MADISON - As he sat in his Sunday’s best during his program’s first Big Ten Media Days in late July, junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton was excited to tell those who were unfamiliar about Rutgers football what the program’s personality was all about.
According to Hamilton, the identity of the Scarlet Knights could be summed up in three words: stop the run.
“We’re a team that prides itself on stopping the run,” Hamilton said in July. “No matter what you bring at us, we’re going to stop the run. Stopping the run is what we do and there’s no better way to do it than against huge 300-pound linemen up front and great runners in the backfield. It’s an exciting chance to show people what we’re about.”
After being the dominant force in the Big East and American Athletic Conference the past two seasons, the Scarlet Knights are finding out that it’s hard to keep their run stopping identity against the big backs and offensive linemen in the Big Ten.
Ranking in the top six against the run the last two seasons, including fourth nationally last year at 100.8 yards per game, Rutgers ranks 82nd in the country against the run defense (178.3). And it doesn’t get any easier this weekend with Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) come to town for an 11 a.m. CT kickoff.
The Badgers rank second nationally in rushing (338.4 yards per game) and are led by junior tailback Melvin Gordon, who is averaging 166.8 rushing yards per game and 7.58 yards per carry, has scored 16 touchdowns and leads the nation with 17 runs of 20 yards or longer.
As a team, the Badgers led the nation with a 7.2 yards per carry average thanks in large part to the one-two punch of Gordon and sophomore Corey Clement, who is a native of Glassboro, N.J.
“What other way would you like to be welcomed into the Big Ten?” said Hamilton. “We want to play the hardest teams and show them what we really can do. You say you really love football and this is what you want to do; what better way to showcase that than playing against the best teams in the league?”
That’s why when given the choice between winning five games playing the schedule the Scarlet Knights have or winning more games against an easier conference schedule, Hamilton picked the challenge.
“When your backs against the wall and being pushed the limits, that’s what you find out what kind of men you have on your team,” said Hamilton. “That’s when you find out about the character on your team. I rather take a hard loss rather than an easy win any day.”
Through the first Big Ten season, the tough losses have been mounting for the Scarlet Knights (5-3, 1-3). After going 4-0 in the nonconference, Rutgers lost its conference home opener in a heartbreaker to Penn State and been blown out by Ohio State and Nebraska by a combined score of 98-41 the last two weeks.
Rutgers gave up four rushing touchdowns to the Buckeyes and allowed Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah to rush for 225 yards and a school-record 341 all-purpose yards; stats that have made Joe Rossi’s first season as defensive coordinator a challenge.
Rossi was promoted after two seasons as special teams coordinator to transform a 4-3 defense that returned seven starters and nine contributors from the worst statistical Rutgers defense of all time.
And he has to do it with the Scarlet Knights facing the most difficult schedule in the Big Ten this season with a conference opponent winning percentage of .640 (41-23) from last season.
“The blueprint is there, so we follow the blueprint,” Rossi told reporters before the season. “Now, there are some things that we need to change and alter, but I think you always have to look at what your players do well and try to play to those strengths and look at maybe some things they don't do well and try to avoid putting them in those situations.”
While Rutgers is still trying to replace the seven NFL players from the talented 2012 defense, it has some playmakers on the defensive line, including Hamilton. Employing a defensive system predicated on linemen being in the backfield, Hamilton’s 22 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks and three pass breakups are either first or second on the team among defensive linemen.
“He’s really a perfect fit for what we do on defense,” said Flood.
It’s one of the reasons why Flood worked so hard to recruit Hamilton out of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. Hamilton had dozens of scholarship offers from some of the top programs in the country, but Flood was able to sell him on playing close to home, being an impact player as a true freshmen and being a key building block of the program.
“What Darius wanted was an opportunity to do something for the first time,” said Flood. “He knew he was coming to a program where we were going to win games and develop him in our program as a guy who could play in the NFL. The opportunity to win our first (Big East) conference championship in school history and now to lead our team into the Big Ten, I think he thrives on that.”
“It was my dream offer,” said Hamilton. “Once I started looking at the bigger picture of things and where I was going to be happy at for the next four-five years of my life, once I realized how special of a place Rutgers can be, I was sold.”
With that passion for playing for his home state school, Hamilton has used this year’s tough conference initiation as a way to find out what players are in it for the long haul.
“To get ready for any fight you’ve got to be prepared,” Hamilton said. “I don’t believe preparing for this year is any different. Obviously we’ll play top notch competition week in and week out, but football is football. Players and coaches make the game harder than it really is, but it’s still the game you’ve been playing since you were a little kid. You have to go out and do what you naturally do.”