Yes, Rutgers won three conference games, but guess which program won three conference match-ups in 2016? Yes, Maryland. In 2017, the Terrapins may have been the worst team in the East, so it’s no guarantee that forward progress will happen next season.
The quarterback position. But wait, didn’t Johnathan Lewis show flashes of talent and didn’t the Scarlet Knights land the best recruit of the Ash era in Artur Sitkowski? Both of those are true. However, when your best hope is a frosh and sophomore for a football season, there will be major growing pains. It will be interesting to see if transfer in Tom Flacco (brother of Joe) will win the job in camp.
Yes, Rutgers made significant strides in 2017. However, how much of it was smoke and mirrors. The kicking game was great and so was the punting game. Well, that should be the case when you bring in graduate transfers; both young men Harte and Anderson respectively will need replacing. The running game was solid as well. Once again, it was solidified by grad transfer Gus Edwards. He will be gone too by next season. The grad transfer model was how Flood masked deficiencies in recruiting, it didn’t work for Flood and it won’t work for Ash. In the short term, Ash made the right decision getting these players, but it isn’t how to build a program long term.
Using another East foe as a comparison, even in the horrible season Michigan State had in 2016, its one win was against Rutgers and it was an absolute outclassing. Though MSU’s turnaround this season is impressive, it is important to note that the team still had top level talent that was under performing to expectations. Its 2014 class ranked in the top 40, and 2015 and 2016 classes were top 25 classes, according to Rivals. So while yes, Michigan State’s turnaround was dramatic, it was also somewhat predictable. Rutgers’ potential turnaround is not as clear.
2018 will be year three for Chris Ash, who just scored an extension of his contract. Do you expect a bowl game? I don’t, but I am hoping there is one. In a sport where 78 teams of 130 make the postseason, and you don’t even expect to be among those 78, how optimistic can you really be? You’re not even in the top 60% of your sport, that is a failing grade.
Five Reasons for Optimism About 2018
Coach Ash led the 2017 Scarlet Knights without a passing game, to three conference wins. The Knights finished ahead of Indiana and Maryland in the Big Ten East, and had more conference wins than Big Ten West members Illinois (0), Minnesota (2), and equaled the three win total of Nebraska. This was a major accomplishment considering R.U. was picked dead last by every publication and poll within college football, Rutgers won zero conference games in 2016, and was an underdog according to the sportsbooks by kickoff of every conference game.
Quarterback of the future Johnathan Lewis got to face live competition for an extended period. Just about the only positive from the offense that came out of the season-ending blowout loss to Michigan State was that Jonathan Lewis got to face one of the nation’s best defenses and actually threw a touchdown pass. This bodes well for his development as he will be able to see actual footage of real game play, and can learn from the positive of the touchdown pass, as well as the two interceptions. Another quarterback, the much heralded commit Artur Sitkowski should figure in the mix as well and is the first example of a top-rated New Jersey native to play for Coach Ash at Rutgers.
Rutgers has a game-breaking threat in Raheem Blackshear. Going into the season, it appeared as if Janarion Grant was the only player capable of explosive plays in the Rutgers offense. The one positive to Grant’s inability to stay on the field was the emergence of Blackshear. The freshman running back has showed he can make plays in the running and passing game this season. He scored a key touchdown against Purdue on a perfectly executed wheel route, ran all over Illinois’ defense averaging 14.5 yards per carry, and scoring a 19 yard rushing touchdown. He also took a pass 42 yards into the endzone against Michigan State.
In many ways, Michigan State was the perfect team to close out 2017 for Rutgers. MSU finished 9-3, and are likely headed to one of the better bowl games over the holidays. MSU was 3-9 last year, and won just 1 conference game last year (against Rutgers). MSU is a program to which RU should aspire, and if the Spartans are any proof, it is that things can go from bad to good in a short period when the pieces fall into place. MSU is a team who does it on defense as evident in its display against Rutgers, and Rutgers is trying to build its team in a similar fashion.
Recruiting is trending upward from the days of Kyle Flood. The 2017 and 2018 classes of incoming recruits rank among the top 50 in the nation, after 2016’s class ranked 78th according to Rivals.com. Top 50 classes mean the upper half of college football and bowl games eventually. Brighter days are coming.