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Going into Saturday’s game, the Rutgers football team knew it would need to be perfect to stand a chance against No. 4 Michigan. But, on a chilly afternoon that quickly turned into an even colder night at HighPoint.com Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., the only thing heating up was the Wolverines (9-1, 7-0).
On the other hand, the Scarlet Knights (1-9, 0-7) had one spark of their own — an 80-yard run by true freshman running back Isaih Pacheco that resulted in a touchdown. The run marked the longest offensive play of the season and the longest carry since Rutgers joined the Big Ten.
“I thought it was outstanding,” said head coach Chris Ash. “I think, again, you've seen glimpses of that throughout the season. To do it against an opponent and a defense like that, those are just signs of things to come.”
That was about it for the Knights, though, as they couldn’t get anything going on offense and ultimately fell to Michigan, 42-7.
Things started off decently for Rutgers as the defense didn’t allow the Wolverines to find the end zone until the final seconds of the first quarter when running back Karan Higdon ran the ball in for a 1-yard score.
Then, seconds later, Pacheco broke free.
“I saw a hole, and I just tried to take advantage and make a couple of guys miss, get up field and get us back on the scoreboard to even the game out and see what could happen,” Pacheco said.
Just like that, the Knights were tied at 7 with the No. 4 team in the country after one quarter.
Unfortunately for Rutgers, the game didn’t stay tied for long. On the very next drive, quarterback Shea Patterson marched Michigan down the field for 65 yards, culminating in another Higdon 1-yard touchdown run, to give the Wolverines a 14-7 lead — a lead they never relinquished after that.
“We all played hard, offense, defense everyone played hard. It was great attitude, great effort,” said true freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski “… We believed, we went in there and we fought every play no matter the outcome, so I’m proud of my guys, proud of my teammates. We fought and played hard.”
A week after arguably his best performance of the season against Wisconsin, Sitkowski returned home and had a very pedestrian night, going 8-19 in the air with just 40 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in his last pass attempt of the game.
But all night, it was the running game that powered the Knights. Despite only 59 total passing yards, Rutgers amassed 193 yards on the ground — the same as Michigan — highlighted by Pacheco’s run, who finished with 142 yards on 16 carries. Pacheco even threw for 19 yards on a trick play to fifth-year senior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno — anything to try and jump start a stagnant offense.
“Until tonight, our rushing game has been an issue,” Ash said. “That's part of the issues in the pass game … Passing the ball against these guys was going to be tough. We can't stand back there very long and protect against that defensive line … We do need to continue to work it. We will. It's an area of emphasis for our whole offense. We've got to get better.”
The Wolverines’ defensive line was of great concern for the Knights going into the game — as it is for most teams Michigan plays — as it had sacked opposing quarterbacks 29 times this season. Meanwhile, Rutgers’ offensive line has been prone to letting guys get to the quarterback all year and needed to step up.
And step up they did, not giving up a sack for the second straight game.
“That's a very good football team up front on both sides of the ball. They're big, they're strong, they're a veteran group, and I thought we battled exceptionally well,” Ash said.
Alas, it was the defense that couldn’t contain the Wolverines, who scored 35 unanswered points after Pacheco’s run.
Patterson went 18-27 with 260 yards and 3 touchdowns and torched the Knights’ secondary on a couple of plays where the receiver was wide open.
“Blown coverages happen with any team, but we’re trying to minimize it as much as we can,” said true freshman defensive back Avery Young. “Unfortunately it happened and let the opponent score so we gotta clean it up.”
Rutgers’ secondary is still very young with a lot of players starting their first full year, like Young. Mistakes will happen, it’s about how the players learn from those mistakes.
Nevertheless, Ash had nothing but good things to say about Young in particular and how he has grown midseason — something Young believes he has done, as well.
“(My) confidence is rising and that all comes through working with my guys each and every day in practice,” he said. “Like I said, highly competitive practices, we get after each other, we try to make it as close to the game as we can, and that just allows everybody to grow together.”
One of those guys constantly working with Young is fifth-year senior and captain defensive back Saquan Hampton. A week after securing two interceptions, Hampton came right back and led both teams in tackles with 11.
“I think we held our own in the first half,” he said. “I think we played solid football, we still let a couple plays get out, which we would love to have back, but if we take those plays away, I think overall we played good defense.”
The Knights will now have a week to prepare for their final home game of the season as they host No. 20 Penn State on Saturday, Nov. 17.
“So excited for the opportunity,” Sitkowski said. “This is a crosstown rival, they say it’s a big rivalry Penn State vs. Rutgers, so we’re all fired up and ready to go.”
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