Improved Rutgers goes from hapless to hopeful
The Scarlet Knights have a bowl game in their sights down the stretch of their season. They play Saturday at No. 16 Penn State, a team that drubbed them 39-0 last year.
In head coach Chris Ash's second season, the Rutgers football program has come a long way since the team that lost all nine of its Big Ten games last year, four by scores of 78-0, 58-0, 49-0 and 39-0.
Ash will be the first to tell you that the Scarlet Knights have a long way to go, but there is no questioning their improvement. With a 3-3 record in the Big Ten and a 4-5 mark overall with three games to go, including Saturday's contest at No. 16 Penn State, the Knights can reach the six wins needed to qualify for a bowl game.
At his weekly press conference Monday in Piscataway, N.J., Ash said he knew his 2017 team was much better this season even though it started 1-4.
"That's part of the process of building a team," he said. "It starts with teaching the players how to compete, and during that 1-4 stretch we were competing. We were playing with everybody. The game we haven't really competed in this year was the Ohio State game [a 56-0 home loss], and the wheels kind of fell off in that game.
"The next step was to try to get our players to understand what it was going to take to win games, and it's the details, it's the discipline, it's the execution, it's the consistency and what we are asking them to do. We have gotten better at that part of it. But the energy, the enthusiasm, the preparation, effort, that's all been there.
"That's shown up every Saturday. That's part of the process. That's part of building a team, is teaching them how to make those plays and being consistent that will help you get the 'W.' That's the difference. It's not anything else."
Trailing 24-17 entering the fourth quarter Saturday against Maryland, Rutgers scored two touchdowns, then kept the Terrapins out of the end zone during a 6 1/2-minute drive late in the game to preserve its 31-24 win at home.
Now the Scarlet Knights travel to Beaver Stadium to play the Nittany Lions, who defeated them 39-0 last year in Piscataway and limited them to 87 yards of total offense.
Penn State (7-2, 4-2) is coming off back-to-back defeats at Ohio State and Michigan State and should be highly motivated to break its slump. Ash said he isn't worried about that.
"We're focused on us, our improvement," he said. "I don't care who we play, how many games in a row they have won or how many they have lost. It doesn't matter. They have got to go play their game and I'm sure they are going to prepare to play the best game like they do every Saturday, and that's all we're going to do also.
"I don't care about what they are doing. It's all about us and what we need to do to continue to go out and prepare and get closer and closer to playing as good as we can play."