Losers of three straight, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-3) host the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (4-3) on Saturday, Oct. 29, at 1:30 p.m. CT at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Can Rutgers score on offense?
Head coach Greg Schiano fired offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson six games into the season after Rutgers lost, 14-13, to Nebraska. It was the Scarlet Knights’ third straight loss and the offense had averaged 11 points per game during that stretch.
Tight ends coach Nunzio Campanile, who you might remember from the Gophers’ visit to Piscataway in 2019 when was he serving as interim head coach, got the promotion to offensive coordinator after Gleeson’s firing. He emerged from the bye week with what On the Banks termed a “new-look offense” led by sixth-year quarterback Noah Vedral.
Vedral wasn’t exactly prolific, completing 50% of his passes and throwing for 133 passing yards and one touchdown. Most importantly, he didn’t throw an interception, a step up from the six interceptions former starter Evan Simon threw in their previous three games combined. Redshirt freshman Gavin Wimsatt is their third option at quarterback, but he missed all three of their losses due to a left leg injury. Though Gleeson rotated quarterbacks frequently through the first half of the season, Campanile opted to stick with Vedral as his lone signal caller against Indiana.
Rutgers’ most dynamic weapon on offense is fifth-year senior wide receiver Aron Cruickshank. He leads the team in receptions (27) and receiving yards (255) and is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions (2). The Scarlet Knights will also utilize Cruickshank in their ground game, using his speed to attack the edges of opposing defenses. Tight end Johnny Langan, a former quarterback, has also been used in the wildcat, but that was more of a staple under Gleeson.
One of the changes under Campanile has been having the quarterback play under center more, rather than operating out of the shotgun, coupled with an increased emphasis on the ground game. Freshman Samuel Brown V is Rutgers’ top running back, and he was made to be the workhorse against the Hoosiers, logging season highs in carries (28) and rushing yards (101).
The 24 points the Scarlet Knights scored against Indiana is their second-highest point total of the season, trailing only the 66 points they racked up against FCS Wagner. They are only averaging 14.25 points per game against Big Ten competition this season, so the Minnesota defense should take this as an opportunity to get back to playing their brand of football.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Remember Joe Harasymiak? Minnesota’s former safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator is now the defensive coordinator at Rutgers. In his first season calling defensive plays for the Scarlet Knights, Harasymiak has them playing well. Rutgers ranks sixth nationally in rushing defense (87.4 rushing yards allowed per game), 29th in passing defense (196.4 passing yards allowed per game), and 32nd in scoring defense (21.3 points allowed per game).
Their defense has kept them in every game this season, save for the loss to Ohio State.
If you are looking for a vulnerability, Rutgers struggles to generate much of a pass rush. But the bulk of the Scarlet Knights’ talent and experience on defense is in the secondary. Redshirt senior nickel back Christian Izien ranks second on the team in total tackles and is tied for the team lead in pass break-ups with four. Sophomore cornerback Max Melton has come on strong of late, recording a punt block and an interception against Nebraska. Senior safety Avery Young and redshirt senior cornerback Kessawn Abraham round out the veteran secondary.
Linebacker was something of a question mark for Rutgers coming into the season. Redshirt senior Deion Jennings has stepped up to lead that unit, leading the team in total tackles with 55. Jennings has been a key contributor up front in the Scarlet Knights’ run defense. Rutgers is young on the defensive line, with three sophomores among the four starters, but Michigan transfer Aaron Lewis is among the linemen who have emerged as part of a formidable defensive front.
This is not a good matchup for Minnesota. Regardless of who is under center, the Gophers have no passing game. They are a one-dimensional offense that hasn’t been able to score more than 17 points in a game in the month of October. Even that one dimension is a struggle thanks to an offensive line that loses more battles at the line of scrimmage than they win. If Rutgers can continue to be stout against the run in this game, Minnesota is not going to be able to put up enough points to keep pace with even the Scarlet Knights’ anemic offense.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
As bad as the Scarlet Knights have been on offense, how am I supposed to bank on the Gophers’ offense playing well against a good defense? Rutgers has also been more consistent on defense than Minnesota. I think the Gophers’ freefall continues Saturday with a loss to the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers 17, Minnesota 13.