It will take awhile for the debacle last Saturday against Kansas to truly escape the minds of every Rutgers football fan. In fact, the stain of that loss will never fully go away and is added to the encyclopedia (too old a reference?) of many painful defeats over the years. However, the beauty of college football is there is another game to be played this Saturday and this team has an opportunity to generate some positive momentum by beating Buffalo. The Bulls come into the game at 3-0, including wins over Temple and Eastern Michigan, who each have beaten Big Ten teams (Maryland and Purdue). In fact, the spread opened with Buffalo as 3-point favorites and it’s since ballooned to 5.5 points as of Tuesday afternoon.
A lot of things need to turn around quickly for Rutgers to even be competitive against a team considered a favorite to win the MAC this season. Instead of my usual recap of the press conferences from Chris Ash, Jay Niemann, and John McNulty, I will touch on some key points they spoke about on Monday and give my take on what to expect out of Rutgers moving forward this season.
Youth on Offense
The offense has obviously struggled and one reason is there is a lot of youth in the two deep, particularly at the wide receiver position. Redshirt freshman Eddie Lewis led Rutgers with four catches against Kansas, his first real contribution. Bo Melton had a strong first half against Texas State, but has been quiet since. Shameen Jones has a lot of potential and had a chance to make a couple of plays on Saturday, but couldn’t deliver. Drops and an inability to gain separation has plagued the entire group through three games so far.
John McNulty spoke at his presser that several other young players need to be more involved with the offense. He specifically mentioned true freshmen Jalen Jordan and Daevon Robinson, as well as redshirt freshman Travis Vokolek. Most of the other receiving targets are in the 6 foot range, while Vokolek is 6’6”, Jordan is 6’5” and Robinson is 6’3”. All of them are athletic and could add a dimension to the passing game that is sorely missing. At this point, the season is about developing the young talent that you have and it makes a lot of sense to have these three players more involved. That thinking leads me to my next point....
I hate to ruin on any last thread of hope, but Rutgers has no chance to go to a bowl game this season. Not exactly breaking news, but some are still hoping for a major turnaround. I’d be thrilled if it happened, but don’t even dream about it, not worth the heartbreak.
With that being said, I understand the argument they could have had Ash and McNulty started the season with Gio Rescigno as the starting quarterback, but I think the team has bigger issues than the captain could have overcome. The point is this team is about building towards the future, no matter how unfair that is for the seniors. Replacing Artur Sitkowski as the starter heading in the Buffalo game would be a mistake in my opinion. The staff assessed he was the most talented of the group and Rutgers needs to invest in the future development of a quarterback, hoping to avoid the ongoing carousel of changing signal callers every year like they do with the offensive coordinator role.
McNulty said he thinks Art fell apart in the Kansas game because he was trying to do too much. He was also focusing too much on one target and wasn’t working through progressions on various plays. McNulty said how surprised he was by his performance in the game because he had his best week of practice leading up to it. These are the growing pains everyone was warned about before the season. You can’t pull the plug on the Sitkowski Project (sounds like a new Amazon show) three games into it. The only way Art improves is to get reps in games and learn from his mistakes. Everyone worried about the physical toll the Bosa hit and how the overall beating he has taken in the first two weeks would wear on him. I think it’s affected him as much mentally as anything else. He rushed his throws, missed some easy one’s he typically makes, and overall looked the most uncomfortable we’ve seen him so far. He needs a chance to work through that.
I do think he needs to be managed better during games. I see no harm in pulling him for a series here and there after a bad interception to take a breath and perhaps see things a bit differently from the sidelines. Heck, it probably wouldn’t hurt if the head coach patted him on the back and offered a few words of encouragement after a mistake either. And yes, if he just doesn’t have it in a game, like it became painfully obvious against Kansas, pull him altogether at a point before the issue is no longer in doubt. His struggles seemed to affect the morale of the team and the offensive struggles overall really hurt the defense.
Even so, you have to keep working Sitkowski and hopefully he starts to show progress sooner rather than later. But you need to allow for more time before contemplating replacing him as the starter. Otherwise it could hurt his development long term.
Blessuan Austin Injury & Deleted Tweet
You’ve heard by now that Ash announced that Blessuan Austin, the best defensive player on the team, is having surgery this Friday on the same knee he tore his ACL last September. It sounds like the doctors are going in to assess the damage and determine if he needs the same ACL repaired or something else needs to be done. Either way, Austin’s Rutgers career is likely over. It’s a heartbreaking situation and hopefully he will be fine to pursue his NFL dream soon enough. Look at Janarion Grant, who struggled to regain his form last season after a major injury the year before, but made the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent and had a big punt return in week one.
The other news on Austin you may or may not have heard was his tweet on Saturday night taking issue with Ash’s comments after the Kansas loss. You can see the tweet, which was deleted, in Keith Sargeant’s article here. Ash said after the game that the rebuild could take up to 6 years and Austin cited that quote, followed by LOL. Ash was asked about whether he addressed it with Austin and he said he did. He wouldn’t comment on the conversation but emphasized his love for Austin as a player and a person.
Austin has represented Rutgers at Big Ten media day the past two years and although not a captain, is certainly a leader and respected figure within the program. For him to step out with this tweet should be a concern. He is obviously upset after re-injuring his knee and not being able to play, so he should be given some leeway for his action. However, I think it does tap into a bit of disconnect between Ash and the veteran players, all of which were recruited by former coach Kyle Flood. Hopefully, this incident is just a blip on the radar screen and not a red flag that signals there are bigger locker room issues between the players and their coach.
Jerome Washington, Raheem Blackshear & Jon Hilliman
McNulty said Washington played his best game against Kansas and I’ve said since last season Rutgers has to make him more of a priority on offense. Blackshear had a solid game on Saturday and Hilliman played fine in the opportunities that he did have. These three have to be more of a focus against Buffalo. Washington is a problem down the field for any Big Ten team, let alone a team from the MAC. Blackshear has held up well and seems to get better once he has his number called on multiple plays during a drive , allowing him to gain momentum. Hilliman is steady and the up the gut runner Rutgers needs in short yardage and goal line situations. Obviously, Blackshear and Hilliman can’t continue to fumble like they did on Saturday. If Rutgers if going to beat Buffalo and any other team this season, these three players need to be a focal point on offense.
Tackling Issues & Big Plays Sinking Defense
Jay Niemann discussed how six runs from Kansas went for over 200 yards, while the rest of their carries Rutgers held them to only 4.0 yards per carry. He also commented how the tackling was poor in the game, citing the defense getting worn down late. We’ve seen this problem every season in the Ash Era, the offense doesn’t produce and the defense suffers because of it. However, there is no real excuse for giving up 400 yards rushing to Kansas and for a defense that fields a majority of the starters from last season and beyond, they should be performing much better than they are. Depth is a concern, especially with the injuries in the secondary. Austin is out and Niemann did mention Tre Avery should be back soon after dealing with his own injury. Avery Young has been starting in Austin’s place and done fine, but if Tre Avery can perform like he did in training camp, it would be a boost for Rutgers. Regardless, if the defense can’t tackle better and limit big plays, it’s going to be a long season, no matter how the offense develops.
Ash Needs To Lead More Effectively
One thing that seems to be popping up with Ash this season is his lack of decisiveness. The quarterback decision seemed to carry on too long during training camp even after it seemed like Sitkowski was the inevitable winner of the competition. Ash admitted a mistake in not overruling the OC and calling a timeout before the infamous pass play that was called at the end of the first half against Ohio State. When asked about whether Sitkowski would start this weekend, Ash was non-committal, saying every position was being evaluated. That’s fair, but I just thought the way he said it wasn’t the best.
He also continues to not take chances when given an opportunity to spark the team. He decided to punt from the Kansas 39 yard line down 17 points in the first half against the Jayhawks. This is not the first time during his tenure that Rutgers has punted inside the opponent’s 40 and the play calling on both sides of the ball seems to lack aggressiveness at times.
I commented here that the team played with little swagger and fire against Kansas, something that seems all too common in the Ash Era. That goes for Ash himself, who doesn’t show much emotion or even interaction on the sidelines during games, especially when things start to go wrong. Every coach is different and Ash needs to stay true to who he is, but he comes across too complacent with his demeanor and in-game decisions. The team seems to be taking after the coach’s personality on the field during games. If you play football without passion, then you are at a disadvantage and Ash needs to find a way to tap into his players in order to get the best out of them this Saturday and beyond.
Can This Team Turn It Around?
I hope so, but I’d be lying if I said I was even remotely confident they will. The bottom line is they have a chance to get off the mat this weekend and how they respond will tell us what the mental state of this team really is. If they come out fighting and win the game, it will be a satisfying performance for the players, coaches and the suffering fans. If they lose in a manner that the game isn’t really close, it will only build on top of the disappointment that this season has been so far. Let’s hope they can show signs of life on Saturday and overcome the rough start so far.
You watch the full press conferences for each coach from Monday here: