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2023 Rutgers Football Season Retrospective: Re-Born to Run

Hit expected preseason ceiling, to avoid autopsy for the first time in a decade.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Rutgers at Miami
Monangai became a star.
Mark Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Though Bon Jovi may be more popular with a wider range of audiences these days, no one is more New Jersey than Bruce Springsteen. And his one true anthem is “Born to Run.” The Rutgers Football program did it by land, by sea, but absolutely not in the air this season. Still, you have to walk before you run, and run before you fly.

Taken as face value, a 7-6 season was the ceiling heading into the 2023 season for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a team that failed to reach .500 for nearly a decade. Preseason expectations ranged from three to seven wins, with the majority of their own fan base split between 4-8 and 5-7. Our OTE staff had them for 3.8 expected wins, in line with most national media. Those outside expectations foolishly skyrocketed after a 6-2 start, but after outplaying Ohio State for much of an eventual loss, RU was disappointingly smoked by Iowa and Maryland to back into a bowl game at 6-6. Luckily, Rutgers gained a hard fought win over a team that has owned them historically, to finish 7-6 with a Pinstripe Bowl win. They refused to throw the ball in the fourth quarter and earned their first bowl victory since 2014. It was actually the first time they even won the season finale since then, to ride into the off-season with positive momentum.

Wins

Northwestern (8-5), Temple (3-9), Virginia Tech (7-6), Wagner (4-7), Michigan State (4-8), Indiana (3-9), Miami FL (7-6)

Losses

Michigan (15-0), Wisconsin (7-6), Ohio State (11-2), Iowa (10-4), Penn State (10-3), Maryland (8-5)

The Scarlet Knights schedule ended up being more challenging than anticipated, as they faced the top 3 finishers in the Big Ten West, including Wisconsin with Mordecai and Allen still healthy. All six of their losses came against Big Ten squads who won at least eight games (except the Badgers who blew their bowl game to finish with a paltry seven). Big picture, RU defeated five teams that currently reside in the Power Five, tied for the second most in program history in a single season. Rutgers had not defeated a team that finished in the Top half of the Big Ten since 1988, but finally did that with a bludgeoning of Northwestern to open the campaign. They had not defeated a Power Five team that reached a bowl game since 2015, but defeated three such teams this season, bolded above. Even though Miami was depleted by opt-outs/transfers and stinks in bowl games historically, the Hurricanes were 11-0 all-time versus Rutgers heading into the game. RU beat them, too. Despite the late season skid, by Simple Rating System (SRS), this was the 12th best RU team in the last 100 years, and the best since 2011. My overall big picture takeaways right after the bowl game were captured on an episode of the Scarlet Faithful podcast.

Star player trajectory

Kyle Monangai led the Big Ten in rushing and will return. He looked fresh in the bowl game, earning MVP honors en route to his 7th 100 yard rushing performance of the year.

Hollin Pierce was the only offensive lineman above average for his position all season (7th rated tackle in B1G per PFF). He is still an incredible walk-on story and his return at left tackle allows more time for an heir apparent to emerge.

Mo Toure has now led the team in sacks all three seasons he has played. He is effective at every spot along the line in pass rush as well as at linebacker in both phases. It’s shocking he came back with his stock so high.

Tyreem Powell. The lengthy linebacker emerged as the leader of the defense before breaking his hand late in the year. The defense was never the same without him.

Aaron Lewis. Though people expected more, Lewis finished as the top rated Rutgers defensive lineman by PFF again. He is really more of a 3-4, 5-tech than a traditional 4-3 defensive end, but is the heart of the defensive line and does everything well, albeit not elite.

Flip Dixon. The transfer from Minnesota was a top three safety in the conference per PFF for most of the year.

Max Melton will finally take his talents to join his brother at the NFL level, even if he disappointed at times during his journey. He is the team’s biggest loss.

The offense needs more firepower, obviously. Sam Brown was finally the Sam Brown of 2022 with his cutting / power combo in the bowl game, so his star potential was simply on hiatus after injury for a while. Other than him, nobody is an obvious contender to help put more points on the board in short order. Sound like Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern, etc ... basically everyone other than Purdue each offseason?

Recruiting

Virtually the entire 2024 recruiting class was committed following the disappointing 4-8 2022 season and finished somewhere in the high 30s, low 40s nationally depending on the source. There was only one decommit for the entire cycle (which has to be some kind of world record). The class does not feature many four stars, but boasts all commits rated 3.5 stars or above for the first time I can ever remember as a fan of the program over 30 years.

The next season may hinge on just a few transfer portal additions, especially at the offensive skill positions. They have struck out on Tight End transfers a lot, and haven’t had a true dual threat at the position for a decade. They need to improve their P5 worst completion % each of the past two years. Yes, for those asking, Iowa completed 48.9% of their passes in 2023, Rutgers was just 48.3%. They have had success bringing in receivers, and that continues with FCS leading receiver Dymere Miller joining the team in 2024. On defense they could always use another DB and run stuffer, but who couldn’t?

So far in the transfer portal they have secured the Kaliakmanis brothers from Minnesota (all of you are REALLY nervous to play Rutgers now). Athan hopes to be the starting quarterback while working with Kirk Ciarrocca once again. FCS All-American Miller should help, but they still will look for a Tight End. They added BYU long snapper Austin Riggs and possibly most importantly, Malcolm Ray a rotational defensive tackle from ”oh so close” to national champion Florida State. Expect another offensive lineman and probably a cornerback as priority targets. Only four members of the Knights’ two deep have entered the transfer portal thus far, albeit only backups from the one-dimensional offense.

Stability, stability, stability. Identity, identity, identity. Rutgers has stability in the coaching staff, players elected to return more than anyone could have expected (again, SO FAR), and it’s a clear message what the team’s identity is to all prospects and their support systems. Aggressive defense, special teams, pound the ball, and there are always snaps available for a game breaking receiver who will have plenty of room to operate.

Early look at 2024

Rutgers is overjoyed to remove Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State from their schedule. RU went a combined 1-29 record against them over the last decade in the East. So even if they have been replaced next season by Washington, USC, and UCLA (combined 30-11 in 2023), there’s still more reason for optimism than the Big Three’s 36-5 mark. Rutgers squares off against Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan State, and Virginia Tech again, while swapping in Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska.

With a seemingly favorable schedule, 16 starters plus two specialists returning, including the Big Ten’s leading rusher, fan expectations likely will be WAY too high heading into the season for a squad that has two winning seasons in the past decade and no miracles in the quarterback room. Their style of play does not allow them to steamroll comparable teams, and they lack the firepower to beat upper echelon teams. They can’t be expected to win all their “matchup” or “toss-up” games again because there is an element of luck that doesn’t bite you every season.

All in all, the optimism in the program is the highest it has been since the 4th down spike against Michigan State followed by a comeback win over bowl-bound Indiana in 2015. The coaching staff remains mostly intact (despite losing LB coach Corey Heatherman, who became the DC at, you guessed it, Minnesota!), and has proven at virtually all their stops they can develop talent. Though they are unlikely to snap the longest P5 drought of upsetting a top 25 team due to a lack of offensive game changers, another bowl game is expected in 2024.

So for now, let’s embrace it.:

Oh honey, tramps like us

Baby, we were born to run

Come on with me, tramps like us

Baby, we were born to run.

Until maybe one day, we can pass the ball ...

Poll

Were you shocked Rutgers won 7 games this year?

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  • 35%
    Yes
    (34 votes)
  • 45%
    No
    (44 votes)
  • 18%
    Wait, what?
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96 votes total Vote Now