Rutgers’ first season in the Big Ten has gone as well as could be expected. The Scarlet Knights own a 5-2 overall record, although they have only managed a 1-2 start in league play. The optimism for the team took a big hit last weekend when Ohio State posted a 56-17 win over Kyle Flood’s team.
“Today is a great example that when you play a really talented football team, the margin of error is very small,” Flood said following the loss. “We just didn’t play very clean football. As a coaching staff, we need a better plan.”
The margin for error will once again be razor thin for Flood’s squad this weekend, as it faces a powerful Nebraska team. The Cornhuskers bounced back from their first loss of the season against Michigan State with a 38-17 road win over Northwestern last weekend. They are now 6-1 overall and 2-1 in Big Ten play.
This will be the first time these teams will square off as conference foes, and just the second time they will have met overall. The first matchup took place all the way back in 1920 when Nebraska earned a 28-0 victory at the Polo Grounds in New York City.
Rutgers has actually done a solid job offensively in its first Big Ten season, at least in terms of yardage. The Scarlet Knights rank sixth in the conference in total offense (415 ypg). Unfortunately, that hasn’t always translated into more points on the scoreboard, with the team ranked 10th in the league in scoring offense (27.7 ppg).
Against Ohio State, Rutgers took a giant step backwards, finishing with only 345 yards. That performance ended a three-game streak with at least 430 yards.
Gary Nova continues to be an anomaly for the program. His inconsistencies as a passer have become common place. This season he has thrown for 13 touchdowns, but matched that with eight interceptions. He also threw for over 400 yards against Michigan, but following a 192-yard showing against Ohio State, has thrown for less than 200 yards three times. In all, he has amassed 1,793 yards on 61.8 percent passing.
One constant Rutgers offense has been the play of wide receiver Leonte Carroo. He leads the team with 648 yards and five touchdowns on 34 receptions. In the loss to Ohio State, he had 100 yards on five catches, marking his fifth straight game with at least 50 yards. Andre Turzilli has been exceptional when he gets the ball, tallying 293 yards and three scores on only seven grabs.
The running game has been a bit disjointed following the season-ending knee injury to Paul James. Desmon Peoples (409 yards, two TDs) and Justin Goodwin (261 yards, TD) have shared the duties out of the backfield since, with Peoples finishing with 83 yards and two scores against Ohio State.
Rutgers has not fit in all that well defensively, especially in a league full of strong units. The Scarlet Knights rank 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense (26.6 ppg) and 10th in total defense (423.6 ypg). They were especially ineffective against Ohio State, which rolled up 585 yards, the most RU has allowed in a single game this season.
Nebraska is one two teams in the Big Ten ranked among the top-10 in the country in rushing offense (293.6 ypg), and that is mostly thanks to Abdullah. The Cornhuskers’ star running back has amassed 1,024 yards and 14 touchdowns already this season, while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. It was business as usual against Northwestern, as he finished with 146 yards and four scores.
“You just keep pounding it. You just keep running the football and you know (Abdullah) doesn’t need a lot of room,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
While running the ball with Abdullah is the major strength of the team, the Cornhuskers are solid in the passing game as well, as they rank third in the Big Ten in total offense (523.3 ypg).
Tommy Armstrong, Jr. mans the quarterback position, and to relative success. He has only completed 53.5 percent of his pass attempts, but has thrown for 1,546 yards and twice as many touchdowns (10) as interceptions (five). Armstrong, Jr. brings more than his arm to the table, however, as he has rushed for 482 yards and two scores. He even caught a 16-yard touchdown pass against Northwestern.
As far as receiving threats go, Nebraska is heavily reliant on a pair of targets. Kenny Bell (27 receptions, 509 yards, two TDs) and Jordan Westerkamp (27 receptions, 502 yards, three TDs) are having identical seasons. Abdullah (11 receptions, 143 yards, two TDs) is the only other player with more than seven catches.
Playing a grind-it-out style on offense has translated to defensive success as well. Nebraska is allowing less than 20 points and 340 yards of total offense per game. Randy Gregory (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks) gives the pass rush a boost, while Nate Gerry (42 tackles, two INTs), Trevor Roach (42 tackles, 6.0 TFL) and Zaire Anderson (41 tackles, seven TFL) are also tough defenders