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Rutgers Football Game #8 Preview vs Northwestern

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85th annual homecoming is not the matchup we expected heading into the season.

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Rutgers
If nothing else, fans would like to see Pacheco get some early carries.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch, Stream & Listen

Northwestern (3-3; 3-1) At Rutgers (1-6; 0-4)

Where: Highpoint.com Stadium, Piscataway, NJ.

Kick-off: Saturday, October 20th at 12:00 p.m. EDT

Weather: 60 degrees, partly cloudy with a 15% chance of rain, 11 mph winds

TV: BTN Brandon Gaudin (play-by-play), Glen Mason (analyst) and Elise Menaker (reporter). Out-of-market channel finder.

Stream: BTN2go

Radio: Rutgers IMG Sports Network with Chris Carlin, Eric LeGrand, Ray Lucas, and Anthony Fucilli - WCTC 1450-AM, WOR 710-AM, WENJ 97.3-FM, WNJE 920-AM, XM 201, Sirius 134 (Matt Howe, Sam Marsdale and Tevin Johnson)

Current Spread: Northwestern -21

Against The Spread: Rutgers 2-5; Northwestern 3-3

Series History: Rutgers leads 3-0 all-time, last game a 22-18 RU win in 1991.

SB Nation NU site: Inside NU

Northwestern Statistical Leaders

Passing: Clayton Thorson - 159 for 254 pass attempts, 62.6%, 1755 yards, 9 TD, 7 INT. TJ Green - 20 for 35 pass attempts, 57.1%, 169 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT.

Rushing: Jeremy Larkin - 346 yards on 72 attempts, 4.8 ypc, 5 TD; John Moten IV - 80 yards on 32 attempts, 2.5 ypc, 2 TD; Solomon Fault - 40 yards on 29 attempts, 1.4 ypc, 0 TD;

Receiving: Flynn Nagel - 48 catches for 622 yards, 13.0 ypc, 2 TD; Cameron Green - 30 catches for 280 yards, 9.3 ypc, 3 TD; Ben Skowronek - 28 catches for 330 yards, 11.8 ypc, 1 TD; Jeremy Larkin - 19 catches for 127 yards, 6.7 ypc, 0 TD;

Defense: Blake Gallagher - 61 tackles, 4.0 for a loss, 0 sack, 0 INT, 0 forced fumbles, 0 fumble recovery; JR Pace - 37 tackles, 3.0 for a loss, 0 sacks, 3 INT, 0 forced fumbles, 0 recovered fumbles, 5 pass defended; Joe Gaziano - 17 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 0 INT, 0 forced fumbles, 0 passes defended

Kicking: Charlie Kuhbander - 14 for 14 PAT’s, 2 for 5 FG attempts, Long of 45 yards

Northwestern Statistical Comparison Versus Rutgers

S&P+ Advanced Stats Profiles: Northwestern I Rutgers

What To Watch For

Energy

It’s the 85th annual homecoming game so there could be a few more fans in the area than the last few home games. Don’t expect them all to be in their seats early in the game though, but if Rutgers can stay close there could be some stragglers that file in. Rutgers needs to find some energy within especially since Northwestern may keep it on the ground more than usual in windy conditions and stopping the run has been a challenge against everybody the Scarlet Knights have faced.

The chances of rain are ticking up (now at 15%) with winds that appear to be shrinking in their projected velocity (down to 11 mph). Under normal circumstances, I’d say more wind would benefit Rutgers because wind makes it tougher to pass the ball, although in Rutgers’s case they have plenty of trouble stopping the run. Nevertheless, Northwestern barring something unforeseen should not struggle to pass the ball. Despite missing time due to injury earlier in the season, Clayton Thorson is still 19th in the NCAA in passing yards with 1755. I heard James Kratch mention Thorson could be a first round NFL draft pick and boy are scouts getting a good look at him. Thorson has completed 159 passes already on 254 attempts. He led the Wildcats to an amazing comeback victory over division foe Nebraska in overtime last week and may be the best QB Rutgers faces all season.

Speaking of quarterbacks ...

Sitkowski* AND McNulty watch

I thought about beginning this section with “what to watch for; more than 8 passing yards.” The asterisk remains this week, but for a different reason. Last week it was over the controversy of Johnathan Lewis being moved to tight end, this week it’s because an asterisk on the back of a baseball or football card meant league leader. Not sure how many of our readers are old enough to remember the joys of opening a pack of trading cards, but I surely loved looking at the stats on the back which predated the internet by a large margin.

On the subject of statistics, Sitkowski could not have had a worse one as he ended his day by throwing his FBS leading 15th interception. Going into the game I thought wow, if he can throw for 250 yards he will reach 1,000 which no RU QB has reached since Chris Laviano in 2015. If Art could throw for just 139, he’d reach the same number of yards Gio threw for last season (889). Instead he threw for eight yards on 16 attempts and Gio threw for zero. You have to feel bad for the kid who is just 18 years old with all kinds of pressure, the team around him is not doing the job, and the coaches admittedly having no answers. Art mentioned how people are “ripping him” and he is doing his best to tune it out. Sure, great life lessons being learned right now, but seemingly not enough else that translates to immediate success on the field. Sitkowski has talent, it’s obvious from how he commands the pocket and at times throws great balls so there is still hope long term.

Right before Maryland kickoff, I re-watched John McNulty’s press conference from Oct 8 and thought, this passing attack may have figured something out. And then against Maryland things just got progressively worse, somehow on offense reaching a rock bottom only previously imaginable based on what we saw in 2016 after Janarion Grant went down. Watching the press conference this week from McNulty again it seems that he knows his football, but hasn’t figured out a way to bottle it up for success in a game with this team.

Good fundamental football from someone

McNulty mentioned that perhaps he tried to tailor game plans to individual personnel on both teams too much, thus in the process the Scarlet Knights now have no identity, no bread and butter. He mentioned they were “hodgepdoging around”, “attempting to use our best personnel”, and had become “too scheme oriented.” So look for him to take a page out of the figurative Jerry Kill playbook and try and get Rutgers to execute a specific set of plays well. Figure out something they can do and hang their hat on. Try and do something well regardless of what or who.

On the opposing sideline, Northwestern has hung their hat on ball control and making the right play. The Wildcats are a team that normally under Pat Fitzgerald plays sound ball and wins the games they are supposed to win by not making egregious mistakes. They have been a model of consistency for several years regardless of opponent, injuries, etc. This year though, they have not been consistent losing to Duke and Akron, then playing Michigan real tough. They punished Michigan State in a victory and then had to complete a miracle comeback at Nebraska last week. It’s been their passing game that has carried the team to a 3-3 record for better and worse.

One place Northwestern is not as sound as Rutgers is the kicking game. In the event the score somehow remains close, RU could have an edge in field position. Or perhaps to keep the contest interesting at the outset.

What will Chris Ash bring to the defense?

On the other side of the ball, Jay Niemann has really started to get some heat. Chris Ash mentioned he will get more involved with the defense and the question has been over the last week, why now? Niemann in his press conference mentioned, “more involved in the communication.” This sounds like hogwash to me. You run more or less the same defense as the last three years and the two linebackers who never leave the field are senior, three year starters. Not saying the coaches are not responsible, but players need some accountability here. I hope they prove me wrong Saturday.

Niemann knows Xs and Os as does Ash, but this team needs some fire. Kiy Hester was that guy at times last year but still looks rather banged up this season. Julius Turner has struggled or else he might have taken the torch from Sebastian Joseph. Instead Mike Tverdov and occasionally Isaiah Wharton have been the only guys to show some spirit. Kessawn Abraham has been excited on kick coverage, maybe he can get some reps at slot corner? I’m just not sure Chris Ash is the type of coach to fix the enthusiasm of his group. In his defense, getting excited to play a football game for most people is not required. So maybe they are holding these kids back?

Big plays

This is simple, can Rutgers make some? Can they cut down the opponent doing so?

If yes and yes, the product on the field will look a lot different than what we saw in several other contests this year, even if the other 80% of plays remain relatively the same.

Final Thoughts

Even with the change in big play percentages, Rutgers still probably loses this game. Is it possible Rutgers wins? That depends on your definition of possible. At this point, they might win this game one in a hundred, maybe less the way things are going. Rutgers just has not put up any significantly long stretches of solid football. Right around now in the write up is the equivalent of where relatively speaking in game clock time, Isaih Pacheco begins getting the ball. He needs to get the ball more, sooner. It’s hard to explain why, but the team surely seems to feed off his effort to break tackles. He won’t break as many Wildcat first-string tackles as Maryland backups, but we’re not asking him to run for 100 yards every quarter either.

As has been the case seemingly every week, Rutgers is facing a flawed opponent who is due for a let down. Northwestern escaped last week and is not nearly as good as they have been in year’s past, at times totally dependent on their quarterback. If this were just an average Rutgers team, this would be a great opportunity for a win. Instead, it should just be taken as an opportunity to show more on offense than they did last week and the pass defense to get some more work in. And a chance to stop the free fall for at least two weeks with a bye upcoming.

Brandon, Glen, and Elise from BTN must be getting their money’s worth as they are on the call for the second week in a row. Props to anyone else who attended last week and will do the same this week. At the end of the day, the players and coaches are giving it their all and other than an apocalypse, there will be Rutgers Football in 2019. The Sun Also Rises.

I wonder if Mike Wilbon of PTI is nervous at all, Rutgers did have the most memorable game outside of Pandemonium in Piscataway on Homecoming 1992 ...