It can be a tough time of the year for some teams. While your rivals get to keep practicing for a bowl game, your season is over. It might seem like all hope is lost, but there are legitimate reasons to be excited for your team.
I am a huge Greg Schiano fan. He is Rutgers, Rutgers is him, and there is no one I would rather see coaching this team. Immediate improvement in Year 1 (no, the 2020 season didn’t really happen) finishing 5-7 with an offense that can only be described as “terrible”, especially compared to the rest of the conference. Without Schiano, they could’ve been Indiana. You don’t want to be Indiana. Instead of that, their defense proved to be at the very least “formidable”, and kept them in games they should’ve been destroyed in for at least a little bit. I consider that huge.
Now Rutgers, what can I say about you that isn’t “this team needs a quarterback.” The fact of the matter is this team needs a ton of help on offense. I don’t really believe in points per game as a metric for evaluating offenses, but finishing 113th is low enough for me to say “mhmm, not good.” Noah Vedral finished with 1700 passing yards in 12 games! It would be different if he did this on a team that ran the ball, but that, coupled with the fact they only had 17 completions per game, just isn’t going to cut it in the Big Ten East.
This team tried their damnedest to run the ball and could only muster 140 yards per game. That’s an egregious failure and reflects on both the staff and the players. Should they have ran it even more than 40 times a game? Yeah, but it’s impossible to run the ball when you’re losing by more than two scores. In every decent game the offense had this year they ran 40+ times. Those were against some bad defenses (and Michigan), but the message stands.
Getting to the point where you have to throw the ball, despite not having a single receiver who can separate nor a quarterback to get it to him if he could, is a failure. There’s no other way to put it. With an average offense, this team probably wins two more games and we aren’t talking about them right now. They need to stay committed to the run, but more importantly, they only need enough success on offense to keep their defense off the field a little bit longer.
They have an identity, they have a pretty good coaching staff that knows what they want to do, they just need the players. Easier said than done, I know.
The good? You guys have Homefield Apparel, the Good Brand, and are undefeated in basketball as I’m typing this.
The bad was bad. They finished 2-10 and failed to win a single game in-conference. Their leading rusher and receiver are graduating, they don’t have a quarterback, and they just fired their OC. Tom Allen took a drastic pay cut. Unlike Nebraska (which I’ll get to later), I really can’t find any reason to feel hopeful.
Maybe their recruiting class comes in immediately and makes a huge impact. Maybe they hit on a quarterback and a couple receivers in the transfer portal. But the fact of the matter is they are playing in the hardest division in college football and can realistically be at the bottom of it for the foreseeable future.
Big Baller Bret Bielema came back to the Big Ten with a bang, beating Nebraska in Week 0 and knocking off two Top-20 ranked teams in Penn State and Minnesota. Despite finishing with only five wins, Illinois played Bielema Ball at a level higher than any of their fans could’ve imagined with Lovie Smith’s players. They ran the ball at will, played the field position battle with a strong defense and punted, and their limited options at quarterback didn’t actively lose them games. What more could you want?
Okay yeah, you could ask for a little bit more. The defense looked fine but could use some work to not give up 42 points to Virginia, or 33 to Iowa, or 37 to UTSA, but hey! Rome wasn’t built in a day! I’m choosing to stay positive that this Illinois team can eventually turn into Wisconsin or Iowa for the first time ever.
They need a new quarterback, desperately. They have to hit on someone in the transfer portal this offseason. A Charlie Brewer would do wonders for this offense. Maybe Ryan Johnson is that guy, but he didn’t attempt a pass after transferring last offseason. Of the quarterbacks with eligibility remaining we know Artur Sitkowski isn’t the guy, and we know nothing about Samari Collier. The true freshman red-shirted this season, and didn’t decommit when Bielema was hired. Maybe he’s the guy?
It might not matter because I can see Chase Brown and Josh McCray being one of the best backfield duos in the country next season. I would be shocked if they didn’t combine for 2000+ rushing yards on a team that so clearly knows what it wants to be.
The Cornhuskers finished 2021 as the best 3-9 team in the country, maybe ever, and are bringing back the head coach that led them there. Samori Toure is returning and if he stays healthy can easily eclipse 1000 receiving yards next season; the kid is special. They’re expected to return Adrian Martinez, as well as backup quarterback Logan Smothers. If Smothers can win the job (and he should, given how he looked in the final game of the season), this offense can be dangerous. That, coupled with Chinander’s defense, might be enough to make some noise in 2022.
But by God does this team have issues. An entirely new offensive coaching staff needs to be hired, a dedicated Special Teams Coordinator needs to be hired, and the team desperately needs a new identity. That’s hard to do when you bring back the same head coach who had one good season four years ago because he agreed to a paycut, but it just worked for Michigan so who knows.
When I watch Nebraska though, I get a sense that they don’t know who they are, and that hurts everybody involved. I believe this is a team that is at it’s best when they can run the ball, regardless of who’s under center. I understand it’s tough to run the ball when you’re down, but almost every single loss came by one score! There’s no reason to not be able to run the ball down one score unless you’re convinced you can’t do it, but for a team that averaged over four yards per carry in seven games this season (including 8.4 YPC against Wisconsin) it feels more like they just refused to commit to it. That’s soft play-calling, but more importantly it’s a lack of faith in an offensive line that clearly preferred to run block.
If Nebraska can get back to this, whether it’s through a spread-option offense that they’ve found success with or something brand-new, I really think they can turn things around in an offseason. This team needs a 1000-yard rusher, as dated as that statement sounds. If that’s the quarterback, so be it. They can’t be balanced, they need to be tough and they need to be mean. If they can do that, success through the air will follow. It always does.
The good news? This season is not indicative of the next. The last four seasons have seen the Wildcats finish first-last-first-last in the Big Ten West. They have one of the best head coaches in the conference who has shown he can develop his guys. This is a team that thrives on keeping kids for 4-5 years to develop and grow, and with the emergence of the transfer portal they can hopefully get guys to fill up the remaining holes. Evan Hall is pretty good and is expected to return for his junior season, and most of the defensive contributors are sophomores and juniors and are expected to return.
The bad? Let’s start at quarterback. Ryan Hilinski isn’t the guy, as much as I want him to be. Wins aren’t a QB stat but if the only games you can come out ahead are Ohio and Rutgers, what are you doing? Only scoring seven on Nebraska is another sin, but Nebraska was the best 3-9 team ever so maybe that’s not all on him.
Is Carl Richardson the answer? Former 3-star only appeared in three games this season, going a whopping 2/4 for 19 yards, all of which came in the last game of the season. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. I’m not saying he’s bad, but if he couldn’t beat out Ryan Hilinski with one more year of experience in the system, I don’t think he’s the answer either.
At this point, the transfer portal is their best bet. I think they need to target someone like Drew Pyne, who has played in spurts for Notre Dame but isn’t in their long-term plans, even if he hasn’t entered the portal yet. A guy like Charlie Brewer would also immediately provide an upgrade to a decimated room. All they need is a stop-gap that can win them games against Nebraska and Illinois while Fitzgerald (hopefully) grooms a recruit.
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