The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Next up is Rutgers, a team that was exceeded expectations last season and returns a lot of talent.
Returning Production: 64 percent overall (Offense 67 percent, Defense 61 percent)
2020 Record: 3-6
Coach: Greg Schiano
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 101st
2020 S&P+ Offense: 105th
2020 S&P+ Defense: 84th
After a dreadful second half of the 2010s that saw Rutgers earn a total of four conference wins from 2015-2019, the modified 2020 season provided Rutgers fans with a newfound sense of hope and optimism heading into the new decade. Led by Greg Schiano, the man who ushered the program into national prominence and glory during his 10-year tenure at the beginning of the 21st century, the Scarlet Knights managed to finish with a 3-6 record in perhaps the most difficult conference in the country. As their record shows, their play was inconsistent and far from perfect, but they showed flashes of ability, creative playcalling and high-level execution that had been absent in previous years.
They started the 2020 campaign with a commanding 38-27 upset victory over Michigan State — in East Lansing, no less — before dropping their next four. The first two losses came at the hands of Indiana and Ohio State, and the third was a narrow loss to Illinois. The fourth was crushing but came with silver linings, as it came in the form of a 48-42 triple-overtime loss to Michigan, a team that had beat Rutgers 52-0 in 2019. But unlike recent Rutgers teams that have had trouble recovering from early season struggles, Schiano’s squad bounced back to win two of its final four games against solid teams in Purdue and Maryland. By the end of the season, it was clear that the tide was turning for the better in Piscataway.
Despite a below average offensive SP+ rating, the Rutgers offense held up well in certain metrics and was a major improvement from the year before. In 2019, the Scarlet Knights scored a touch over 13 points per game. In 2020, they scored 20 points or more in every game except for one and averaged over 26 points per game. Despite some difficulties in generating explosive plays, it was arguably the offense’s best showing since Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014, as they found ways to score time and time again throughout last season.
One key statistic that Rutgers will attempt to improve on going into this season is in yards per play and yards per game; it ranked last and second to last in those categories, respectively, in the Big Ten last year. The Scarlet Knights were also last in the Big Ten in third-down conversion rate. However, now entering his second year with the team, offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson will have a lot of key players returning that he can utilize.
After transferring from Nebraska following the 2019 season, quarterback Noah Vedral returns for his second season in Piscataway after a mediocre rookie year for the Scarlet Knights. He struggled to move the ball at times and threw eight interceptions, but his leadership and experience should prove valuable. Couple that with some speedy wideouts in Bo Melton, Shaman Jones and Aron Cruickshank, and the passing offense will be better after averaging 199 yards through the air per game last year.
To complement the passing game, senior running back Isaih Pacheco will be the main man in the backfield. He has enjoyed a solid career at Rutgers thus far, having rushed for 1,795 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he will hope to cap it off with a stellar senior season.
Much of this is contingent on better play from the offensive line, a group that struggled at times last season. However, with all five starters returning, there should be some more consistency within the unit. If it can show improvement and avoid injuries, then the offense as a whole could be dangerous in 2021.
On the defensive side of the ball, Rutgers will need to have made some major improvements from last season in order to win games. The defense gave up 449 yards and 32 points per game, giving up at least 23 points in all eight games (if you were curious, Northwestern gave up more than 23 points just once last year). Two areas in which it excelled, though, were sacks and interceptions. Rutgers was tied for fourth in the conference with eight interceptions and had the third most sacks with 21. Given this and the return of many key players, the defensive outlook for the Scarlet Knights is bright.
The linebacking corps is likely to be Rutgers’ strongest defensive unit. It’s led by an impressive group in senior Olakunle Fatukasi, who led the Big Ten with 101 tackles last year, Mohamed Toure, who had 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception, and Tyshon Fogg, who managed 70 tackles and was an honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media.
The secondary is another strong group, led by the one-two punch of Avery Young and Tre Avery at cornerback. Young was an All-Big Ten honorable mention while Avery earned third-team honors last season, and they should only be better as they both head into their senior seasons.
At safety, Christian Izien should be another strong part of the unit after ending 2020 on a strong note that included four interceptions in his last three games. Izien was another honorable mention All-Big Ten member last season, accumulating 66 tackles, four pass breakups and three fumble recoveries.
Something to watch out for is Rutgers’ lack of depth, as they don’t have many bench players who have on-field experience. The program saw a host of defensive linemen transfer out following the end of the 2020 season and there is no definite starter to fill the shoes of graduated safety Brendon White. However, given the talent that is returning, the Rutgers defense should see a jump in production in 2021.
Three Players to Know
LB Olakunle Fatukasi
Fatukasi has always been a talented player, and he was able to put it all together and put the entire country on notice last season. The New York City native was phenomenal for Rutgers en route to earning First Team All-Big Ten honors from the media and becoming a Butkus award semifinalist. Fatukasi’s 11.2 tackles per game were good for the ninth-best in the country. He also had 11 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and a pass breakup. Expect to hear his name called quite a bit on the Oct. 16 broadcast.
RB Isaih Pacheco
While Pacheco’s career 4.5 yards per carry mark is not a jaw dropping figure, his numbers have not been helped by the quarterback and offensive line woes that Rutgers has faced recently. The senior has improved as a pass-catcher every year since coming to Rutgers, culminating in a career-best 19 receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown in 2020. At 5-foot-10, Pacheco is a strong and physical runner who battles for every yard, and it seems that with an improved offensive line he will finally get the chance to showcase all of his abilities.
CB Avery Young
Since joining the team as a freshman in 2018, Young has been an important part of the secondary, starting 30 games at cornerback. The Pennsylvania-native showed off his versatility last year, forcing three fumbles, breaking up three passes and serving as a punt returner, making this impressive lateral that led to a touchdown against Ohio State. This versatility is what makes Young so unique, as he thrives in inside-outside coverage against some of the best wideouts in the country while also being excellent against the run.