The Rutgers football team approached its matchup with Illinois on homecoming last weekend as a fresh start after a first half of the season in which it was outscored 240-109 in six games, including a 150-7 stretch in three games against No. 2 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan and Iowa.
And despite suffering a 24-7 loss to the Fighting Illini in which they practically beat themselves, the Scarlet Knights (2-5, 0-4) aren’t throwing in the towel on the rest of the year, evidenced by the change to the status quo at quarterback.
Head coach Chris Ash announced Monday that sophomore Giovanni Rescigno earned the starting nod behind center in this Saturday’s matchup with Minnesota (noon, ESPNU) in place of junior teammate Chris Laviano, whose streak of 18 consecutive starts will come to an end in Minneapolis.
Rescigno was given the opportunity after a standout second half in which he combined with senior tight end Nick Arcidiaccono on a 3-yard touchdown that ended a scoring drought that stretched 11 quarters, the longest scoreless streak in FBS football in more than a decade, according to ESPN.
The loneliest man in sports?
Rutgers just completed its 11th straight quarter without scoring, the longest drought in FBS in 10 years. pic.twitter.com/JaKTNT8uPA
— ESPN (@espn) October 15, 2016
With a pair of days until making his debut as a collegiate starter, Rescigno remains as relaxed as he did last week when he emulated Illinois quarterback Chayce Crouch on the scout team.
“Gio’s had a good week of preparation. He’s got a lot of energy, he’s focused, he seems relaxed too,” Ash told reporters after practice Thursday. “That was probably the biggest concern is when he was named the starter, how he was gonna handle it. He seems very relaxed, the players seem to be rallying around him. We’ll see how that translates to Saturday, but so far, so good.”
The Golden Gophers (4-2, 1-2) will likely also feature a back-up behind center on Saturday, but not by choice.
Former walk-on Conor Rhoda is expected to get his second start in place of senior Mitch Leider, who is listed as out for the game as he works his way back from a concussion sustained against Iowa Oct. 8.
The situation resembles the Illini’s last week, who entered Piscataway with question marks surrounding who would start between back-up Crouch or experienced senior Wes Lunt.
Rhoda led the Gophers to their first Big Ten win of the season last weekend, throwing for 82 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions on 7-for-15 passing in a 31-10 victory over Maryland.
Though not the most eye-catching performance, the junior did enough to supplement a Minnesota rushing offense that ranks fifth in the Big Ten with an average of 207 yards per game.
The Gophers exceeded their average with 229 yards rushing against the Terrapins, led by sophomore running back Rodney Smith’s 144 yards.
Smith ranks third in the conference with an average of 98 yards rushing per game, falling behind Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and Ohio State’s Mike Weber, who had 144 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in a 58-0 win over Rutgers earlier this season.
Minnesota’s running backs have flourished behind an offensive line consisting of five players averaging 321 pounds between them, none of which shorter than 6-foot-4 or lighter than 305 pounds.
Oh, and a starting tight end listed at 6-foot-10.
“They’re huge. Biggest offense we’ve seen from a size perspective,” said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. “Big strong guys upfront, really big tight end … like a post forward or a center.”
The Gophers will look to boost their rushing numbers against the Knights, who enter the Twin Cities ranking penultimate in the Big Ten in rush defense, conceding an average of 263 yards per contest through 7 games.
Nearly half of the 1846 total yards they’ve given up on the ground came against the Buckeyes (410) and Wolverines (481), who combined for 491 in two consecutive games to close out the first half of Rutgers’ season.
In comparison, the Illini’s 228 rushing yard afternoon seems pedestrian, but the reality is, it would rank fourth in the Big Ten and 24th nationally if it were their average.
Cleaning up on defense and clogging the holes on the defensive line would be a big first step for the Knights as they look to move on from their current four-game losing streak with what would be Ash’s first Big Ten win as a head coach.
Minnesota is the first of the final five battles of the season, one in which winning would keep hope alive for Rutgers reaching an 10th bowl game in 12 years, a rainbow at the end of the treacherous storm that has been the first season of Ash’s tenure.
“The last three weeks have been tough obviously but ... you gotta keep fighting, keep focusing on the hunt, believing in the culture, trusting the culture, trusting the environment and just keep working,” said junior defensive end Darnell Davis, who got his first career sack against Illinois. “There’s been some tough losses, we all know that but if we keep working ... Rome wasn’t built in a day. You gotta get back up right? It’s good to get knocked down every once in a while, it humbles you.”