After a summer of speculation and anticipation, the 2018 Rutgers football season finally kicks off in less than a week. Let’s cut to the chase, here are ten thoughts I have about this team headed into head coach Chris Ash’s third campaign in charge.
Inexperience Should Temper Expectations
The biggest reason in my eyes to be pessimistic about this team’s chances to win six games and make a bowl is the fact that it’s such a young and inexperienced roster. Out of 107 players listed on the Rutgers roster, 78 of them are redshirt sophomores or younger. That means 73% of the players on the team have played one season or less of college football in their careers. In fact, 47 players are true freshmen or redshirt freshmen, so 44% of the roster has never played a college snap entering this season. There is no denying this team has more talent during Ash’s tenure, but it’s full of so many unproven players, which makes them unpredictable. The senior class is talented and of strong character, but they are only 15 deep, backed by just 14 juniors. Ash has mentioned depth is a concern this season and he isn’t kidding. Rutgers has to keep the front line starters healthy or the drop off in experience on the field in Big Ten play will be steep.
Ash Becomes A Risk Taker
Ash has been criticized in his first two season’s for being ultra conservative with his decision making. Last season, the offense basically went into a shell and tried not to lose the game for the defense, which worked at times. While Ash had his reasons based on the talent level on offense, it isn’t a sustainable formula. Adding John McNulty as offensive coordinator, who has said often this summer that he wants to generate big plays, while naming true freshman Artur Sitkowski the starting quarterback, it’s obvious that the offense will try to open things up this season.
Throw in the fact that the defense is very talented and has a ton of experience, expect Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann to be more aggressive this season. They can also show different looks this season with four linebacker sets and six capable defensive backs.
While Rutgers has only attempted seven field goals of 40+ yards in the past two seasons, Ash has said he has a lot of confidence in sophomore kicker Justin Davidovicz, who could have a big year taking over field goal and PAT duties after handling just kickoffs last season.
In all three phases of the game, Ash has reasons to be aggressive and take shots in games to try and give this team an edge. It would be a welcomed change to see him roll the dice more.
Keep Hope Alive in October
In 2015, the season was essentially over before it began, when multiple players were arrested on the practice field during training camp, head coach Kyle Flood was embroiled in scandal, Rutgers blew it against Washington State in week 2 and star Leonte Carroo was arrested after the game for an altercation with a former girlfriend. It was a nightmare every way you turned and signaled the beginning of a tortuous season.
In 2016, Ash’s first season, Rutgers came into the fourth game with a 2-1 record and was in a scoreless tie late in the second quarter against Iowa. The most indispensable player on offense, Janarion Grant caught a short pass and went 76 yards, getting tackled at the Iowa 3 yard line. He badly injured his ankle on the play and had to be carted off the field. The Hawkeyes put together a goalline stand and then went 99 yards for a touchdown, eventually winning 14-7. The next day Grant and starting defensive lineman Quanzell Lambert were both declared out for the season with injuries. Rutgers never recovered and lost the next two contests to Ohio State and Michigan by the combined score of 136-0, never winning another game that season.
Last year, the loss to Eastern Michigan took place in week two, one game after they played inspired football against a top ten team in Washington. The season certainly wasn’t over, as Rutgers went on to win three Big Ten games, but the loss but a major damper on the season and ended any hopes of a bowl game.
With a favorable September schedule this season, I think the biggest goal above all else is for them to get to October with real hope still alive and well. Without that, dreams of a bowl appearance will be dead. It’s possible this team could go 4-1 in September. Of course, no games are a given and Rutgers could easily lose to Buffalo and Indiana at home. They really can’t afford to enter October any worse than 3-2.
Buffalo Gives Me Nightmares
Speaking of the MAC team, I can’t stop worrying about them. They are a top three team in their conference and have a legitimate chance to win 10 games this season. I worry about that game much more than Kansas and Illinois. I wrote about them in more detail here. If Rutgers can lose to a bottom half MAC team in Eastern Michigan last season, they can surely lose to a top tier team from the same conference this season. They shouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean I won’t have anxiety until that game is over and Rutgers has hopefully won.
Defense Will Be Top Half Big Ten
If the starters can remain relatively healthy, the Rutgers defense should be a fun unit to watch this season. They are senior laden with the majority of the starters having been 1’s for multiple seasons. There are also intriguing younger players in Mike Tverdov, Tyshon Fogg, and Tre Avery. For Rutgers to make a bowl game, they need the defense to be a top tier unit in the Big Ten. Whether they make the postseason or not, as there are plenty of other factors, I think this is the best defense we will see on the banks since the 2012 team.
Isaih Pacheco Will Become A Star
There has been a lot of chatter about how good Pacheco, the true freshman, has looked during training camp. He is a physical specimen and a tough runner. While Boston College transfer Jon Hilliman brings experience and a steadiness, he doesn’t have explosiveness. Raheem Blackshear is going to be heavily involved regardless, but he is a different kind of back and will be involved a lot in the passing game. Pacheco could end up seeing the bulk of the carries sooner rather than later and if he does, that would be a big positive for Rutgers. Even if they work him in more subtly this season, I think Pacheco ends up having a great career.
Blackshear & Washington Could Be Top Two Receivers
Bo Melton has received a ton of praise this offseason and is the best deep threat on the roster. He could have a fantastic year and lead Rutgers in receiving, as many expect him to do. However, Melton will have new challenges to face, like dealing with the opposing team’s top corner week after week. For a player who had just four receptions for 83 yards last season, it is no given he will become a top tier receiver right away, despite his immense talent. I think it is very possible that running back Raheem Blackshear and tight end Jerome Washington could end up being the two players with the most receiving yards this season. Both will be heavily involved in the passing game and will be short and intermediate targets most of the time for Sitkowski, which make for higher percentage passes. Granted, Melton or any other receiver only needs to catch a couple deep balls a game to grab chunks of large yardage, but that’s easier said than done. If those three players can all generate a lot of yards on a consistent basis, it will bode well for the Rutgers offense.
Maryland Will Still Be A Difficult Game
Obviously, it’s been a disastrous month for Maryland and there is a lot of uncertainty for the program entering this season. Matt Canada has been named interim head coach and how the team responds remains to be seen. This was always a big game for Rutgers and one they can certainly win. However, I don’t agree with some that it’s even more winnable now. Perhaps Maryland simply can’t overcome the tumultuous training camp they experienced and fall apart by the time Rutgers visits them in mid-October. I actually think the opposite could happen, as the team could become more unified from what happened and ends up having a solid season. The only nice thing you can say about DJ Durkin is he recruited very well during his tenure at Maryland and they have more talent on the roster than Rutgers right now. That doesn’t ensure victory, as the Scarlet Knights proved last season, although it came against their third string quarterback. I expect it to be a battle once again that could go either way, like most meetings are in this series.
Tariq Cole Makes First Team All-Big Ten
No Rutgers player on offense or defense has ever made First Team All-Conference since joining the Big Ten in 2014. The streak has to end sometime and while the secondary has legitimate candidates to do it with Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton, I think it’s the offense that accomplishes the feat first. The offensive line has played well together through camp and senior left tackle Tariq Cole seems primed to have his best season. Last year, he had a pass blocking efficiency rating of 97.7%, which was one of the best in all of college football. If Rutgers shows significant improvement on offense and Cole continues to perform at a high level, he will finally get the credit he deserves after what has already been an outstanding career on the banks. Whether he earns the honor or not, he will be playing on Sundays in the near future.
Rutgers Scares One Of The Big Four In November
The last month of the regular season brings Rutgers arguably the hardest four game slate of any team in the country. It starts at Wisconsin, home games against Michigan and Penn State, followed by a road trip to Michigan State to end the season. It’s hard to envision any wins in November. However, going back to my earlier point about this being such a young team, I do think we will see some developmental gains by the end of the season. I’m saying it now, Rutgers will seriously challenge one of those four opponents and while I think they ultimately fall short, the effort will be cited as a sign progress is occurring. I think it will come against Penn State on Senior Day in Piscataway. After shutting down Saquon Barkley and giving the Nittany Lions a serious challenge into the third quarter in Happy Valley last season, I think they give them even more of a scare this year, in what is the last home game for this strong senior class. And who knows, maybe they end up shocking Penn State and sending a statement to the rest of the Big Ten that better days are here for Rutgers football.