The Rutgers football team dug itself out of its offensive rut against Illinois last weekend, finally getting on the scoreboard after being held without a point for 11 straight quarters and more than doubling the combined 151 yards it mustered against No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus and then-No. 4, now-No. 3 Michigan in Piscataway.
But for all the positives the Scarlet Knights had on offense against the Fighting Illini, one glaring negative held them back from breaking from their skid and led to the ultimate 24-7 loss on homecoming at High Point Solutions Stadium — five turnovers, four of which coming from fumbles.
“There were a lot of good things that happened in that game really on both sides of the ball. We ran the ball better. We threw and caught the ball better. We were better on third down on both sides of the ball than what we had been in the previous few weeks. Still, it gets back to ball security,” said head coach Chris Ash on Monday, a couple of days removed from the game. “When you turn the ball over five times in a game, you don't have an opportunity to win a game, and that's what we did.”
The loss in the battle between the Big Ten’s basement teams was the worst example of the Knights’ season-long struggles of hanging onto the ball.
Rutgers entered the contest with 10 fumbles — only half of which recovered by the opposition — in five games, an average of two per game. Before the four lost against Illinois, the Knights had lost two to No. 5 Washington in their season opener on the road and then one in each of their meetings with the Wolverines, Iowa and New Mexico at home.
“We lost track of the fundamentals (against Illinois), making sure the ball is the biggest thing in this program and being on top of that is what we gotta do,” said junior running back Robert Martin. “We’re gonna keep preaching that and our coaches are going to keep preaching that and we’re just going to focus on ball security a lot.”
Martin had an opening quarter in which he resembled the running back who led the Big Ten in yards rushing per game through the first four games of the season, racking up 56 yards on six carries in the first 15 minutes.
He brought his momentum into the second quarter, where his statline read 88 yards on 11 carries with two minutes remaining until halftime.
But in his final carry of the half, Martin was stuffed two yards behind the line of scrimmage before having the ball poked out of his possession by Tre Watson. Just like that, Rutgers saw an abrupt finish to an 11-play, 49-yard drive destined for the endzone as it looked to tie the game at seven before the half.
Martin was only given four carries in the second half, being replaced by Justin Goodwin as the senior took the majority of the snaps at running back during the last two quarters of the game.
“Anytime a guy puts the ball on the ground, you’re a little bit hesitant at that point,” said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. “Something me and (running backs coach) Zak (Kuhr) talked about during halftime and over the headset during the game, is where was Rob’s mind at. If we were getting the same type of production with (Goodwin) out there, let’s put somebody out there who hasn’t fumbled the ball and let Rob kind of get his mind back together to make sure he can protect the ball, so that’s the only reason for that (decision).”
Goodwin would collect 30 yards on seven carries in the second half before fumbling the ball on his final play of the game and the first one after sophomore quarterback Giovanni Rescigno threw a pick-six that essentially put the final nail in the coffin of Rutgers’ hopes of making a comeback.
The running back pair weren’t the only Knights to fumble the ball, with redshirt freshman Jawuan Harris muffing the first punt of the game and junior quarterback Chris Laviano losing the ball on a run inside the Illini redzone.
Laviano was also involved in 1 of the 2 mistimed snaps from senior center Derrick Nelson, both coming on fourth-down situations in which Rutgers went 0-for-3 on the afternoon, which Mehringer explained as his team getting “jumpy.”
Mehringer said ball security will be a point of emphasis this week as the Knights’ prepare to take on Minnesota (4-2, 1-2) in Minneapolis this Saturday. This was a message Nelson heard loud and clear in the locker room after the game at home last Saturday.
“We just gotta take better care of the ball. That’s pretty much it,” Nelson, 1 of Rutgers’ 4 captains, said. “We gotta put up points and it’s hard to put up points when you’re turning the ball over and you’re not taking care of the ball.”