For the better part of... forever, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have relied upon a stingy defense to win football games. When they win football games, that is. Particularly under Greg Schiano, the Knights have generally played a tough, disciplined, angry brand of defense, leading to a few successful seasons in which Rutgers ranked inside the top-10 for points per game allowed. Their defense has fallen off a bit in recent seasons, but much of that can be attributed to the overall success – or lack thereof – of the team.
That is because from 2016-19, former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash figuratively disemboweled Rutgers’ program. He compiled an 8-32 record, stripping the team of any favorable status it had under Schiano (or Kyle Flood), and leaving it state of disarray. Recruiting was terrible, on-field results were worse, and it is a surprise any coach would take on the challenge of building this program back up. But Schiano is a Rutgers guy who brought them to prominence once before. He will be looking to do it again, and it likely starts on the defensive side of the ball.
Now I understand that the Scarlet Knights have been scoring points in 2022. But let’s be honest here: Wagner was on the schedule. Temple and Iowa held the team to 16 and 10 points, respectively. So if Schiano’s offense look great against Ohio State, I will gladly eat crow. But I don’t plan on it. Rutgers’ best chance of pulling off an upset Saturday is to play lights-out defense — something that is at least within the realm of possibility.
Thus far in 2022, the Scarlet Knights have been pretty steady on the defensive side of ball. But again, I feel the need to reference their schedule. Boston College has a solid quarterback, but they’ve woefully underperformed, starting out 0-2 and averaging approximately eight inches per rushing attempt. Wagner is an FCS school. Temple played like one under Rod Carey. And have you seen Iowa’s offense!?
Rutgers hasn’t exactly found its defense pitted against The Greatest Show on Turf, if you know what I mean. This Ohio State group will present a greater challenge, but one that RU players should also view as an opportunity to make plays and show out against a superior opponent.
One of those players – and the guy I will have my eyes on – is fourth-year safety Christian Izien. While I was tempted to highlight cornerback Robert Longerbeam AKA Bobby Lightbeam, Izien has been a pillar of consistency for the Scarlet Knights.
In 2019, as a first-time starter, he racked up 76 total tackles. He followed that up by recording four interceptions and three fumble recoveries in just nine games during the 2020 season. Izien’s consistency and versatile skillset have made him one of Rutgers’ most important defenders during the early stages of their rebuild, and for that reason, he is this week’s Defensive Player to Watch.
Similar to wide receiver and teammate Aron Cruickshank, Izien attended the legendary Erasmus Hall High School (Neil Diamond, chess champion Bobby Fischer, and OSU’s Curtis Samuel). It was there that this New York native played both ways, and eventually became on of the state’s highest rated recruits. However, unlike Cruickshank, Izien chose to remain close to home in pursuit of his college football dream. While recruited by Ash, he has been an inherited gift for Schiano, and ultimately become one of the Scarlet Knights’ true leaders.
As previously mentioned, Izien broke onto the scene in 2019. After seeing action in four just games during the 2018 season (on special teams), he earned a starting nod the following year. However, it did take a few weeks. He played in all 12 games, but only topped the depth chart for the final seven. Regardless, Izien made sure that his presence was always felt, whether off the bench or in the starting lineup. He notched 78 tackles, which was good for third on the team. He also added three pass breakups, but often found himself cleaning up plays as the last line of defense. That would change in 2020, as Izien blossomed into a playmaker.
During a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Scarlet Knights managed to play nine games... yes, nine. One more than the Big Ten champion Buckeyes, and three more than the cowardly *ichigan Wolverines. And while I don’t image it was a fun 3-9 season, Izien was a stud for Schiano and the defensive coaching staff. The 5-foot-10 DB provided his typical solid pursuit and sound tackling – as evidenced by his average of seven tackles per game – and also added a ball-hawking element which was not present before.
In what amount to three quarters of a season, Izien came up with an impressive seven turnovers. He added 4 PBU, yet somehow only earned the distinction of Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. In defense of the voters, it was a loaded year. But alas, the Rutgers safety had proven his versatility, which he continues to display on a weekly basis.
Izien has not come up with a turnover since, but the defensive scheme now calls for him to play in the box more often. As a result, he was credited with 8.5 TFL during the 2021 season. And thus far in 2022, he has added 2.5, to go with his first career sack (half). While those stats might not be comparable to a box safety specialist like the NFL’s Jamal Adams, it still shows a level depth to Izien’s game. Seven turnovers one season, 8.5 TFL the next. And most importantly, this Scarlet Knights stud is rarely out of place. He knows where to be on the field.
Izien has once again proven to be one of the best safeties in the Big Ten his season, making plays beyond his 2.5 TFL. He leads Rutgers with 33 total tackles, and has two PBU. He is still looking for his first interception since 2020, but it is simply a matter of time. Hopefully C.J. Stroud does not float one as he did last Saturday, because Izien is likely to be in position. TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams should also be aware of what is coming their way, because the Scarlet Knights’ leader can lay the boom as a sure tackler.
Come Saturday, Izien will be tested... big time. But he will do all that he can to help keep Rutgers in the game. Whether it is coming down with an interception or delivering a big hit, he has proven he can do it all from the safety position. Izien will need help from his teammates, but expect them to come out swinging. Or chopping, whichever Schiano prefers.