Take a deep breath Rutgers fans, the 2018 football season is now officially over. The 1-11 final record was the worst for the program since 2002, which was Greg Schiano’s second year at Rutgers. While Schiano’s tenure worked out well over time, beginning with a 5-7 campaign in his third year, there is no guarantee that the future will be a successful one for current head coach Chris Ash. At least we know for sure now that Ash era will have a future and be back for a fourth season. Whether that is a good thing or not remains to be seen.
Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs confirmed in a statement Saturday night after the 14-10 defeat to Michigan State that Ash would remain as the head coach for the program next season. It’s not surprising news, considering the 9.8 million dollar buyout that Ash would be owed if a change was made. However, what’s important now is looking forward and examining how the program is currently positioned.
Hobbs ended his statement on Ash’s future with this line, “I expect that under Chris’ continued leadership we will see significant improvement next season and ask for everyone’s continued support.” The key to the end of the statement was the following: “see significant improvement.” Hobbs has set the bar for what Ash will presumably need to do next season to remain the head coach after that point. The question now becomes, what does Hobbs consider to be significant improvement? Regardless of what it is, the Ash era has been a failure so far and Hobbs is the one who hired him, so that’s another reason that it’s not surprising he is giving Ash a fourth season to try and turn it around. Will he actually be able to is another question entirely.
During the first three seasons under Ash, Rutgers had arguably the worst offense in all of FBS every year, two winless conference campaigns, and was unable to garner a signature win. Purdue & Maryland were solid wins in 2017, but nothing approaching a program shaping victory.
Recruiting is on a downturn, with the class of 2019 currently ranked 13th in the Big Ten and 66th overall, while only having half the class filled with verbal commitments with early national signing day less than a month away. The staff is focusing on JUCO prospects more than ever before, which is a typically not a positive trend in recruiting. Having success recruiting the garden state has never materialized to a point that it’s pushed the program forward, or even helped it stay level for that matter, which is a problem.
Turnover on the coaching staff has been consistently high, with Ash replacing multiple assistants after last season, as well as the year before that. More changes are likely, as several assistant coaches have contracts expiring. Of all of them, defensive coordinator Jay Niemann seems the obvious pick for not being retained after Ash took control of the defense in late October on. The defense played much better once Ash got more involved. Niemann is a conservative playcaller and the defense was a huge disappointment in the first half of this season, but I thought he had done a good job up to that point. Regardless of who is replaced, finding upgrades will be a challenge, based on the lack of stability in the position as Ash enters a make or break season in his tenure at Rutgers. How many quality assistants would take a chance on Ash in his Hail Mary season? Another fact, the longest pass completed for Rutgers this season was for 41 yards and it was to a running back. The wide receiver group was arguably the most disappointing this season.
In addition to all of those issues, the results and stats for the Ash era has been historically bad. Ash is 7-29 overall and 3-24 in Big Ten play. While this past season is when reasons to doubt Ash became more obvious, things began to take a turn for the worse last November. After Rutgers defeated Maryland at home on November4th, 2017, the Scarlet Knights lost the last three games of that season by a combined score of 116-13 against Penn State, Indiana, and Michigan State. The fact that Ash won three Big Ten games that season and doubled his win total from year one, it made it harder to think that the last three games was the precursor for a terrible season ahead.
Rutgers lost the last 11 games of this season by a combined score of 370 to 127, which is an average score of 34 to 12 per contest. They lost to Kansas (41 points), Buffalo (29 points), and Illinois (21 points) by a combined 91 points and those three teams finished the regular season with a combined record of 17-19. Rutgers has now lost 14 of its last 15 games played and just three of them were by single digits (Indiana 24-17; Northwestern 18-15; Michigan State 14-10).
In Ash’s tenure he is 0-2 against the MAC, falling to Eastern Michigan in 2017 by the score of 13-10, before getting destroyed by Buffalo 42-13 in a game that the score could have been much worse.
Rutgers is only 2-7 against Indiana, Maryland, and Illinois under Ash. Every year, Rutgers will need to win against those opponents in order to ever climb up the Big Ten Standings. In the first two years in the conference, Kyle Flood went 3-1 for Rutgers against Indiana and Maryland. Now those programs are clearly ahead of the Scarlet Knights and the gap appears to be widening.
Against the Big Ten East, Rutgers and Ash are just 1-17 the past three seasons. 247 Sports discusses the worst coaches in Big Ten football history in this article from July and Ash’s resume through three seasons fits among the group quite comfortably. One Rutgers coach is mentioned in Terry Shea, who I compared to Ash earlier this season. The futility on the field feels eerily similar between those two era’s.
In the past three seasons, Rutgers is O-11 against ranked opponents, losing by a combined score of 498-57 for an average tally of 45-5. Last Saturday’s loss to Penn State, who was ranked #14th at the time, was the closest Rutgers has ever come to beating a ranked opponent in the Ash era, but never seriously threatened in the game. They lost 20-7 but it was obvious if Rutgers could have played better, they had a real chance to pull the upset, which would have been the signature win under Ash.
Instead, the loss to Michigan State, an even more winnable game, was the perfect ending to the season. Rutgers continued to fight hard, clearly showing they haven’t given up on Ash. However, this team couldn’t stop making mistakes, turning it over three times and committing eight penalties for 76 yards. The offense was only 4 of 14 on third down conversions and produced just 217 total yards in the game. They faced the second to worst offense in the Big Ten with its backup quarterback, and still made less plays than the Spartans.
The reality is that if Hobbs expects significant improvement next season, Ash’s main focus has to be player development. There are so many questions regarding the projected outlook for this roster. Here are a few:
Is Artur Sitkowski really the quarterback of the future or does offensive coordinator John McNulty and Ash move in a different direction? If it is Sitkowski, will he develop into a serviceable signal caller next season?
Will the offensive line improve in Ash’s fourth season more than any of the previous three?
Will any receivers become consistent enough to become serviceable?
Despite the mixed play of a senior laden defense this past season, there will be several holes to fill for next season. Rutgers only has one defensive lineman committed in the 2019 recruiting class and the position group is already lacking talent and depth. How will the current lineman develop and will Rutgers have more depth because of it?
Can the middle of the defense get tighter and more consistent despite the losses of three year starters Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris?
Isaiah Wharton and Saquan Hampton had great finished to their careers this season and will need to be replaced in a big way, along with Blessuan Austin officially moved on, as well as Kiy Hester. That’s a lot of experience now gone from the defense. Who will step up?
So far under Ash, there have been some player development bright spots. The biggest positive in my opinion is that Rutgers has two intriguing and talented running backs in Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco. They certainly give the offense two key players for the next 2 seasons.
Travis Vokolek caught his second touchdown of the season in Saturday’s loss and looks like a solid building block for the offense. There is some potential on the offensive line, with players like Raiqwon O’Neal expected to take on a larger role moving forward. Avery Young cut his teeth right away as a true freshman due to Austin injuring his knee in the opening half of the season. He greatly improved and became a very good player down the stretch. Mike Tverdov had a very good season as a redshirt freshman on the defensive line and looks poised to be a force for Rutgers for years to come.
On special teams, Rutgers appears to be on solid ground with its specialists, Justin Davidovicz, who made 9 of 11 field goal attempts this season, and Adam Korsak, who got better as the fall progressed.
While there are some positive things to be excited about with the roster in the future, are there enough of them to truly believe Ash will be able to right the ship before steering off course for good? Depth is a major issue for Rutgers that can’t be magically solved all by player development. Can it happen fast enough that Rutgers improves significantly next season?
Ash said earlier in the season that fans should have “faith without results” regarding his ability to turn the program around. That type of mentality didn’t exist at schools like Texas State and Bowling Green, who fired its head coaches in the middle of their third seasons, while Charlotte and Kansas fired coaches in their fourth seasons. None of the coaches let go had more than seven wins by the end of their third season and that’s how many Ash has at the end of his third campaign.
The odds would lean towards the result that a head coach who hasn’t won much in his first three seasons will not win significantly more in year four. Is it realistic to think that Ash can win five games next season, which is how I would define significant progress in 2019? Of course its possible, but have you seen enough signs on the field that progress is happening? Rutgers was more competitive in the last five games of the season, but this was a lost year in that the Big Ten was its poorest in some time and Ash’s team couldn’t get out of its own way to take advantage. It was a huge missed opportunity. Mistakes including turnovers and penalties were as much of an issue in their last loss as it was in the first one.
Pat Hobbs is betting on Chris Ash to prove him right long term. If Bob Mulcahy didn’t show patience to Greg Schiano 16 years ago, Rutgers probably never ends up in the Big Ten. Perhaps Ash will prove Hobbs right in keeping him for a fourth season. However, it’s going to be a tough sell to a significant portion of the fan base. Making a statement was the easy part. Having Ash take a few steps forward next season is the real work and hopefully for all Rutgers fans, that becomes the reality. However, based on the first three seasons under Ash, it’s fair to be skeptical that he will ever be successful at Rutgers.