Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Know The Foe: A Closer Look at Rutgers

By Brian Rosenthal

Exactly how big will the elephant in Memorial Stadium be on Saturday?

We’re not talking about Alabama’s lovable mascot, either.

“This event occurred, and it’s going to be perceived by people in a million different ways,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “I don’t have any control over that. I think the first, most important thing is for me to address our coaching staff and our players and get our players ready to play Saturday.”

Of course, “this event” was news that Nebraska’s university administration will immediately began seeking a new director of athletics after parting ways with Shawn Eichorst.

“I’m just thankful that he brought me here. He’s the one that stepped out and gave us a job here,” Riley said. “We brought a staff and we’re at a great place and we’re thankful to be here trying to both develop and grow and be the best we can be.”

All eyes now turn to Riley, whose team is 1-2 heading into Saturday’s homecoming game and Big Ten Conference opener against Rutgers. Kickoff from Memorial Stadium is 2:30 p.m. (BTN).

Rutgers has lost 14 straight Big Ten games and hasn’t defeated a Power 5 team since October 2015. The Scarlet Knights ended an 11-game losing streak last week by blasting FCS team Morgan State 65-0.

On any other occasion, victory over Rutgers would seem more certain. But this seems different. It is different. Nebraska must battle, regroup and build confidence after losing 21-17 last weekend to Northern Illinois.

To wit: The Blackshirts must build off a game in which they allowed only one touchdown, and the offense must strive to begin the game better, more emphatically, and take charge immediately. That mean's not letting up. Everything goes great until the defense jumps a bubble screen.

Riley, his staff and players have 10 games to right the ship, beginning with a clean slate in conference play. Bottom line, he wants his team to have fun once again.

“This is supposed to be fun,” said Riley, in his third season with Nebraska. “I want to get them ready to play, and it’s only fun, I’ve found, when you win, so we’re trying in every way to just do that.”

Here’s a closer look at Rutgers, which has lost its first two Big Ten games against Nebraska:

 

Scarlet Knights on Offense

Freshman quarterback Jonathan Lewis was named Big Ten freshman of the week this week. He rushed for four touchdowns against Morgan State, the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in school history.

(Morgan State is an FCS team that’s been outscored 97-0 in three games. The Bears were 3-8 last season.)

Rutgers has three backs who average more than 5 yards per carry in their careers. Gus Edwards (5.1) has started the first three games, and he leads the Scarlet Knights with 201 rushing yards. He’s also gained a team-best 12 first downs.

Edwards has played in Lincoln before, for Miami in 2014, when he ran three times for eight yards. He’s a graduate transfer.

Josh Hicks averages 5.3 yards for his career rushing, and Robert Martin had 1,980 career rushing yards, needing only 20 to become the 14th player in Rutgers history to surpass 2,000 rushing yards.

Receiver Janarion Grand ranks fourth in school history with 4,537 total yards (2,697 kickoff, 1,008 receiving, 559 punt and 273 rushing). Against Eastern Michigan, he surpassed 1,000 career receiving yards, and leads the active roster with 95 career receptions.

In summary, don’t let last week’s explosion against an FCS school fool you. The Scarlet Knights don’t have great oomph on offense, although the Blackshirts must overcome the loss of injured players Marcus Newby and Joshua Kalu in trying to shut down the Scarlet Knights.

 

Scarlet Knights on Defense

First of note is that Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee has once before faced Rutgers. When playing for Tulane, Lee was 7-of-9 passing for 81 yards in a 2014 game at Rutgers.

Of course, a lot of water under the bridge since then.

Rutgers, by and large, is much improved defensively from last season. Its defensive line is particularly big, a challenge for a Nebraska offensive line that will likely start a true freshman at tackle, Brenden Jaimes, after injuries to senior David Knevel and redshirted freshman Matt Farniok have left them doubtful.

Also, center Cole Conrad isn’t 100 percent, and Michael Decker has been seeing snaps in his place. For a second straight game, the Huskers will be without starting running back Tre Bryant (knee), while starting receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. is bothered by a sore neck but should play.

Meanwhile, linebacker Trevor Morris led the Scarlet Knights with 102 tackles last season, including a career-high 15 at Minnesota. He’s led or tied for the team lead in tackles in a game five times in his career, including twice this season – eight tackles against both Washington and Eastern Michigan.

Deonte Roberts has a team-best 22 tackles in three games, and Darnell Davis had 14.5 tackles for loss in his career, a team best.

Rutgers’ starting secondary has 77 games of starting experience (Isaiah Wharton 27, Blessuan Austin 24, Kiy Hester 15 and Saquan Hampton 11).  Austin defended 1.4 passes per game last season and had a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown against Wisconsin. Hester had five pass breakups and an interception, and Wharton has a career 17 pass breakups.

 

Scarlet Knights on Special Teams

Keep an eye on Janarion Grant, who has eight career kick return for touchdowns (five kickoff, three punt), with one of each in 2016.

Since 2009, Rutgers has blocked 49 kicks, the most by any team in the NCAA during that span. USC has had 32, Fresno State 30 and Arkansas State 27. Ironically, the Huskers have faced all of those teams in the Riley era.

Hunter Hayek blocked a punt in the second quarter versus Morgan State, and Sebastian Joseph blocked a field goal against Eastern Michigan, extending the school’s streak to multiple kicks blocked in a season, every season, since 2007.

Punter Ryan Anderson punted five times with a long of 60 yards against Washington and has five punts of more than 50 yards this season. Kicker Andrew Harte made his first two career field goals against Eastern Michigan and kicked a 38-yarder against Morgan State.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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