PISCATAWAY – The stage could not have been more beautifully set. A sea of scarlet and a packed student section at SHI Stadium on a beautiful fall evening. An unbeaten record and a prime time audience. A Big Ten foe with name recognition and a struggling offense.
It had the potential to be the defining moment of Greg Schiano’s return so far. A night where a team grows and a program and its fanbase gets energized.
But with the Scarlet Knights’ struggling offense, it’s all just window dressing.
Saturday’s 27-10 loss to Iowa was the latest reality check. The lack of production continues to hold the program back. And on this night, it didn’t have to be great, but it had to be able to do something. Now it’s a recurring theme that makes it tough to visualize a realistic path to a bowl game.
Schiano: 'We didn't do it'
“I want to thank our fans. It was a great turnout, a great atmosphere,” Schiano said. “I wish we could have performed better, just not quite ready to do that yet in that environment.
“Are we quite ready to perform the way we needed to tonight? I guess not because we didn’t do it. There’s a lot of reasons for that. Some of it is inexperience, some of it is not executing, some of it is coaching, there’s a bunch of reasons.”
And this was an Iowa offense that was struggling every bit as badly as the Scarlet Knights. The Hawkeyes scored seven points in a win over South Dakota State, and seven points in a loss to Iowa State. Except they didn’t have to do much in this one because their defense scored 14 points, taking an interception and fumble return to the house.
Game over at that point, as Iowa built a seemingly insurmountable 17-3 halftime cushion. Everyone knew there would be no first home Big Ten victory since a win over Purdue in 2017.
You can't blame quarterback Evan Simon, who threw for 300 yards with Gavin Wimsatt, considered the future of the program but still a work in progress, out with an injury, and veteran Noah Vedral still sidelined. But the Scarlet Knights never got any consistent traction.
Building a top Power 5 offense with game-breaking capabilities takes time. Three seasons into the rebuild, the light at the end of the tunnel still seems pretty dim, having struggled to score against every FBS opponent it’s face, including Temple and Boston College.
This one was there for the taking
They started to show signs of life in the third quarter, moving to the Iowa 37 before Simon was picked off by Kaevon Merriweather, who returned it into Rutgers territory. Simeon found Johnny Langan for 31 yards early in the fourth quarter, and then found Aron Cruickshank in the end zone on an 18-yard TD pass to pull the Scarlet Knights within two touchdowns.
If they could have found a consistent offensive flow this one was there for the taking.
“Over the last five years they’re one of the top defenses in America,” Schiano said. “So I actually thought we did some good things early in the run game and early in the game. Again, those turnovers for scores were actually moving the ball. Sometimes you look at your call sheet and it’s like ‘what the heck, nothing is working.’ I felt like there were a lot of things on the call sheet that were fine.” ‘’
The defense played well enough, giving up just one touchdown. And if Rutgers had been able to get to 4-0, they’d have been in great shape, with winnable home games against Nebraska and Indiana on the schedule after a trip to Ohio State.
This season is about a young team making strides on a weekly basis, but the offense seems stuck in neutral.
This night could have provided flashbacks to the Louisville game in 2006. Just glimpses, but enough to whet everyone’s appetite for more. But as the third quarter rolled on the stands began to empty out, the faithful resigned to the outcome.
Clearly, this team isn’t at that level yet. And until it gets a lot closer, nights like these will continue to be missed opportunities.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Rutgers football loss to Iowa another reality check