Through the first five games, the 2017 Rutgers offense seemed to be lacking an offensive identity. But last week against Illinois, Jerry Kill went back to his comfort zone and made a quarterback change to focus on the rushing attack.
Against Illinois this past weekend, Rutgers ran the ball 47 times for 274 yards in a dominant performance. Giovanni Rescigno received his first start of the year at QB, which brought a dual-threat element that has not been seen so far this season. Gus Edwards was the bell cow in the backfield and Raheem Blackshear was moving faster than anyone on the field. Side note – get Blackshear the ball! At the end of the day, four running backs scored a touchdown and Rutgers controlled the game from start to finish.
Jerry Kill offenses love to run the ball. In seven seasons at Minnesota and Northern Illinois, Jerry Kill offenses averaged 2,073 passing yards and 2,520 rushing yards per season. There was only one season where the passing offense outgained the rushing. What is more astonishing is that over that stretch, the quarterback has finished first in rushing three times and second in rushing three more times. At Northern Illinois, quarterback Chandler Harnish finished first in rushing two of his three seasons and was the focal point of the offense. At Minnesota, quarterbacks MarQueis Gray and Mitch Leidner finished first or second rushing during every season Kill was the head coach. During Kill’s last two seasons at Minnesota, David Cobb was the lead back, averaging over 1,400 yards in his two seasons, and even with a workhorse back, the quarterbacks averaged 730 yards rushing a season. It’s safe to say that Kill feels most comfortable with the ball on the ground and keeping the defenses guessing about who has it.
When the ground game is humming, Jerry Kill has found ways to make big plays in the pass game. In 2014, Kill’s last full season at Minnesota, the offense ranked No. 28 in rushing but was also ranked No. 12 in yards per completion. When the opposing defenses start loading the box, receivers get plenty of opportunities for one-on-one coverage and big plays. To beat some of the better teams in the Big Ten, Rutgers will need to control the clock with the run game but will also need to achieve better balance by taking some shots downfield and making some big plays.
This brings us to the Purdue game this weekend. Purdue is close to having the worst-run defense in the Big Ten, giving up 175 yards per game and second only to Illinois. Rutgers fans should expect another heavy rush game plan. There is no doubt that Purdue is much improved on both sides of the ball this year. Jeff Brohm has brought an aggressive up-tempo offense to Purdue, which should be a challenge for the Scarlet Knights. Running a ball-control offense should give Rutgers the best chance on offense while keeping the Purdue offense off the field. Also expect Blackshear’s workload to increase. On Monday, Kill called Blackshear “lightning in a bottle” and said, “You got to get him the ball more.”
Rescigno was banged up last game and was labeled “day by day” by Kill, but he has played though pain in the past. I expect Rescigno to be ready for this week but if he has any setbacks, expect both Johnathan Lewis and Kyle Bolin to play in his absence. Lewis has the rushing ability, Bolin is a pure passer, and both would be needed to keep this offense rolling.