After Saturday’s catastrophic 41 point loss to Kansas, there is no way to sugarcoat the fact that the Rutgers football program is a complete mess on the field. The loss to the Jayhawks, long considered the worst power five program in college football, was the ultimate embarrassment. There is no other way to characterize Rutgers football right now other than being in full crisis mode. That’s not being an alarmist, that’s being a realist.
Chris Ash had the advantage of Rutgers fans overvaluing how good the team was before Saturday. That’s lost forever now, as this defeat stains not only this season, but the entire Ash era to date. While it’s true that former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano actually regressed record wise in his fourth season (going 4-7 including a loss to I-AA New Hampshire after 5-7 the year before), the program was in a different place. Schiano was more fortunate because he inherited a program with little expectations, was in a lesser league, and he didn’t have to recruit against college football blue bloods head to head in order to have a successful team. Ash coaches a Rutgers team in the loaded Big Ten East and therefore can’t afford a step back from year two for several reasons, most importantly because of the negative recruiting impact it would have.
Athletic director Pat Hobbs officially has a major problem on his hands. The Chris Ash era is ahead of schedule in the completely wrong direction. No one thought they’d be in worse shape performance wise than Rutgers was in Ash’s first season. Ash inherited a short handed roster with little Big Ten talent. Facilities were way behind the rest of the conference and the perception of the program was terrible. None of those facts had anything to do with such a disturbingly bad performance against Kansas. It all falls directly on Ash, which makes it an issue for Hobbs.
As I wrote earlier this week, this team already had plenty of adversity piling up so quickly this season, it was fair to be concerned about this game. Not in a million years did anyone envision the type of beat down that we all witnessed. There were some red flags that showed up the week before against Ohio State, but they actually looked worse against Kansas. The Ash era has hit rock bottom, but there are still nine games to be played this season.
Ash has inspired a lot of facility improvements, as well as bettering program infrastructure with support services, nutrition, etc. He has represented the program with class and holds his players accountable. He seems detail oriented and a true workaholic. However, there is one major problem with Chris Ash as the head coach and it was painfully obvious on Saturday. Through 27 games in charge of the program, he hasn’t proven on a consistent basis to be a competent gameday coach who gets the most out of his players.
Rutgers looked like they were sleep walking against a team that hadn’t won two consecutive games since 2010. They continue to play conservatively (Ash elected to punt on the Kansas 39 yard line down 17 in the second quarter) and burned timeouts like a kid eating candy. The team looked uninspired in a hugely important game in their season and didn’t show much fight in a second half with the issue still in doubt. Where is the fire, the swagger, the pride? I’ll repeat, all of these things happened against the program formerly considered the worst of all the power five teams.
This team has a chance to dispose of that title in three weeks when they play Illinois, but that’s the reality we are in my friends. The perception of Rutgers football nationally and within the Big Ten is that it’s a joke and they proved it by losing by six touchdowns to Kansas. They didn’t cover the spread of the Ohio State game....against Kansas. Ash is now 1-2 against David Beaty (Kansas coach) and Lovie Smith of Illinois, who have a combined record at their schools of 12-53. Ash is now 7-20.
We are now facing the very real possibility that Rutgers may not win another game this season. Sure, last season they lost to Eastern Michigan and recovered to win three conference games. It’s possible that could happen again, but what’s happened so far this season seems different. There is a big difference losing by 3 points due to lack of execution in the case of the EMU loss versus a complete annihilation at the hands of Kansas.
What were slight cracks in the foundation in year two now feel like significant ruptures that may be irreparable. It’s fair to question if Ash has lost the locker room after the no show performance against Kansas.
Hobbs, who one week on the job in December 2015, hired Ash to take on the highest profile and biggest revenue generating sports program at Rutgers. I’m not going to criticize Hobbs for hiring Ash because hindsight is 20/20 and tabbing a successful coordinator coming off a national championship with heavy Big Ten roots wasn’t a bad idea on paper. Especially with the budget constraints that Hobbs had with the revenue share Rutgers gets from the conference and lack of big donors that existed. However, Hobbs now has a major problem that blew up with this defeat and he is directly tied to it.
Season ticket holders have decreased year over year and overall attendance has as well. How many fans will show up for the three game home stand beginning next weekend against MAC power Buffalo? It’s fair to worry less than 20,000 fans will actually attend. And what happens if Rutgers loses to them, which seems likely at this point. Buffalo is 3-0, a MAC favorite and just beat Eastern Michigan, who beat Purdue this season, by a touchdown on Saturday. Will even less fans come the following week to see Indiana, a team that whooped Rutgers 41-0 last season? Perhaps they’ll attend the biergarten festival being set up at the tailgate and never leave. Who could blame them. Also, consider that Kyle Flood went 2-0 against the Hoosiers and Ash is currently 0-2. Is there much confidence he won’t be 0-3 in two weeks?
For a program and athletic department already at a disadvantage due to not yet receiving a full Big Ten share is now looking at even less revenue coming in because of football. The lack of attendance will continue to lead to a major reduction in revenue that the program can generate, as gameday is a huge boon for the athletic department as a whole. If fans stop showing up even more than they already have, which could happen in dramatic fashion after the slow drain of the past couple of seasons, it will set the program back even more. The product on the field has made it extremely hard to market the gameday environment that Rutgers has done a good job of promoting up until this point.
In this article written before the season assessing the strongest and weakest college football brands, Rutgers was ranked third worst in the FBS. That brand lost to college football’s laughingstock by 41 points three weeks later. Perception is reality and both are a problem for Rutgers football under Chris Ash.
The bottom line is the product on the field is horrendous right now and at the end of the day, it comes down to coaching. You can make the talent disparity argument in getting blown out to Ohio State. There isn’t a significant disparity between Rutgers and Kansas. Certainly not six touchdowns worth. Why didn’t this team show up is the question to ask?
Hobbs has other questions to answer as well. How does he now petition big pocketed donors to believe in the program under Ash after a loss of this magnitude? How do recruits take seriously Ash’s pitch that progress is occurring? For the fans who survived the Terry Shea era and lived to tell about it, how do they stomach this?
It’s impossible to fully judge something or someone without knowing all the details. I’m sure there are plenty of things Hobbs has seen behind the scenes that made him a believer in Chris Ash. However, none of it matters if the coach can’t actually get it done on gameday. There would be no shame in it, as plenty of successful coordinators have failed as head coaches. There is a lot more to being a head coach than x’s and o’s.
There is nothing we’ve seen on the field the past two games that breeds confidence this program is now headed in the right direction. The defense, Ash’s calling card, looks decidedly worse than last season, despite having the majority of starters back. They gave up 400 yards rushing to Kansas, including two runs of 50+ yards in the fourth quarter. That’s unfathomable. That for me, is one of the biggest red flags there is. What is the identity of this team? They look lost and are playing with little emotion.
What is the point of building a new locker room after the season if the head coach has lost the players that reside in it? Hobbs is in a serious pickle after signing Ash to an extension before the season and having almost 10 million left on his contract. He did it for recruiting purposes and I understand why it happened. The problem is Ash’s third season is in the fast lane towards disaster. It seems the consensus is that Ash will have plenty of time to try to right the ship due to the high buyout it would cost to make him go away. However, shouldn’t the cost of losing the majority of the fan base be weighed against it? The reality is Ash may be in charge for a long time. I always thought he deserved five years but he is testing that thinking after Saturday.
Hobbs has to realize that Rutgers fans’ patience with football was already worn thin before he arrived. He has inspired many Rutgers supporters with his efforts so far and there is no question the athletic department as a whole is moving in the right direction. Hobbs has done a tremendous job fundraising in a way Rutgers athletics never has before. But football continues to be a black eye and it’s a problem that has to be fixed. How will Hobbs effectively be able to sell Ash in the future to donors and the fan base if he finishes this season at 1-11 or 2-10?
I don’t know what is wrong with this team, but on paper they aren’t as bad as they are performing. That’s the failure of Chris Ash. Sure, they could upset Buffalo at home this coming Saturday and win a couple Big Ten games. But the positive energy that was attached to this program heading into Ash’s third season is gone. Andy Dufresne said “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.” When it comes to Rutgers football, hope is on life support. That’s what happens when you lose to the worst power five program in the last decade by 41 points.