On the first drive in the first game of his only season as Rutgers quarterback, Kyle Bolin led his team on an 11-play, 59-yard scoring drive to give the Scarlet Knights a 7-0 lead against seventh-ranked Washington.
Last week, in his first Big Ten game, Bolin guided Rutgers 75 yards in 11 plays on the road at Nebraska as the Knights again grabbed an early lead over a heavily favored opponent.
Already this season, Bolin’s ability to manage a game has helped give Rutgers an air of respectability. But he and his teammates on offense are going to have to take more than first steps if they are to help the Knights climb out of the bottom of the Big Ten cellar.
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Rutgers (1-3, 0-1) has dropped 15 consecutive conference games heading into Saturday night’s game against Ohio State. The Scarlet Knights led Nebraska well into the third quarter last week in Lincoln before falling 27-17.
“Any way you cut it, it’s a disappointing loss,” second-year Rutgers coach Chris Ash said. “Our focus is building on the positives that we can take out of it and try to improve in the areas we’re struggling in — to completely finish a game and play four quarters.”
The positives, however, are tangible, and in large part due to the play of Bolin, who transferred to Rutgers in the summer after graduating from Louisville, where he started six games but lost his job to 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
Against the Cornhuskers, Bolin completed 9 of 11 passes for 81 yards in the first quarter to help the Knights to an early lead. But he finished the game only 15 of 29 for 126 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Rutgers had only 58 yards of offense after halftime and was outscored 13-7.
“We come out energized, we come out on fire and ready to go, and then sometimes we take a step back and maybe not play with as much confidence as we did in the beginning,” Bolin told reporters this week. “That may be because we don’t want to make mistakes, because we’ve got a lead (and) we don’t want to do anything to screw it up. Ultimately, that is a problem.”
The mistakes did indeed arrive, blunting Rutgers’ hope for an upset.
“We have some drive-killers. We have some mistakes that are made,” Ash said Monday, citing an errant snap on Rutgers’ second drive and false-start penalties on subsequent possessions to thwart the offense’s progress.
“We’re our own worst enemy right now on offense in those situations, in games against some really good opponents,” Ash said. “We can’t have those self-inflicted mistakes that we continue to have, that doesn’t allow us to sustain drives and create momentum.”
Except for a 65-0 whipping of Morgan State, a Football Championship Subdivision weakling, Rutgers’ offense has mostly struggled. The Scarlet Knights rank 110th nationally in yards per game (326.8) and 117th in passing offense (163.5), out of 129 teams.
Its rushing offense ranks in the middle of the pack at 69th (163.3) on the strength of the 326 yards gained in the rout of Morgan State, in which true freshman quarterback Johnathan Lewis ran for four touchdowns.
Lewis, however, had only one carry the following game against Nebraska, a 2-yard run, as Ash and offensive coordinator Jerry Kill decided Bolin gave Rutgers the best chance to win. Kill told New Jersey reporters this week that he wished he had played Lewis more.
“I didn’t want to put Johnathan in a bad situation,” Kill said. “I probably should’ve went ahead and done it and learned by the process. I didn’t do it. Felt bad about it.”
Kill added that he had no other regrets about the Scarlet Knights’ game plan against Nebraska. But he and his players know well that execution and consistency have to improve if the team is to be successful.
“As an offense we have to come out every single drive like it’s our first drive and make sure we’re locked in and playing to our first potential,” Bolin said.