Tomorrow the Bulls will try to go 4-0 for the first time since 1981, when they were a division III independent program. It took awhile but after 37 years the Bulls are on the doorstep of that start, once again.
But this time they are a Division 1 program taking on a Big 10 school, and they are favored.
I reached out to “On the Banks”, an SB Nation community for Rutgers fans and picked their brains about the Scarlet Knights and this game.
I’ve been over there a bit this week and it’s a fun site to follow, even if you’re not a Rutgers fan.
BR: Do you think Rutgers season bottomed out with Kansas, or are they just going to limp through the year. They seem to have regressed quite a bit since joining the Big10
OTB: This is a simple question which could illicit a long and detailed response as to what the last five years have been like with Rutgers football. The short story is after finishing in 4th place in the Big Ten East and an 8-5 overall record in its first season as a member in 2014, things have been pretty much a nightmare ever since. Former coach Kyle Flood ran the loosest of ships and left the program in terrible shape. The program is on probation as a result and Flood was given a show cause penalty to his lack of ethics. Remember, I’m only giving the short version. Chris Ash inherited a roster severely deficient in Big Ten talent and depth. Recruiting has been okay under Ash, but not what is needed to elevate Rutgers to the top half of the conference. The key, as Buffalo fans surely know, is developing the players you have and so far, it’s far to question how well Ash and his staff are doing in that regard.
The roster is made up of 72% of players who are redshirt sophomores or younger, so this is an inexperienced team. The bigger long term concern is that this team is playing with no passion or fire. We hear how good the team looks in practice, but on gameday the level of execution needed hasn’t been there. When you lose by 41 points to Kansas that’s a sign there are problems somewhere in that locker room. How Rutgers responds against Buffalo will tell us if they still have a chance to make any progress this season or not. But that loss set off alarm bells and for the first time in the Ash era, there is serious doubt from the majority of the fan base as to whether he is the right coach to turn things around.
BR - You’re paying Ash 2.3 million a year and you’re in year three of his tenure. What do you like about him and what don’t you like?
OTB: Ash has done a good job of elevating areas off the field up to a Big Ten level. Facilities were way behind when Rutgers joined the conference in 2014 and Ash has inspired a lot of new projects and donations, including a new weight room and practice fields that are now in place. Plans for a new locker room are in the works. The nutrition and strength and conditioning programs have been significantly upgraded. He is organized, works hard, and to his credit was clear that a bowl game was the goal heading into this season.
The biggest issue I have with Ash has been his indecisiveness this season. The quarterback decision seemed to carry on too long during training camp even after it seemed like true freshman Artur Sitkowski was always going to be the guy. Ash admitted a mistake in not overruling the OC and calling a timeout before the end of the first half against Ohio State, when Sitkowski took a brutal hit and was knocked out of the game on a stupid play call. He is also extremely conservative with his game decisions, as he punted inside the Kansas 40 last week trailing by 17 in the second quarter, which is not the first time he has done that. Poor clock management has been an issue as well.
When you are rebuilding a program, the head coach needs to be the driving force in inspiring hope and getting everyone to buy in, including the fans. Ash just doesn’t have that type of personality or want to I suspect. That puts the onus on showing results. After losing the Eastern Michigan last season, Rutgers was able to win three Big Ten games. However, the start to this season has felt different and there is less hope during his tenure than ever before. A 41 point loss to Kansas will do that. Hopefully, he can turn it around and this Buffalo game is hugely important for him and this program. Even so, he is owed 9.8 million dollars over the next 4 years after this season, so no matter how bad things get, he is likely to be at Rutgers at least another year or two.
BR: Tell me about Artur Sitkowski, he’s really struggled this season but keeps getting the starts. Is this just a really high potential freshman that you’re looking to develop?
OTB: Sitkowski has all the physical tools and potential to develop into a top tier Big Ten Quarterback. However, he is making a lot of rookie mistakes and it really cost them last week against Kansas. In each of this three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, he forced the ball to the wrong receivers. Sitkowski didn’t work through his progressions and if he had, he would have found wide open receivers on each of those three plays. He also has been rushing his throws and missing high percentage targets which is a concern. The hope is by sticking with him, the more reps and experience will help him start to settle in and improve. It doesn’t make sense to give up on him just three starts in because Rutgers needs to develop a quarterback for the future and he is their best option right now. With few wins likely this season, you have to at least develop your young players now in hopes this team can take a step forward next season. That starts with Sitkowski.
BR: What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of your offense
OTB: There are weapons on the offense, but they need to be utilized more effectively. The running back group is solid and should be more of a strength that it has been. Part of the problem is Rutgers fell behind so quickly the past two games they’ve had to go away from it. Sophomore Raheem Blackshear, who has a lot of speed and is dangerous when he finds open space on the outside. He is also an option in the short pass game as well. Grad transfer Jon Hilliman is a true power back that can be a force in short yardage and goal line situations. True freshman Isaih Pacheco has the potential to be the best of the group, has shown flashes so far and should get an opportunity in this game at some point.
As far as the passing game, it’s been a major weakness ever since Ash arrived. It doesn’t help that Rutgers is now on its ninth offensive coordinator in nine seasons. However, current OC John McNulty is in his second stint at Rutgers, coming back after spending a decade as a position coach in the NFL. He led the most successful offense ever at Rutgers, one that became the first in college football history in 2007 to have a 3,000 yard passer, a 2,000 yard rusher, and two 1,000 yard receivers. The issue now is inexperience at QB with Sitkowski and wide receiver, as that group is mostly redshirt freshman and true sophomores. The receivers are having issues gaining separation in coverage and have dropped too many passes through three games.
Also the offensive line has struggled with pass protection, which makes me nervous against Buffalo’s defense.
The lone strength in the passing game is tight end Jerome Washington, who should be more of a focal point and McNulty hinted he would be this week. He has great size and hands, making him a problem when he can catch and run in the open field, usually requiring multiple defenders to bring him down. He will likely be playing on Sundays next fall.
BR - Same question on the defense.
OTB: After surrendering 107 points the past two weeks, I’m not sure what strengths this defense has. The concerning thing is this unit has been the best of any under Ash and this is his strength, having won a national championship at Ohio State as a defensive coordinator. The defense improved last season and most of those starters returned. Health issues continue to be a problem with the secondary and the best player on the team, cornerback Blessuan Austin, is having surgery on Friday to repair his knee he injured and missed most of last season with. Other key secondary players who have missed time are Tre Avery, Austin’s backup, and safety Kiy Hester. Rutgers has had to play true freshmen in the back of the defense, which has been an issue. It didn’t help that eight players were involved in a credit card fraud scandal over the summer and aren’t on the roster. They were all on defense, including several that were expected to be on the two deep this season.
I would say the linebacking core is the strength, as Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts are tackling machines. Younger players like Tyreek Maddox-Williams, Tyshon Fogg, Rashawn Battle, and Olakunle Fatukasi are making plays as well. This is the deepest group on the defense.
As for weaknesses, a lack of depth on the defensive line has resulted in an inability to generate pressure on the opposing quarterback. The running attack of Kansas also ripped them to shreds, which was most surprising. Rutgers defended the run reasonably well against Ohio State, but gave up 400 yards rushing to Kansas.
Preventing big plays is a must against Buffalo, something Rutgers has struggled with. Part of the issue in Ash’s tenure has been that the offense is so inefficient and unable to sustain drives that the defense gets overworked and wears down in the second half. That’s why Rutgers establishing the run game against any opponent is so important and they failed to do so in their losses this season.
OTB: I predicted Buffalo to win this game before the season even started and Rutgers has given me zero reason to think differently after suffering arguably the worst loss in program history last week. I think the pass rush of Buffalo, as well as their offense’s ability to pass protect and attack through the air are areas Rutgers will struggle with. This is a gut check game for the players, who were lifeless in the second half last week against Kansas. However, until the prove they can play better and be competitive against a competent team, I have little confidence in this team. I see Buffalo winning comfortably, 45-17.