The Rutgers Scarlet Knights came into the small football town of Champaign, Illinois as a three-point underdog against the Fighting Illini this past Saturday. It was not pretty, at times just downright atrocious, but the Scarlet Knights walked out of Champaign victorious, beating the Illini 35-24.
This marks Rutgers’ first win in the Big Ten during the Chris Ash era, with their last conference win coming against Indiana in 2015 under Kyle Flood.
Quarterback play was kept to the bare minimum for Rutgers. Junior Giovanni Rescigno got the starting nod from Ash over graduate transfer Kyle Bolin, who’s touchdown-interception ratio is an abysmal 1:2. Rescigno only attempted ten passes versus Illinois, completing five for a gain of 89 yards- no touchdowns, and no interceptions.
The ground game, on the other hand, was on a whole other level. Rutgers’ backfield worked on a constant rotation, with all four running backs getting a chance to contribute. Graduate transfer Gus Edwards, freshman Raheem Blackshear, and seniors Robert Martin and Josh Hicks combined for 39 carries, 232 yards and five touchdowns. Even Rescigno got in on the groundwork, rushing for 41 yards on seven attempts.
Rutgers defense was still a weak spot for the team, especially in the air. Rutgers’ secondary was depleted of some key pieces, as star cornerback Blessuan Austin is out for the year with an ACL tear, along with starting safety Saquan Hampton. And while back-up safety K.J. Gray and wide receiver-turned-safety Jawuan Harris both notched an interception, they gave up more than 300 yards and two touchdowns to a passing game that ranks No. 108 in the NCAA.
While conference play is much more focused on the run than the pass (i.e., Ohio State and Wisconsin), Rutgers would do well to strengthen their secondary core with fresh faces and raw athleticism.
Enter Christian Izien.
Izien, a three-star rated recruit out of Erasmus Hall, Brooklyn, NY, announced his commitment to Rutgers via his Twitter account on Friday.
While he mainly stars as a defensive back for the Dutchmen, Izien has shown that he can excel within all three facets of the game. On special teams, Izien returned two punts for touchdowns in the last two weeks, while also notching up a 47-yard pick six against Fort Hamilton.
“I think my versatility, being on either side of the ball, offense at receiver or slot, or defense at corner or safety was crucial,” Izien told NJ.com. “Me being coach-able enough to take coaching at each position and being able to bring something to the table at both positions are my strengths.”
With senior wide receiver/return specialist Janarion Grant set to leave at the end of the 2017 season, Izien brings in a sense of security and hope for Rutgers’ 2018 recruitment class.
It will be interesting to see where Rutgers head coach Chris Ash decides to put Izien, as it seems more likely than not that Izien will start at safety for the Scarlet Knights.
But hey; Jawuan Harris lead Rutgers in receiving last year, and now he’s a safety, so anything’s possible.
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