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Rutgers Football Game #1 Preview v UMass

Opening night of the 2019 season kicks off Friday in Piscataway.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Buffalo at Rutgers
Tverdov hopes to get some pass rush opportunities.
Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How To Watch, Stream & Listen

Massachusetts (0-0; 0-0) At Rutgers (0-0; 0-0)

Where: SHI Stadium, Piscataway, NJ

Kick-off: Friday, August 30th at 7:15 p.m. EDT

Weather: 79 degrees, mostly sunny with a 1% chance of rain, 5 mph winds

Pregame activities: click here

TV: BTN, Mike Monaco and Shaun O’Hara. Out-of-market channel finder.

Stream: FOX Sports App

Replay: BTN+ (after midnight ET)

Radio: Rutgers IMG Sports Network with Chris Carlin, Ray Lucas, and Anthony Fucilli - Rutgers IMG Sports Network: WCTC 1450-AM, WOR 710-AM, WENJ 97.3-FM, WNJE 920-AM, Sirius 81, XM 81. (WRSU 88.7-FM: Jake Ostrove, Chris Tsakonas and Robert Baxter)

Current Spread: Rutgers -15.5

Against The Spread: Rutgers 0-0 (last year 7-5); UMass 0-0 (last year 5-7)

Series History: 2-2, Rutgers won the last meeting in 1978

SB Nation UM site: find season preview here

Massachusetts Returning Statistical Leaders

Passing: Michael Curtis - 26 for 40 pass attempts, 65.0%, 412 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT.

Rushing: Bilal Ally - 154 yards on 25 attempts, 5.6 ypc, 1 TD;

Receiving: Sadiq Palmer - 28 catches for 419 yards, 15.0 ypc, 2 TD; Brennon Dingle - 19 catches for 269 yards, 14.2 ypc, 2 TD; Zak Simon - 15 catches for 238 yards, 15.9 ypc, 2 TD; Samuel Emilus - 15 catches for 212 yards, 14.1 ypc, 4 TD;

Defense: Chinedu Ogbonna - 72 tackles, 5.5 for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 interception; Isaiah Rodgers - 56 tackles, 3 for a loss, 0 sacks, 2 INT, 4 pass defended; Jake Byczko - 55 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks

Kicking: Cooper Garcia - 37 for 37 PAT’s, 9 for 11 FG attempts, Long of 39 yards

UMass Statistical Comparison Versus Rutgers

S&P+ Advanced Stats Profiles: UMass | Rutgers (2018 data)

What To Watch For

Will there be energy leading up to the game?

The Big Ten Network pregame show will air live outside of SHI Stadium for the first time since 2014 so if you want to be on TV, hopefully you can post up with a good sign. Maybe a “Bring The Noise” or other BTN acronym is PG enough to be shown, unlike what I think we could see with respect to the new stadium name. The students will be involved in at least two activities outside the stadium. A re-enactment of the first football game in 1869 will take place at the Marco Battaglia Practice Complex. The class of 2023 convocation will also bring incoming freshmen to the game.

Beyond that, the lack of enthusiasm other than the usual new season optimism has driven fans and the media wild, with Monday’s press conference putting a cherry on top. Rutgers needs to enter this game trying to squash the opponent not worried about tipping off who their quarterback is if both will play anyway. As my defensive line in coach in college said, “You shouldn’t need anything special to get excited for a football game.” Coaches can help psych up a team, but this is on the players, especially when we didn’t see enough urgency a year ago. Some of the younger players like Mike Tverdov and Avery Young proved to be the team’s emotional lightning rods a year ago, who else will step up on that emotional level?

Sitkowski / Carter / McNulty watch

Note: a report stating Carter would start came out after this preview was published.

The first section of last year’s previews centered on the QB play and how the coaching staff attempted to assist because at times the quarterback made it impossible for the team to win. In this first contest of 2019 we could see Art Sitkowski, McLane Carter, and a package for Johnny Langan taking snaps. John McNulty acknowledged that now he knows more about his personnel which should benefit the quarterbacks most if their skill position targets are in the best position to make individual plays.

It is difficult to know what coverages Rutgers should expect, but we need to see some easy completions regardless of how the Minutemen line up. Specifically, if they don’t have the personnel to play press coverage, Rutgers needs to bludgeon the visitors. Rutgers needs to complete as many passes as they can, even if they are dink and dunk. Gaining confidence in the passing connections between quarterbacks and receivers is key, we will probably see at least eight receivers or more in the first half. UMass has a few standouts in the secondary led by Isaiah Rodgers but otherwise breaks in players who couldn’t see the field last year despite how porous the group was.

What I want to see from all three quarterbacks is to avoid turnovers. If there is a turnover it better be on a long bomb deep down the sideline on 3rd down that is as good as punt. Johnny Langan may come in for short yardage and in those situations, protecting the football is necessary to ensure points get on the board. McLane Carter I’d like to see execute a wide variety of plays to demonstrate his command of the playbook and show excellent leadership. Art Sitkowski needs to avoid sacks and interceptions by throwing the ball away if nothing is open since Rutgers will not lose this game unless they open the door for UMass.

Pacheco watch

The Pacheco watch was a regular section once the season went completely off the rails. Even though fellow running back Raheem Blackshear led the team in rushing AND receiving, Pacheco was the player with the best chance to go into beast mode against bonafide defenders. Last year when he carried the ball, the offensive line had a little extra hop in their step.

UMass had one of the worst defenses in the nation last year (allowed 43 ppg) and lost their two best players from the group, so Rutgers needs to be able to pound the rock on these guys who are undersized. If RU can't run the ball on the Minutemen, there is no hope against any other team on the schedule in that regard. Even if they don’t grind them to the ground for sake of testing the passing game, Rutgers needs to push some people around initially to impose their will. Chinedu Ogbonna is a good player for UMass so Rutgers may lean on Brandon Myers and Matt Alaimo to ensure they get a hat on him.

Chris Ash, Head Coach. Andy Buh, D.C.

Chris Ash and Andy Buh also have to prepare for multiple quarterbacks since UMass had a three-man race as recently as last week. Former Lawrenceville star Randall West gets the nod by a nose over Andrew Brito (also from New Jersey) and incumbent starter Michael Curtis. Andy Buh mentioned in the press conference that he has a good idea what Walt Bell wants to run, but may not have the personnel to execute the up tempo, “fun” style he desires. West himself has a way of rallying his football and during the winter, basketball teammates. He is listed at 6’4”, 200 lbs. on the football roster, but 235 lbs. on the hoops listing so he could be a load to bring down.

The Scarlet Knight defensive backs other than Damon Hayes and Avery Young are inexperienced, but the staff has a lot of options to go to in those spots in the event of injury or ineffectiveness. Rutgers surely has the horses at linebacker and bodies in the defensive backfield to stick with an up tempo attack if they can contain the inside spread running game. UMass has a legitimate offensive line who all weigh 300 pounds and two, maybe three, good running backs if you count converted wide receiver Cam Roberson, so the Knights need to rotate as much as they can on the D-line which is difficult against a no huddle attack.

Special Teams

Vince Okruch has led a special teams contingent that improved every year he and Chris Ash have been on the banks and if they can win the field position battle, it’s difficult to see Rutgers losing this game. Punter Adam Korsak can build on a freshman year when he overachieved by suffocating the Minutemen with flipping field position every time he is called upon and pinning the opponent back. Justin Davidovicz can do the same on kickoffs and the key is converting chip shot field goals and extra points, it should not come down to him needing to convert a 50 yarder to secure victory.

The biggest question mark is the return game which has been a weakness since Janarion Grant was playing. Rutgers needs to avoid muffing punts or starting drives inside their own 25 yard line. For Massachusetts to win this one, a momentum shifting play in the return game or blown coverage by Rutgers on a punt or kickoff is likely needed. The coverage units for the Scarlet Knights have been elite the last two seasons even according to Jim Harbaugh, we will find out if that’s true again on Friday night.

Final Thoughts

The season opener is always a complete unknown which is why I prefer having my team playing a superior opponent rather than one they should beat in Week 1. Sometimes you can steal a win (i.e. RU upsetting Michigan State in 2004) because programs with less depth haven’t been beaten up (or down) over the course of the year yet. UMass has an offensive line they feel good about, but in a few weeks there’s a good chance a few guys would be banged up and there is not the depth behind them you see from a Power Five program. So for this game the Minutemen absolutely have a chance greater than zero as a 15.5 point underdog.

Rutgers SHOULD win this game regardless of who plays the most snaps at quarterback for either side. The scenario for UMass to pull off the upset is as follows 1. Rutgers makes a few momentum swinging turnovers and does not dominate special teams. 2. The UMass offense plays with a tempo Rutgers struggles to contain and is unable to get fresh legs into the game on long drives. 3. The Rutgers passing attack is incompetent and the Minutemen can simply stack the box against the run to at least contain Blackshear and Pacheco. The weather should not be a factor.

Walt Bell was the right hire for the job in Amherst, but his defense even cutting their points allowed in half is a tall order. If this game is close late, it will add even more concern for a coaching staff who is trying to pull out all the stops to preserve their time on the banks. UMass will score a few points in this game with four very experienced receivers, but Rutgers has to flex its muscles especially on offense to remove any speck of hope for the visitors as early as possible and end the losing streak.