The Rutgers football team was back in Piscataway Sunday, spending it recovering from a historic 58-0 drubbing at the hands of No. 2 Ohio State with little positives to go off of the day before.
The mood reflected the previous day’s result as the Scarlet Knights (2-3, 0-1) went through the usual routine of meetings and recovery work.
“Obviously it's a somber feeling when you go through a game like that,” said head coach Chris Ash a day removed from suffering the largest blowout in a Big Ten regular season game since 1981 to the program he left to come to Rutgers. “Any time you lose it's tough when you've invested a lot. When we lost the Iowa game (last week), it was a very quiet Sunday in here because guys had worked really hard and felt like we had a chance to win that game. So yesterday was no different.”
Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann wasn’t available to the media following the loss, so Monday was his first opportunity to give his thoughts on how the players on his side of the ball did.
But even two days removed, it took a few seconds for the experienced coach to summarize what he saw.
“It was a comedy of mistakes,” he said after restarting the sentence three times and before listing the types of errors committed. “Alignment mistakes, fundamental mistakes, it was guys just not communicating well as a defense.”
Niemann didn’t completely agree with Ash’s post-game assessment, when he said there were no positives to take form the game.
“When you do put the film on and you see plays where guys are lined up right and doing what they’re supposed to do, the communication works like it’s supposed to, we were a good defense,” he said. “There were some plays in there that you have to look for, because there were a lot of bad ones, but there were some good ones in there too where our guys can gain confidence from knowing that hey, even against an offense as good as Ohio State’s ... if things are going the way they’re supposed to, we could be a good defense.”
Despite the end result in Columbus and the performances that led to it, there were no changes to the depth chart entering Wolverine week.
Though the lack of change may be a worrying sign of the level of depth of the roster, it’s a relief to many to see senior Greg Jones keep his place at starting strongside linebacker after a scary helmet-to-helmet collision with sophomore weakside linebacker Trevor Morris kept him down on the turf for several minutes before he was transported to a local hospital.
Ash confirmed Jones was fine both following the game, saying he walked on the sidelines at the tail end of the contest, as well in his opening statement Monday, but how much he can contribute in practice this week and on the game on Saturday is still yet to be determined.
“They are doing some evaluations on him. Not sure of his availability for this week or when he'll be back, but he's fine and will be back at some point,” Ash said of Jones. “Hopefully it's this week but not sure on that today.”
If Jones isn’t healthy for the Knights’ first night game of the season, true freshman Tyreek Maddox-Williams will likely be the one to start in his place after being the next man up to replace him following the injury and subsequently leading Rutgers in tackles with 11.
Fellow true freshman Tylin Oden also saw the most action of his young career at Ohio Stadium, being given the reigns of the offense for the final three drives of the game.
The Knights fans constantly begging to see him in place of junior Chris Laviano got their wish, seeing him play against the second-string of the top scoring defense in the country in garbage time of a blowout.
Like Laviano before him, he avoided throwing an interception to a secondary that led the Big Ten with 9 in the three games before Saturday, but he didn’t impress otherwise, going 0-for-4 through the air while gaining just 14 yards on nine carries.
Oden has slowly but surely been gaining the trust of the coaching staff, taking more and more snaps and handling more drives with every game, but barring a complete turnaround in Ash’s decision-making, he won’t lead Rutgers out on their first drive of a game anytime soon.
“You guys saw him out there Saturday. It's obvious he's not ready,” Ash said in the brutally honest fashion he’s becoming known for. “If he was, he would be out there full-time. He's not. He's got a long way to go. We're trying to bring him along, but he's got a long way to go.”
And so does the program as a whole. For all the improvements the Knights made over the offseason, the reality is it remains far from Ash’s ultimate goal of competing with the best teams in its division, conference and the country.
Those teams are the competition Rutgers has seen in the first half of the season, with No. 4 Michigan marking the third top-5 opponent the Knights will have faced in the first six games of the season.
The final results won’t be desirable, but the experience may prove to be crucial to success down the road.
“That’s exactly what we want. We want to play the best talent in the country and we have,” said senior right guard and captain Chris Muller. “The results haven’t gone the way we wanted and I’m not one for moral victories, but we just have to keep improving and just keep working on our fundamentals and keep trying.”