This was a vision that should have given even the most frustrated Rutgers fans a pleasant déjà vu: No. 27 for the Scarlet Knights, carrying the ball over and over again while Rutgers smashed an opponent with a physical, ball offense check.
No, Ray Rice – the OG of Rutgers 27ers – didn’t come out of retirement to use his final year of eligibility, but that was even better. This was a true freshman who pounded for those yards after contact in a 24-17 win over Indiana that saved the season.
It was Samuel Brown V, less than two months into his collegiate career, who looked like the kind of player who could finally bring an identity back to this Rutgers offense.
Brown carried the ball 28 times — the most for a Rutgers running back since joining the Big Ten — for 101 yards and a touchdown. He limped off the field in the fourth quarter and didn’t return, so fans will have to hold their breath and hope he’s healthy enough to play Minnesota next week. (UPDATE: Brown said he was feeling fine after the game and walking without a limp.)
Still, in a season that looked like it was going to be out of whack for Greg Schiano, the head coach has been looking to the future. And it looked a lot earlier.
It seems obvious that this was the case exactly what Schiano wanted from his offense when he made the unprecedented decision to fire coordinator Sean Gleeson after six games. The new OC Nunzio Campanile eliminated the cuteness that had become an issue under Gleeson for want of a better word, and as a result the Scarlet Knights physically dominated the Big Ten’s worst defense.
Schiano said he’s looking for “complementary” football from his team, and on a day when the Rutgers’ defense was outstanding, the Scarlet Knights did just enough on offense to erase an early 14-0 lead and take their bowl -Hopes remained alive with five games.
Brown was a workaholic. Was he Rice, the greatest player in the program’s modern history? No, but this was the kind of day that would make old No. 27 proud and a performance that offers hope for the future of this offense.
Here are five observations from Rutgers-Indiana:
1. THE DEBUT OF NUNZIO BALL
So what was different about this Rutgers offense under Nunzio Campanile, who made his play-calling debut two weeks after his predecessor Gleeson was fired?
For starters, Campanile ended the crazy staff rotations and stayed with quarterback Noah Vedral and (mostly) Brown for the entire first half. It helped that, unlike Gleeson, Campanile had a healthy Vedral. But Brown had 15 carries in the first half alone, that’s just one short of the entire game against Nebraska – which was particularly criminal as Rutgers tried to defend a 13-0 lead.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks Evan Simon and Gavin Wimsatt didn’t get a single snap in the game. At Campanile, there seems to have been an acknowledgment that the best players get the majority of snaps, which is an improvement.
2. RIP THE LANGAN PACKAGE?
Here’s another change under Campanile: The Johnny Langan package appears to have been withdrawn (for now, at least), a wise decision considering the bloody tight end has proven to be one of the team’s most reliable passers.
Faced with a fourth and a play in the second quarter – a down and distance that almost always caused Gleeson to break out Langan – Vedral instead handed to Brown, who grabbed the first down to keep the Scarlet Knights’ first hit going.
It was the same situation in the third quarter and once again it was Vedral who took the snap and handed it off to Brown for the successful conversion. Both times Vedral took the snapshot from below middle, another subtle sign that things have changed with this offense. (Langan later took a snap in a goal-line situation in the third quarter.)
3. THE DEFENSE TAKES OVER
As IU quarterback Connor Bazelak completed his first 10 passes for Indiana, it looked like it was going to be a long day for the Rutgers defense. The speedy Hoosiers – who snap the ball faster than any collegiate team – looked like they could drive the Scarlet Knights out of their own stadium.
Then, finally, Rutgers found a way to keep up with Indiana’s pace by playing the Hoosiers receivers in close coverage and finishing the IU pass game. Cornerback Christian Braswell had a great day with a pick six and three pass breakups, defenseman Aaron Lewis spent most of the day in the offensive backfield, and Joe Harasymiak’s schemes were nearly flawless.
This stat summed up the second half: Indiana had just 53 seconds of possession in the third quarter when Rutgers took control of the game. That Rutgers defense was brilliant.
4. SPECIFIC ERRORS
Special teams have been a strength for Rutgers this season, but allowing a 93-yard kickoff for a touchdown early in the game — the first for the Hoosiers in a decade — forced the Scarlet Knights to spend most of the day catching up.
It wasn’t the special team’s only mistake that day. Returnee Aron Cruickshank finally broke free for a big return, snaking 90 yards through IU cover and down the Rutgers touchline for an obvious touchdown that would have iced the game. But Rutgers’ Dariel Djabome was tagged for a block in the back, and instead of a 10-point lead, the offense was secured at their own 5-yard line.
Another mistake: While kicker Jude McAtamney drilled a 49-yard field goal in the third quarter — which earned him at least one field goal in all seven Rutgers games this season — Indiana gave up trying a 56-yard goal early in the fourth quarter. Yard field goals ball at the Rutgers 38, three points behind. Schiano should have stung there.
5. HOMECOMING, BIG TEN AND BREAKING BAND NEWS
Here are a few other goodies from around Piscataway:
a. Urgent band news! The Rutgers Marching Band was invited to next year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, with the official announcement being made during the halftime show. It will be the band’s first performance at the annual Turkey Day Bonanza.
b. From the press release: “The band will join the celebration on Thanksgiving Day 2023 alongside other iconic Macy’s classics: floats, giant character balloons, clowns and superstar performers galore to help create an unforgettable experience for millions .” Hey, band news is better than bad news.
c. The Rutgers’ passing game didn’t light up SHI Stadium, but receiver Sean Ryan made two nifty catches on the team’s first touchdown drive.
i.e. Campanile couldn’t get Cruickshank involved in the passing game (two catches, 12 yards), so he let the team’s most dangerous playmaker carry the ball five times — including a well-timed jet sweep that gained 41 yards.
e. Next up: Minnesota, which could see a three-game losing streak depending on the outcome of its game Saturday night at No. 16 Penn State. Regardless, it’s a journey that doesn’t look nearly as scary as it did a few weeks ago.
f. Congratulations to Wagner for coming off the hook against LIU, ending the 26-game losing streak and then creating some good social media content. Swagger is back.
G. Adam Korsak followed up with his second touchback of the season (outrageous!) with a season-long 66-yard punt in the final minutes of the first half. He may not win the Guy, but he’s still the GOAT
H. Announced quantity: 43,225. Discuss this among yourselves.
MORE FROM STEVE POLITI:
How an ex-Rutgers athlete was charged with the Tijuana murder
I’ve been a little league fugitive threat — and it’s time to come clean
The search for Luther Wright, once NJ’s biggest basketball talent
I played Augusta National and had my own Masters meltdown
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Steve Politi can be reached at [email protected].