS football and second-to-last in the Big Ten. Rutgers’ 28.5 points per game are No. 84 in the nation and fourth-worst in the conference, and against FBS opponents, the Scarlet Knights are averaging just 16 points.
Given the mere 426 passing yards Rutgers produced through its first three games, the Scarlet Knights are 111th in passing offense even after Simon’s 300-yard outing on Saturday. Only Iowa averages fewer yards through the air in the Big Ten than the Scarlet Knights.
The run game has been a strength for Rutgers, which ranks 43rd in the country with an average of 186.8 yards per game on the ground. But those stats are also skewed by a 328-yard explosion against Wagner. In the last two games, the Scarlet Knights averaged just 3.1 yards per carry and only managed 61 yards against Iowa in the run game.
Ohio State’s given up three touchdowns and multiple explosive gains in the past two games, but a prolific day for the Rutgers offense would be a surprise come this weekend.
Impressive defensive numbers
Frankly, the Rutgers defense is why the Scarlet Knights are sitting at 3-1 heading into Week 4.
Since returning to the program in 2020, Greg Schiano’s impact has been felt on that side of the ball, where Rutgers ranks in the top 10 in multiple major defensive categories. The Scarlet Knights possess the No. 9 total defense in the country, at 249.5 yards per game, and their run defense is No. 2, allowing just 56.5 yards per game.
Rutgers has the 25th-ranked scoring defense in the country (17.3 points per game), and it's also holding opponents under 200 yards per game through the air. The Scarlet Knights’ pass defense ranks 35th in the country and sixth-best in the Big Ten.
Of course, those numbers have been boosted by Rutgers’ level of offensive competition. Even after its non-conference slate, Rutgers opened against an Iowa team that ranks dead last in the country in total offense, let alone the Big Ten.
Needless to say, the Scarlet Knights face a very different challenge in Ohio State, which ranks top three in both total and scoring offense so far.
Coming off best season in seven years
Schiano’s second season back in Piscataway yielded the program’s most wins since its first year in the Big Ten.
Rutgers went 8-5 under Kyle Flood in 2014 but failed to win more than four games in a season for the next six years as the Scarlet Knights cycled through four different coaches in that timespan. Three of those seasons saw Rutgers go winless in Big Ten competition.
Schiano’s 3-6 campaign in 2020 was a small step forward, especially considering every game took place against conference opposition, but 2021 was another nudge in the right direction. Rutgers finished 5-7 in the regular season, beating Illinois and Indiana in the Big Ten and earning a trip to the Gator Bowl – albeit in a loss.
Rutgers was only one spot out of last place in the Big Ten East Division last year, but for a program that went 0-18 in league play the two years before Schiano’s return, that’s progress nonetheless.