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2021 football opponent preview: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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Will year two of the Second Schiano Era build off the promise shown in 2020?

Syndication: The Record
Some hot Rutgers on Rutgers action from back in May.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It is August now, which means that it is time to seriously turn our attention to college football. The Wisconsin Badgers opened up fall practice earlier this month and the rest of the country has joined them as well. For the rest of the month, we will be posting two articles about each opponent on Wisconsin’s schedule.

The first post will be written by one of our staffers and will give you a basic overview of each team the Badgers are playing. The second post will be written by a variety of fans and writers of each team, giving us a more in-depth look at the team from those who follow it closely. We’ve got other SB Nation site contributors, newsletter writers, podcast hosts, and other Twitter sports shouters on deck. It should be a lot of fun.

Up next, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Team name: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
2020 record: 3-6, No. 5 in the Big Ten East
Date/location of 2021 game: Saturday, Nov. 6, High Point Solutions Stadium
Last time vs. Wisconsin: 2018, Wisconsin 31 - Rutgers 17

Returning leaders:

Passing: SR Noah Vedral, 136-of-221 (61.5%), 1253 yards, nine TDs, eight INTs
Rushing: JR Isaih Pacheco, 515 yards (4.4 ypc), three TDs
Receiving: SR WR Bo Melton, 47 receptions, 638 yards (13.6 ypc), six TDs
Tackles: SR LB Olakunle Fatukasi, 101 total tackles (48 solo), 11 TFL
Sacks: Soph. LB Mohamed Toure, 4.5 sacks
Interceptions: JR DB Christian Izien, four INTs

Rutgers v Purdue Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

Key offensive player:

In my preview of Notre Dame, I discussed how, while quarterback Jack Coan may not be the Irish offense’s most talented or exciting player, his performances will be the most important to any successes.

I believe the same logic holds true for the Scarlet Knights. For the most part, Rutgers’ core at skill positions is the strongest it’s been during the team’s Big Ten years. Isaih Pacheco runs the ball hard and consistently, and the team also has a promising change of pace back in Aaron Young. Bo Melton was unquestionably the teams’ top receiver in 2020, and he returns for another season this fall.

But the skill position player that was most maddeningly inconsistent throughout last season was quarterback Noah Vedral. Completing just 61.5% of his passes, and throwing almost as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (nine), Vedral didn’t have a BAD season per say, but there was more than one game where it felt like the Scarlet Knights could have pulled away or won had Vedral leveled up.

Syndication: The Record Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The former Nebraska Cornhusker and UCF Knight returns in 2021, and if he can find a second gear in his second season under Schiano it won’t be a surprise if Rutgers is capable of putting a scare into the conference’s top teams.

Key defensive player:

A second team All-Big Ten coaches’ selection in 2020, Olakunle Fatukasi has plenty to prove heading into his senior season in Piscataway.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 21 Michigan at Rutgers
Sacking Joe Milton probably should only count as half of a sack tbqh.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fatukasi racked up 101 total tackles, three sacks, and 11 TFLs across the shortened fall season last year, and impressive clip that paced him around some of the Big Ten’s top defensive names. A weakside linebacker who can both penetrate the backfield and patrol the field, the Scarlet Knights needed the Far Rockaway, N.Y. native to be everywhere for them in 2020, and that’s precisely what he did.

Despite his strong fall season, Fatukasi has mentioned that he came back for a fifth season because he has “unfinished business” and it’s a safe bet he’ll be hearing his name called come draft day next April.

2021 season preview:

Rutgers turned a few heads with their performances in 2020, and 2021 looks to be another step forward under the Second Greg Schiano Era if all goes to plan.

But no matter the results, the one thing you can absolutely bet on this season regarding Rutgers is that Schiano will pull out every trick, gimmick and gadget play available to him to get his team back to postseason football. His team showed plenty of willingness to reach deep into the playbook last year- such as a 49-27 loss to Ohio State where the Scarlet Knights scored 24 second half points on the back of, among other scores, a lineman pass and full-field lateral punt return.

Schiano has wasted no time molding a previously hapless Rutgers team into a squad of his liking. Versatile, quick players like Wisconsin transfer Aron Cruickshank (who evolved from return specialist with the Badgers to arguably the Scarlet Knights WR2) and backup quarterback Johnny Langan (who was put to use effectively in packages resembling a wildcat set where he could either use his legs or look to catch the defense off guard with a pass) have carved out key roles in Piscataway.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 28 Rutgers at Purdue
Running QB Johnny Langan scampering down the field against Purdue.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images via Getty Images

Despite several impressive recruiting wins that have Rutgers aiming for the top twenty in class rankings for 2022 and 2023, the talent gap between the former whipping boys of the conference and the B1G’s top teams still exists.

But the Scarlet Knights now have a clear identity, experience at skill positions, and their first realistic shot at a bowl game since 2015. It would be foolish to write off Rutgers as last-place fodder heading into the fall. A favorable non-conference schedule (Temple, Syracuse and Delaware offers a fair chance at a 3-0 start to the season) coupled with some very winnable home games (RU took down both Michigan State and Maryland on the road last year anyway) means it’s not implausible, and possibly even likely, that Rutgers goes bowling this year.