Compared to the difficulties the Rutgers football team's defense had last year with a record of 2-10 (0-9 in conference play), the Scarlet Knights (1-2, 1-2) have been more effective three games into the shortened Big Ten season. Although Rutgers sits with a losing record, the defense has been improving ever since head football coach Greg Schiano returned to the Banks this year.
In week one, versus Michigan State, the Knights looked like a completely different team than years past, winning 38-27. The defense forced seven turnovers against the Spartans, four of those turnovers taking place in the first half.
Rutgers forced more turnovers in that one game than they did all of last season, a testament to the team's progress. The turnovers helped the Knights offense get short fields, and they were able to take advantage. The offense scored 21 points off of the turnovers that the defense forced.
Senior linebacker Tyshon Fogg led the way with 14 tackles, while junior defensive back Avery Young and senior linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi had 10 tackles apiece and a total of three forced fumbles combined. Fatukasi also had two fumble recoveries and was named both the Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week and the Chuck Bednarik Award National Player of the Week.
Senior defensive back Tre Avery had seven tackles and an interception off of Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi, while sophomore linebacker Mohamed Toure forced two fumbles of his own and also recorded two sacks. Rutgers’ defense was a dominant factor in the week one win, where the Knights won their first Big Ten matchup since 2017.
Week two would be a loss for Rutgers against Indiana, but the defense continued to be physical and aggressive. Fatukasi led the way with 14 tackles, with 2.5 being for losses against the No. 10 Hoosiers. Senior defensive back Brendon White was right behind him, making 12 total tackles in the week two contest. Senior linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams also had two tackles in the game.
While those three made impacts, three others also played a role in the defensive effort – as Avery, Fogg and Young had 14 tackles combined, all in place for Toure, who was ejected early in the game for a targeting call. The Knights would fall 37-21, but it wasn't due to a lack of defensive effort.
After week two, Rutgers would enter week three with a major challenge against a National Championship contender in Ohio State. The Knights would lose the contest to the No. 3 Buckeyes 49-27. But even though Ohio State's Justin Fields threw for five touchdowns and 314 passing yards, the defense still made several stops. Fatukasi led the way again with 13 total tackles.
Young was behind Fatukasi with nine total tackles, with Fogg also making seven stops in the contest. Senior defensive linemen CJ Onyechi and Julius Turner combined for eight tackles and a sack. Rutgers might have lost by double digits, but the defense improved significantly compared to the last time they played the Buckeyes.
Schiano returning as the bench boss has been instrumental to the new and improved defense. With five games left on the shortened in-conference schedule, this defense looks to impress even more, hoping to be a bright spot in a year that has been riddled with sports cancellations due to the global pandemic.