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Bowl hopes hang in balance as Rutgers hosts Indiana

Head coach Chris Ash and his team have a tall task ahead of them if they hope to reach a bowl game in their first season together. Rutgers has conference opponents Indiana, Michigan State, No. 12 Penn State and Maryland in its path to a 10th bowl game appearance in 12 seasons. – Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez

For the first time all season, the Rutgers football team will enter a game coming off a bye week. The Scarlet Knights (2-6, 0-5) are hosting an Indiana team coming off its best offensive performance of the season in a narrow 42-36 win over Maryland.

Can the fact the Knights are looking to return back into their routine after the first pause in their weekly routine in three months against the Hoosiers (4-4, 2-3), who have as much momentum as they’ve had all season, have a significant impact on the final result?

“Yeah, I mean it definitely makes a difference if you want it to,” said senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick. “Bye weeks can be detrimental to teams and they can be extremely positive. I think the way we handled our bye week and the way coaches tried to take care of our bodies and stuff like that, it’s gonna be better for us, but yeah, momentum does work.”

Rutgers, for all the headlines it made in the national media for its embarrassing losses to then-No. 2 Ohio State (58-0 in Columbus) and then-No. 3 Michigan (78-0 at home), remains in contention for its 10th bowl game in 12 seasons. All it has to do is win out, a task far easier said and done considering the obstacle the Knights are staring at in the moment.

Known for an offense that dominates through the air but lacks on the ground, Indiana appears to have turned a corner in its rush offense with a dominant performance against the Terrapins.

Averaging just under 200 yards per game on the ground, the Hoosiers more than doubled it last Saturday, chewing up 414 rushing yards, falling short of the most at Memorial Stadium in program history (455) set against Indiana State in 2014.

The emphatic win put Indiana back into bowl contention, with a win over Rutgers being a huge stepping stone towards reaching a second straight bowl game for the first time since 1991.

But if history is to repeat itself, it will be Rutgers taking a step forward in its quest for a spot in the postseason. In the only two meetings between the programs in history, both coming after the Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014, it was Rutgers who emerged with a win.

First came a convincing 45-23 ballgame at High Point Solutions Stadium in which the Knights guaranteed a bowl game appearance and killed similar aspirations for Indiana. Last year’s matchup was far closer, with Rutgers needing a last-gasp field goal from Kyle Federico to seal a 25-point comeback win in Bloomington.

The circumstances surrounding the third meeting between the teams Saturday are strikingly similar — the win could the Knights’ first conference win of the season and could damper Indiana’s bowl hopes while keeping Rutgers alive, just as it was last season — but they are far from being at the front of the minds’ of the players on the field.

“For some guys, maybe, that may be something they think about, but at the same time, if you go into a game with that mindset whole-heartedly, you’ll kind of play out of control maybe or you won’t be as focused as you need to be,” said junior left guard Dorian Miller on playing spoiler in the Hoosiers’ season. “If you look at the way stuff plays out after the game, it would be cool to kind of say ‘Oh, we threw off their season a little bit’ or ‘We threw a monkey-wrench in things,’ but I try not to think of things like that going into a game.”

The symbolism doesn’t say much to Chris Ash either, who continues to seek his first conference win as a head coach.

Facing a sixth-year head coach in Kevin Wilson for the fourth straight year with the third different program, Ash said this is the type of program Rutgers is aspiring to be, and therefore, is a team it needs to defeat on “The Hunt” to becoming a premier program — but not because of the name on the front of its jersey.

“You look up and down our schedule, a lot of teams we need to beat to be able to go to bowl games and get to the level that we want to get to,” Ash said. “We don't focus on jersey names and logos. It's all about going out and playing the best that we can play. We don't talk about wins and losses, it's about what it's going to take to win. ... It's not about just beating Indiana. It's about going out and playing our best ability and doing things we need to execute the plan to win.”

The result would impact either team greatly — a loss for Rutgers would kill any shred of hope it has in playing after Thanksgiving, while a loss for Indiana would mean the Hoosiers would need to defeat either the Wolverines or No. 12 Penn State in order to reach the postseason.

But to Pinnix-Odrick, all that stuff — playoff implications, momentum, all-time series results — go in one ear and out the other as he and his team prepare. After all, once the ball is kicked off, it makes no difference.

"As I get older, the simpler the game gets. No matter how much you prepare, no matter how much you know, you still gotta go out there and play ball," Pinnix-Odrick, one of Rutgers' four captains said. "They can have their best game of the season, that’s awesome, but we still gotta go out there and stop them and they still gotta come to our house and beat us. ... what we boil down into preparation, momentum, mindset, we gotta go out there and play ball and it’s just who’s going to be more disciplined. And as corny as it sounds, and as lame as that sounds, it’s really that simple. When you try to overcomplicate that, we create obstacles that aren’t really there. And that’s really what it comes down to."

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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