PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Rutgers is not going to believe its way to respectability in the Big Ten, but back-to-back comeback wins has helped the new coaching staff fortify key principles it wants to rebuild the program around.
After opening the season with a blowout loss at Washington, the Scarlet Knights have fallen behind 14-0 and 21-0 the past two weeks, but rallied for victories against Howard and New Mexico. A brutal three-game stretch to start conference play will provide ample opportunity to see how much Rutgers has improved since opening day.
“You have to establish a culture. Nothing against last year, but I just think we’re closer this year,” Rutgers defensive lineman Darnell Davis said. “After you go through those kinds of struggles and the losses, you don’t want to have that feeling again.
“We’ve put in the work, and something has to come out of that. I think the past two games we’ve been seeing it. We still have to get better, but we’ve been seeing the results.”
The first conference game for Chris Ash as a head coach will be against his favorite childhood team, the Iowa Hawkeyes. He grew up about an hour from campus, and told reporters Monday that one of his favorite birthday/Christmas presents — his birthday is Dec. 24 — was a football autographed by former Iowa star quarterback Chuck Long.
There are other ties to the Hawkeyes on the staff as well. Offensive line coach AJ Blazek played for Iowa, and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann has two sons on the Hawkeyes roster.
This game could provide some clarity about the status of Rutgers’ rebuilding efforts, and also give a glimpse of what Ash and his staff want the Scarlet Knights’ future to be.
“They are as well-coached as any team in America. We look at that football team and they are really what we want to be,” Ash said. “They are always good on the offensive line, they are good on the D-line and they consistently have a very productive quarterback. Every year that they’ve been successful, that’s what they’ve had. That’s what we want.”
Three areas where the Scarlet Knights need to be better are throwing the ball, defending the pass and getting off to fast starts. Ash said Monday that Chris Laviano remains his starting quarterback, but he did not want to speculate about how secure his job status is.
Laviano helped ignite the comeback against New Mexico with a perfectly thrown 75-yard touchdown pass to Jawuan Harris, but he completed only 11 of 27 attempts for 152 yards in the game. He also did not play for a series during the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to throw the ball better, and that is an offense-wide issue,” Rutgers offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer said. “He’s got to throw the ball better at times. There were a few passes out there that were easy completions that he could have made. There were also a few out there — potential pass plays that would have changed the look of his performance — if we had picked up the pressure better or if we had run better routes and been in the right place.”
Defending the pass was a problem in the opener, where Washington blitzed the Knights with three long touchdown passes in the first quarter. Howard and New Mexico weren’t really built to challenge the Scarlet Knights through the air, but Iowa’s veteran quarterback, C.J. Beathard, certainly could.
“We’re getting better at reading our keys and having eye discipline,” Rutgers defensive back Anthony Cioffi said. “If your eyes are in the backfield, someone is going to blow right by you. That’s something we’ve really been working on.”
The other obvious lingering issue is the slow starts. Washington led 24-0 after one quarter. Howard and New Mexico — both double-digit underdogs — caused a social media stir by taking early leads on the Scarlet Knights. Ash said he’s not changing his team’s preparation, that “extra stretches or jumping jacks” aren’t going to make his team better equipped to compete in the first quarter.
After last season was marred by player discipline issues and ugly losses, the in-game revivals the past two weeks have given players tangible results that the new staff has them pointed in the right direction.
“We have a brotherhood of trust, meaning that we believe in each other and we believe in the culture,” Davis said. “We never panicked, even when we were down to Howard, down to New Mexico. We just believe in the system and what we need to do to get the job done.
“We’re closer this year, closer to everyone in our units. I think everything is going to fall into place because we have that trust.”
Everything could fall into place, and it still might not be enough for Rutgers to beat Iowa. After the Hawkeyes, the Scarlet Knights have a trip to No. 2 Ohio State, where Ash used to coach, and then a home game against No. 4 Michigan.
The opening act of the Ash era was a dud, but the past two weeks have provided some hope. Janarion Grant is one of the most electric players in the country. The defensive line is clearly a strength. A healthy Robert Martin makes the running game look like a viable component.
They’re getting there.
“I don’t know if we’re ready yet,” Ash said. “We’ve gotten better in some areas. We’ve got to improve in some areas. Am I excited to go out and find out where we’re at on Saturday? Absolutely.”