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Rutgers’ football fortunes improving under coach Greg Schiano with the help of ‘chop’

Schiano has reestablished a culture in his second stint as Rutgers' coach. The Scarlet Knights are 5-5, one win away from bowl eligibility, entering Saturday's game at Penn State.

Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano yells at his players after a penalty in the first half  against Illinois on Oct. 30.
Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano yells at his players after a penalty in the first half against Illinois on Oct. 30.Read moreCharles Rex Arbogast / AP

When Greg Schiano returned to Rutgers as head football coach after the end of the 2019 season, he brought back the message that sparked the Scarlet Knights during his first stint leading the program.


“That’s our program thing. It’s our culture,” junior safety Avery Young, a former standout at Coatesville High School, said Wednesday.

“It’s something that everybody believes in, and once you have a group of men that believe in something as heavily as we believe in chop, then it’s just all about applying our belief on the field. So that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s on display and I feel like we’re playing better ball as the season has gone on.

“It’s the ability to fight through adversity more efficiently. It’s something that you see on display. We’ve been in some rough situations and pulled it out from last year to this year, so we’ve been able to get our program to kind of start turning the corner.”

The Scarlet Knights (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten), who visit Beaver Stadium on Saturday to take on Penn State, have equaled their win total for the previous two seasons combined. A victory Saturday or the following week at home against Maryland would make them eligible for their first bowl game since 2011.

Schiano introduced chop during his first head coaching stint that went from 2001 through 2011. He brought the idea from his previous stop as defensive coordinator at Miami during a particularly difficult time. With the coaching staff on the hot seat, the team’s sports psychologist addressed players and coaches.

“You’re in the middle of the woods and it’s pitch dark and it’s cold,” Schiano quoted the psychologist as saying. “You’ve got two choices: You can curl up and die or in essence get fired, or you can pick up an ax, pick one tree, look at the spot on that tree, and grab that ax as tight as you can and haul off and hit that spot.”

Schiano, who served as Penn State’s secondary coach from 1991 through 1995, said the focus and concentration stays on one tree and then another and another until light starts to show in the forest.

“You keep doing it, before you know it, you’re where you want to be,” he said.

Rutgers sports a 3-2 road record with wins at Syracuse, Illinois, and Indiana. Senior wide receiver Bo Melton (Cedar Creek), who leads the team with 48 catches for 523 yards and three touchdowns, said chop maintains focus on the road, even in a noisy venue like Penn State.

“Going on the road, we chop the moment and we stay in the moment,” Melton said. “We prepare a lot during the week for the crowd. What we do here, just chop the moment and nobody can distract us.”

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Schiano, whose 76 career wins at Rutgers are two short of the program record held by Frank Burns, has watched his team compile some impressive statistics. The Scarlet Knights are 5-0 when they don’t turn the ball over and their plus-7 turnover margin is tied for 17th in the FBS. Their third-down percentage defense mark of 28.8% is fourth nationally, and they’re No. 1 in net punting.

Junior running back Isaih Pacheco (Vineland South) has rushed for a team-high 554 yards this season and his 2,349 career yards rank eighth on the program’s all-time list. He credits the culture developed by Schiano for the team’s improvement.

“It’s a great culture that coach Schiano brought here, kind of getting everyone to buy in and fully agree that everyone is buying in,” Pacheco said. “The biggest thing here is family. It’s being able to sacrifice for your brother. It’s kind of what we have here and that’s what we’ve got to build off every day when we come out for practice.”

Young and his older brother, Aaron, a running back, are two of 11 Pennsylvania players on the Rutgers roster, and two of 12 on the Scarlet Knights’ two-deep chart from the extended Philadelphia metropolitan area. He said Saturday will be “a fun atmosphere to play in.”

“Definitely it’s going to be loud, it’s Penn State,” Avery Young said. “They’ve got a great tradition and a very good football program. So we’re ready for the noise and what the fans will bring. We always bring our own energy on the road anyway, so we’ll be looking forward to it.”

Young said he has a number of high school friends who will be in attendance to see him play but will be cheering for Penn State. He was asked if he’d be able to convert them to his side.

“We’ll see Saturday,” he said. “If they’re wearing red, you’ll know the answer.”