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Keys to Victory: Indiana travels to Rutgers for a matchup it cannot overlook

After an emotional 36-35 win over no. 8 Penn State on Oct. 24, the Indiana Hoosiers entered the AP Top 25 poll at No. 17. This is Indiana’s highest ranking since Nov. 2, 1993, when the Hoosiers also came in at No. 17. 

Tom Allen celebrates after a big defensive play. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

Next up is a program that has finished last in the Big Ten East in three of the past four seasons. A trip to Piscataway to face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights can usually be pencilled in as a win, but the return of head coach Greg Schiano makes this week’s matchup anything but a pushover.

Rutgers defeated Michigan State 38-27 on Oct. 24, marking the Scarlet Knights’ first 1-0 start in the Big Ten since joining the conference. Let’s breakdown Saturday’s upcoming matchup.

Learning from experience against familiar face at quarterback

Head coach Tom Allen called Indiana’s 38-31 victory over Nebraska in 2019 a “breakthrough.” The Hoosiers aren’t headed back to Lincoln this year, but a familiar face will be on the other side, but this time in a Rutgers uniform. Former Nebraska quarterback Noah Vedral is now the starter for Rutgers after transferring from Nebraska at the end of last season. 

Vedral started the Cornhuskers’ game versus Indiana last year and finished 14-for-16 with 201 yards through the air. Vedral left the game in the second quarter with a mild injury but returned to the game for Nebraska’s final drive.

While Vedral is now on a different team, under a new head coach and running a different system, the Indiana defense should benefit from its experience against Vedral just a year ago. 

In Rutgers’ season opener versus Michigan State, Vedral was 18-for-29 with 169 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Last week, Indiana’s defense struggled to contain the run of Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, which will be an important area of focus this week. Versus Michigan State, Vedral rushed nine times for 24 yards and a touchdown. 

Winning the turnover battle featuring two defensive stars

Last week, Indiana junior safety Jamar Johnson was named Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Week alongside Rutgers linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi. Johnson racked up a career-high 10 tackles versus Penn State and also had two timely takeaways.

Johnson intercepted Clifford deep in Penn State territory, which later led to a Stevie Scott touchdown to give Indiana a 17-7 lead. Johnson later forced a fumble inside the Indiana 10-yard line to stop Penn State’s scoring attack. In Johnson’s past three games, he has intercepted three passes and forced three fumbles. 

Jamar Johnson and the Indiana defense gather together during last year's 38-31 win over the Cornhuskers in Lincoln. (Bailey Wright/HN)

On the other side, Fatukasi leads a Rutgers defense that forced seven turnovers versus Michigan State. Fatukasi matched Johnson with 10 tackles in the season opener, and also recovered two fumbles and forced one. The winner of Saturday’s matchup could come down to the turnover battle, and Johnson and Fatukasi are candidates to lead their defenses in this category. 

Johnson will have to keep an eye on a pair of Rutgers upperclassmen receivers Bo Melton and Aron Cruickshank, who led the Scarlet Knights last week with 50 and 43 receiving yards, respectively. For Fatukasi, stopping the run game of Stevie Scott, who punched in two touchdowns for Indiana versus Penn State, will be crucial. 

Staying focused as Schiano produces buzz

Rutgers has struggled greatly to win games in the Big Ten, but that stopped immediately after bringing back former head coach Greg Schiano. With its win over Michigan State, Rutgers snapped a 21-game Big Ten losing streak.

Schiano coached Rutgers from 2001-2011 and had a record of 68-67 in that time. Schiano left Rutgers for the NFL where he coached the Tampa Buccaneers to a 11-21 record in two seasons.

He returned to Piscataway this season and excited the Scarlet Knight faithful after agreeing to an 8-year, $32 million contract. While Michigan State is undergoing huge roster turnover and is in the first year under head coach Mel Tucker, any Big Ten win for Rutgers is a sign that things are moving in the right direction.

In his first stint with Rutgers, Schiano popularized the phrase “keep chopping” during the 2006 season when Rutgers finished 12th in the final AP poll, setting a school record. This week, Schiano used that same phrase to describe the team’s mindset as it faces a daunting nine-game Big Ten schedule. 

“You know, there’s going to be highs. There’s going to be lows,” Schiano said Monday. "We have to be able to continue to ... our word is ‘chop.’ You have to be able to chop and not get distracted by the bombs that are going off on your right or your left."

For the Hoosiers, Allen is a fan of catch phrases as well, making “focus” Indiana’s word of the week. It will be crucial for Indiana to not dwell on the program’s first top 10 victory since 1987. This Rutgers team is not of the same caliber as years past, making “focus” a perfect word as Indiana aims for a 2-0 start to the season.

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