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Was Rutgers Football’s Competitive 2020 Season a COVID-enabled fluke?

Where does Rutgers Football actually stand?

Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

Rutgers Football had a pretty satisfying 2020 season for most Rutgers fans, going 3-6 in what was, of course, all conference play. Rutgers opened the season with a shocking win over Michigan State and honestly the opener alone made the season for myself. Rutgers would go on to get another win at Purdue (making Rutgers 2-0 against Purdue for all time), and a thrilling overtime win vs. fellow newest edition Big Ten cash grab school, Maryland. Despite losing the other six games, Rutgers’ performance was nothing like years past. There was a surprising effort in the Ohio State game with some great offensive highlights against the elite Buckeyes, an Illinois game we definitely should have won, and an absolutely gutting overtime loss to Michigan. In Year 1 with new (old) head coach Greg Schiano, this is exactly the type of performance fans want to see from a coach that is “gonna work.” However, I started asking myself, as a Rutgers sports cynic, “was the 2020 season representative of where we actually are and are headed moving forward?” This small pestering worry, like a mosquito buzzing by your ear, had me thinking that perhaps the unique, once a century pandemic was the reason for Rutgers’ season.

To recap, something that even I had momentarily forgotten before writing this, the Big Ten canceled football (I had written why I thought this would actually be good for Rutgers, but that scenario didn’t end up being played out). Then, it was somehow economically and politically peer pressured into restarting football, and went with an 8 game conference only slate followed by an extra Champions Week. This conference-only schedule was nerve-wracking because in years past, Rutgers needed those 2, maybe even 3 out of conference wins to bolster our overall season record. However, we were approaching this new season with more hope than the past few years which were covered in Ash fall. We had “our guy” Greg Schiano back. I was excited for the change, but again, football was canceled. I remember my exact emotions at the announcement: “Dang that sucks... anyway.” I was unsurprised at the decision given... everything... and I don’t know about you all, but 2020 was a weird year emotionally, and I, personally, was so stressed in tons of other ways that the concept of a lack of a CFB season for my team didn’t destroy me the way I thought it would. All the same I was guiltily overjoyed that it was returning (guiltily because I knew that every element of the return was due to blatant money generating reasons with the thinly veiled, “The players want to play,” sprinkled atop). I was thoroughly optimistic for our performance which is actually my normal pre-season state that the last two years of Chris Ash beat out of me. I gave 2020 Rutgers Football a ceiling of three wins. I predicted a normal season record of 3-5.

And you know what? Rutgers did that, and almost more. I can’t believe it... So let’s break down summaries of the teams we were competitive against in three ways: 1) the positive aspects of Rutgers’ performance, 2) a brief look at the opponent’s season, and 3) whether or not I think COVID gave Rutgers any boost in the game.

Rutgers vs. Michigan State

RUTG 38, MSU 27

Positive Rutgers Aspects: This was a weird game. Rutgers really dominated for this entire game. I actually forgot the score until I checked, and wow! 38-27. Isaih Pachecho, Rutgers highly hyped running back absolutely killed it this game, as did our QB’s Johnny Langan and Noah Vedral. Those three offensive players really were the high performers of the game.

The other team: hindsight, and I am still so hyped from this game... this was a sloppy opener for Michigan State. Turnovers, bad throws, and a bad performance. Opening game jitters and a worse new coach adjustment than Rutgers had. MSU finished last in the Big Ten East only going 2-5, so yes I think Rutgers is the better team, but that much of a better team?

Did COVID help Rutgers?: Could COVID have affected MSU’s practices in a way that made it so they played a this sloppy game against us? Maybe. Do I think this in looking at the rest of their season which was consistently bad and in light of their Michigan win? No. So the verdict is Rutgers won this game without COVID enabling.

Rutgers vs. Ohio State

RUTG 27, OSU 49

Positive Rutgers aspects: So... in the modern college football landscape of colossally absurd disparity between the elite and non-elite teams, what can you ask for when playing one of *those* teams as a *not one of those* teams? Well, I’d say the exact type of performance that Rutgers put up... in the second half. This was not a game we were going to win or ever felt we were going to. But after Ohio State did their thing, the team started having fun, pulled off some cool trick plays that we scored two touchdowns on, and... yeah. Even though we were playing against Ohio State’s lower strings by this point, we got to see some glimmers of Rutgers stars. Bo Melton is my favorite offensive player on the team right now, he is SO GOOD explosive and his catches are flawless. Rutgers’ best WR since Leonte Carroo, in my opinion. And you know, Rutgers’ defense performed well in this game too, as the score could have easily gotten far more out of hand in the first half than it did.

The other team: It’s Ohio State. They went to the National Championship. I thought maybe that Ryan Day may have gone a little easier than most on Greg Schiano because of the two working together, and still believe that. But I do think Ohio State was aiming high. Justin Fields scored 6 touchdowns...

Did COVID help us Rutgers?: No. If anything helped us appear not entirely pathetic against one of the two 2020 National Championship game teams, as I said, Ryan Day’s mercy would be it.

Rutgers vs. Illinois

RUTG 20, ILL 23

Positive Rutgers Aspects: This is perhaps the only game which angers me in the 2020 season because we should have won and it threw out some stellar Rutgers offensive work including a jaw dropping 66 yard touchdown pass from QB Noah Vedral to Bo Melton. Rutgers led for most of the game, but you could feel the wheels becoming a little wobbly in the 3rd quarter and the defense could not stop Illinois and they finished the knife twist with a very late field goal to win by three.

The other team: Illinois finished 7th in the Big Ten West. They got two wins, one against Rutgers and somehow they demolished Nebraska. And Lovie Smith got fired. Illinois was not a good team.

Did COVID help Rutgers?: Clearly no. This was a game we should have won.

Rutgers vs. Michigan


Positive Rutgers Aspects: Johnny Langan really helped Rutgers control the first half of this game. Looking at the score I can’t tell whether I am impressed or even more disappointed that RU led Michigan 17-7 going into the half and for the first 3 quarters with amazing defensive stops and a soaring 61 yard perfect placed TD catch from Vedral to Melton. UGH. This game. I guess Michigan turned on in the end, but... so many good performances from Rutgers here in spite of the loss.

The other team: Honestly, Michigan had a terrible season both on the field, and with COVID, with the latter likely affecting the former. They even somehow lost to Michigan State. Michigan absolutely out-talents Rutgers in Football. Michigan played with a slight edge the whole game and yeah still came away with a win, but not at all reflective of the beat downs they’ve given us the last few years.

Did COVID help Rutgers: Well I mean, we still lost. For this one, I have to say yeah I think COVID helped us be competitive especially given how COVID cases directly affected Michigan cutting their season short with 6 games, even leading to a cancellation of “The Game” for the first time in 100 years. Against Rutgers, Michigan was just not initially playing at a level that I would expect. I don’t see Harbaugh’s Michigan as one of the Big Ten’s top 3 teams, but it’s certainly in the Top 5, and they beat Rutgers by 52-0, 42-7, and 35-14 over the last three years, and of course the infamous 78-0 in 2016. Unless Schiano’s new Rutgers really is that big of a jump... The 2021 season will better resolve this modern Rutgers-Michigan relationship and uncertainty.

Rutgers vs. Purdue

RUTG 37, PUR 30

Ha ha

Positive Rutgers Aspects: I still love that we pulled this one off because Purdue definitely controlled a majority of this game until they didn’t. In a sense it was the inverse of the Michigan game. We rallied to win and this was fun to watch. Well, at the end. 62 yard pass from Johnny Langan of all QB’s to Kay’Ron Adams who I thought had a great breakout season and I am sad he is intending to transfer. Also, Aaron Kruikshank finally got that kickoff return.

The other team: Purdue did as well (or bad) as Michigan did. Finishing second to last in the B1G West going 2-4 overall. However, like Michigan, Purdue had cancellations, and though Purdue opened its season strong with a win against Iowa then Illinois, upon returning after the cancelled Wisconsin game, the losses didn’t stop for the Boilermakers. This COVID-related thing almost certainly affected their momentum.

Did COVID help Rutgers?: Maybe. I don’t know that Rutgers would have beaten the Purdue teams that beat Iowa and Illinois and Purdue did control 34 of this game. The Wisconsin game for Purdue was cancelled because of Wisconsin cases, the Indiana game cancelled because of cases within both. And wasn’t Purdue missing a key player for this game? I’m honestly too lazy to Google it.

Rutgers vs. Maryland

RUTG 27, MD 24 (OT)

Positive Rutgers Aspects: Actually this one was the inverse of the Michigan game. I remember this game revving up for both teams in the second half with a strong defensive showing for both teams in the first half with the score at only 3-0 Maryland going into the half. Melton and Pacheco both scored touchdowns, Melton scoring two. And kicker Valentino Ambrosio which I can’t say without pinching my fingers together also had a big hand, err, foot, in this game scoring the tying OT field goal and the game winner.

The other team: Maryland “finished 4th in the Big Ten,” but had three regular season cancellations against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan. I don’t know where Maryland actually stands. They got wrecked in their season opener against Northwestern, thrashed Penn State, a tight overtime win against Minnesota, and was handled by Indiana. I... don’t know.

Did COVID help Rutgers?: I would say... yes. Maryland was a clearly momentum-slowed team thanks to those many cancellations. And they really did still almost win in spite of that.

So the answer to the question posed in my click-baity title is... Yes and No. Yes in the sense that Rutgers definitely got a one up on some teams that were internally struggling with COVID affecting practices, depth, etc. But also No, specifically to the “fluke” part because fluke suggest this season is unique and isolated, but Rutgers got a lot of positive hype and attention this season which should feed directly into 2021. I think Rutgers is off to a solid start regardless of COVID. In fact, as of March 2nd, 2021, Rutgers Football’s National Recruiting rankings for 2021 is 38, having signed over a third of the top 20 NJ players. Our 2022 class ranking, and of course it’s early, is 16. The Schiano effect is real and the man can recruit, and the 2020 season no doubt fed into this class which is solid. That recruiting will pay off. Now I do still believe that 2021 will be the true gauge of where Rutgers actually stands, but at the same time, Rutgers’ offensive playmakers aren’t flukes. Our overall renewed offense isn’t a fluke. Our award winning defensive playmakers aren’t flukes. Stealing this from our friends over at On The Banks, these are Rutgers Football’s team leaders for our 2020 season:

Passing: Noah Vedral - 136-for-221, 61.5%, 1,253 yards, 9 touchdowns, 8 interceptions

Rushing: Isaih Pacheco - 515 yards on 116 carries, 4.4 ypc, 3 touchdowns

Receiving: Bo Melton - 638 yards on 47 catches, 13.6 ypc, 6 touchdowns

Tackles: Olakunle Fatukasi - 101 tackles

Sacks: Mohamed Toure - 4.5 sacks

Interceptions: Christian Izien - 4 interceptions

Forced Fumbles: Avery Young - 3 FF’s

Fumble Recoveries: Christian Izien - 3 FR’s

That’s not Rutgers of the past. A lot of our 2020 performance, ignoring what state our opponents were in absolutely suggests a renewed Rutgers Football Team. And thank goodness for it.

Welcome to the new Rutgers. Which is somehow the old Rutgers. The way Rutgers was when the Big Ten moved to add us. To disagree with Willy Wonka, I guess you can go back to go forward.