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Officially at the midway point of the season, the Rutgers football team hopes the second act goes much better than the first. The only problem is, the first six games were supposed to be the “easy ones.” And yet, the Scarlet Knights are 1-5 overall and 0-3 in Big Ten play as they enter week seven to face Maryland on the road.
Like Rutgers, the Terrapins (3-2, 1-1) joined the Big Ten in 2014. Since then, in the four matchups against the Knights, the series is tied at two wins a piece with some great games played.
Rutgers sealed the two teams’ first contest with a 41-38 win at College Park. A year later, Maryland returned the favor with a 46-41 win in Piscataway before handily beating the Knights 31-13 at home. But last year, Rutgers got a win of its own at home in a 31-24 classic.
A rivalry seems to be brewing among the two babies of the oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the United States who just so happen to be neighbors — only separated by 194 miles, give or take.
But don’t tell head coach Chris Ash that.
“We just gotta worry about trying to win games and not about rivalries and trophies and all that stuff,” he said. “Our focus is and has been on just us trying to play better, develop better, recruit better and build our program. If you do those things and you do them for a long enough period of time, rivalries will naturally happen.”
He’s probably right.
At this point in time, the Knights have bigger things to worry about than a potential rivalry — like simply winning a game.
After winning its season opener, Rutgers has lost five straight games — putting the team in a tough position in which Ash has spoken about ad nauseam this season.
“We’re 1-5 and it’s not where we want to be, it’s not where we’re going to be but there is a lot of work that needs to be done. A lot,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work, there continues to be a lot of work to build the program to the level that we want it to be. We were hoping we would be further along than we are right now after six games, but we’re not.”
The Knights did, though, pull out a win against the Terps last season which should give the team at least some confidence going into the match.
But, Ash said this Maryland team is much different and much improved than the team Rutgers defeated last year — evidenced by its 34-29 season opening win over then-No. 23 Texas at home.
“It’s a completely different style offense than Maryland has had in the past or what we’ve faced,” Ash said. “It is a run first offense, that’s what they do, that’s what Maryland likes to do with a lot of different shifts and motions that challenge you.”
If the Knights aren’t careful, the Terps can put up a crooked number in a heartbeat, already averaging a tick over 31 points per game.
That doesn’t bode well for a Rutgers defense that just let up 38 points and 330 total rushing yards to Illinois last week.
Although, perhaps a weekend away from all of the talk and noise at home will do the Knights some good.
“It’s good to have an opportunity to go play again and try to continue to get better. Whether we’re home, away we gotta try and go play and play better, and that’s what our focus is,” Ash said.
On the injury front, sophomore defensive back Tre Avery who suffered a setback in last week’s game is week-to-week and will likely miss the game against Maryland. As for senior tight end Jerome Washington who did not play last week against Illinois, Ash said he will be a game-time decision.
These injuries and a general lack of depth on the team, has forced Ash and the coaching staff to put in some of the younger guys to play and learn on the spot like sophomore tight end Travis Vokolek, who reeled in his 1st career touchdown last week, or freshman defensive back Avery Young who Ash has spoken very highly of.
“I think there’s a lot of hope because there’s a lot of young players playing that are getting better,” Ash said when asked why fans should remain hopeful during year three of the program’s rebuild.
In fact, Ash doesn’t think the team is far off at all from reaching its goals, citing the team’s resilience, character, chemistry and love for one another.
Regardless of what Ash thinks, he knows what the only thing fans will respond to is: Wins.
“At the end of the day, you want to win some games and you want to be competitive in as many as you can,” he said.
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