If Rutgers' head football coach Chris Ash could guarantee that his team would have the same record as division foes Michigan State with three games remaining in his first season on the Banks, he would’ve likely signed up without hesitation.
Eleven months after he took the helm in Piscataway, 10 months after the Spartans were blown out by eventual national champions Alabama in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff and 9 gameweeks into the 2016 season, he would’ve gotten his wish.
The Scarlet Knights and their next opponent have the exact same record heading into their meeting in East Lansing this Saturday. But unlike he would've hoped upon putting pen to paper, it was the hosts failing to meet expectations this season rather than the visitors exceeding theirs.
But don’t let the 2-7 overall records and 0-6 clips in Big Ten play fool you — these two teams are better than the results have shown.
“I know they've got a 2-7 record. But when you watch film, that's not what you see,” Ash said. “Regardless of what the record is, we have to have a great week of preparation. We have to go play an outstanding game to put ourselves in position to have a chance to win it when we go up there to East Lansing.”
Ash spoke not only of playing an outstanding game but also of a complete one the Knights have seeked but failed to produce since the start of Big Ten play.
Excluding the 58-0 loss to then-No. 2 Ohio State and the historic 78-0 blowout at the hands of No. 3 Michigan in consecutive weeks last month, two outliers in which Rutgers was completely outmatched, the Knights hung tight in every loss they’ve suffered in conference play, but they were unable to pull out a win because of a deficiency in one area of the game.
Rutgers outperformed Iowa on third down situations, held the Hawkeyes to 14 points after they factored 108 points in their first three games and kept the turnover battle to a minimal 1-0 loss, but it failed to factor on offense and lost its season opener 14-7 as a result.
Three weeks and two blowout losses later, the Knights were dominated in the takeaway department, surrendering possession to Illinois five times while recovering it just once, making the fact it outgained its visitors and dominated in critical situations irrelevant in a 24-7 loss.
A trip to Minneapolis the following Saturday was the closest Rutgers has come to a conference win so far, bringing a Golden Gopher team begging to be beaten to the brink before conceding a game-winning field goal at the death.
It continued its impressive form on critical situations on both sides of the ball, holding Minnesota to 6-for-14 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth while going 10-for-19 on third down itself. What the Knights were unable to do in the Twin Cities that, among other issues, ultimately led to defeat was stop the run, which has been a season-long struggle.
Entering last Saturday’s game against Indiana with the worst rush defense in the Big Ten, Rutgers held a Hoosier team that racked up 440 yards against Maryland with a newly developed wildcat package a week before to just 147 yards. Remove the 59 and 34-yard touchdown runs and the Hoosiers only mustered 54 yards on 42 carries.
But the holes the Knights plugged on their previously porous defensive line were blown open in a secondary that owned the second-best pass defense during conference play. Rutgers held Big Ten opponents to 158 yards per game through the air before facing Richard Lagow, who more than doubled the average with 394 yards on 28-for-40 yards passing in a 33-27 win at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Rinse and repeat.
“Absolutely, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” said junior defensive end Darnell Davis on losing to Indiana despite stopping the run and forcing four turnovers. “But the thing is, we’re getting better. We’re doing things better. Yeah, we still have things to clean up, but our goal is just to win and to win, you can’t make mistakes at all, especially when you’re playing great teams, so we just gotta clean that up and get the win. That’s all I want (and) that’s what everyone on the team wants.”
The Spartans present the best opportunity for the Knights to earn a win in the final, three-game stretch of the season. Stuck in the basement of the Big Ten East with Rutgers after winning it over Ohio State and Michigan a year ago, Michigan State ranks alongside its visitors in the bottom half of nearly every significant statistical category in conference play.
The most significant stat the Spartans struggle in for the Knights, though, is in opponents third-down conversions. Michigan State allowed opponents to convert on 40 of 88 third down situations, a 45.5 percent conversion rate ahead of only Illinois among Big Ten teams in conference play.
After receeding heavily from what Ash called the best offensive performance of the season against Minnesota to going 1-for-16 on third down conversions against Indiana, Rutgers has a golden opportunity to return to the peak it reached in Minneapolis, and it starts with the player who led them to the surge in production.
Sophomore quarterback Giovanni Rescigno shone in his first career start against Minnesota but struggled mightily in his second against Indiana. The coaching staff hasn’t expressed worries in the Warren, Michigan, native letting the emotion of playing in front of former teammates and coaches, family and friends in his homecoming affect his performance.
The fact Rescigno wasn’t a fan of the Spartans growing up — he was born in Tennessee and was a fan of the Volunteers as a kid — may help in that department.
“I guess we’ll see as the game comes later this week, but I’m just gonna play football the way we’ve been doing the past couple of weeks," he said. "Not really gonna think about it too much. I’ll be excited but just like the last couple of weeks.”
On a small, individual scale, Saturday is an opportunity for Rescigno to bounce back from a frustrating game against Indiana.
As for the macro view, Michigan State represents a chance for the Knights to pick up the win that’s eluded it all season, to end the frustration of coming so close to victory, of tasting it before it is ripped from Rutgers' grasp.
It’s one of the final chances Ash’s first team will have to prove it can close out games, show it can come through in crunch time and demonstrate that progress has been made from the beginning of spring camp, of training camp, of Big Ten play and since the beatdown it took from Harbaugh’s Wolverines, the Spartan’s bitter rivals, a month ago.
And while it may be against a much weaker Michigan State team than expected, with a bowl appearance both programs have become accustomed to attending at the end of their seasons over the past decade out of the picture, Saturday's game is far from meaningless.
"We’re just focused on, right now, ourselves and being the best that we can be,” Ash said. “I talked to the guys a lot about this game. This game is about love for their teammates, it’s about self-respect and it’s about the older guys having an opportunity to leave a legacy and help the program move forward. That’s what this game is about.”