Greg Schiano met with the media on Monday to discuss the current state of the team and preview Saturday’s matchup with Wisconsin. The Badgers are on a four game winning streak and still in contention for the West division title. Here are five key takeaways from Schiano’s presser.
Run defense the key against Wisconsin
Braelon Allen has brought stability to the Badgers offense with four consecutive 100+ yard rushing performances, all wins. Wisconsin is third in the conference in averaging 212 yards per game on the ground and second in the Big Ten in time of possession with an average of 34:35 per game. The Rutgers defense has performed well against the rushing attacks of Syracuse, Michigan and Illinois this season. When they are able to limit opponents on the ground, they are able to be extremely competitive. That variable is a major key to Saturday’s matchup with the Badgers. How they hold up against a physical team like Wisconsin will be so important to the outcome.
Schiano was asked about the run defense and he commented, “I think our guys know where to fit. I think we play with an understanding. When we have failures in our run defense, it’s been tackling and we have to continue to improve at that. We are improving, that’s the key. We’re getting better at it. This will be a great test. I mean the running back is a big man. He’s 240 pounds. And he runs like a smaller back, so this will be a great test. Not to mention the gigantic offensive line and (being) really well coached.”
He added, “Offensively, very, very big and physical.
One bit of good news from Monday was Schiano confirming that Julius Turner, who has been so effective up front for Rutgers, was good to go against Wisconsin after playing through an undisclosed injury on Saturday. “Julius is okay,” he said. “It’s the back third of the season, everybody’s hurting in some ways, but he’ll be ready to go.”
Rutgers will need big plays on offense to win
On the flip side, Wisconsin’s defense has been tremendous and is allowing a league low of 215 total yards per game. They are only allowing 50 yards rushing per contest, the fewest of 130 FBS teams. Schiano said on Monday that, “Wisconsin’s coming to town as the number one defense in America.”
In explaining further what makes them great, Schiano said, “Well, they’re talented first and foremost. And they’re talented at every level. So they’re really good in the front. They base out of the three-four. Their outside linebackers are really good. That No. 19 (Nick Herbig) is a really good rusher. Their inside backers, really talented, big, physical. And then in the back end, they fit very well. They fit into the run game very well. They understand the coverages and they play multiple coverages. So it’s a well coached group, a coordinated group and a group that’s really talented.”
While Rutgers was able to generate a running game in the win over Illinois by rushing for 230 yards on 4.5 yards per carry, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to come close to that type of performance against Wisconsin. The offensive line is key regardless in being able to provide room to run, but also in providing time to make plays in the passing game. Rutgers has to be able to generate some big plays on offense to be able to win this game. Bo Melton, Isaih Pacheco and Aron Cruickshank, if he plays, all have the potential to do that. It’s a matter of getting them in space and having the time to do that.
Speaking of Cruickshank’s status, after missing the previous two games due to injury, he appears to be questionable in facing his former team in Wisconsin. Schiano said, “I don’t know about Aron. That’s going to be close. I know he wants to. He’s been trying to. There’s a difference between want to and physically able and we’re never going to put a guy out there and risk their health as they’re not they’re not ready to go.”
Staff doing a great job converting players in new positions
Two players that stood out offensively against Illinois were two players who have changed positions this season. Johnny Langan still runs a package at quarterback for small yardage situations, but he has essentially converted into a full-time tight end otherwise. I raved about his performance here.
On Langan’s development as a tight end, Schiano said, “No, I think that wasn’t even a hard sell the first time when he went from being a full time quarterback. It was a disappointing sell. He really wanted to be the quarterback, like any kid who wants to be in whatever position he’s playing. But once he became kind of a special quarterback and we started working him last year a little bit at the off tight end. And then this year he really wanted to, he asked to, wanted to be more involved. Johnny wants to play football. So if I’m not gonna be a quarterback where can I help this team win? I think in the last three weeks Johnny has made some really nice strides. And not just because he made the phenomenal catch Saturday. He’s been doing things in his blocking. He’s been doing things in his routing that I think is really good.”
On whether Langan has a legitimate future at tight end, Schiano made it clear that he does.
And I think Johnny could really, really go like this at the position now because I think he’s got all the skills needed. He’s tough, strong, athletic, got good hands, can run after the catch. He’s got all the things you need. He’s nimble enough to do some of that pulling stuff we do and fitting into the right bodies, running the ball so he understands daylight and darkness. As a blocker, you have to understand that because you’re kind of leading the way for the runner. So I think he’s got a chance.”
The other player who recently switched positions midseason is Ireland Brown. He flipped from the defensive line to the offensive line and made his debut at left guard against Delaware. The win over Illinois was just his fourth game at the position and second start. Brown made a positive impression and helped stabilize the offensive line coming out of the bye week.
Schiano remarked of his development that, “He’s really progressed a lot. It’s a good question. I thought Saturday was the first time he looked like he belonged. There wasn’t a newness look to it. He kind of just played the game like all the rest of the guys. And that’s a big step. You can do that. So now you know I’ve talked to him, we need to go now. Now you look like you belong. Now it’s time to go. Because he’s really talented. He’s explosive. He’s strong. He’s athletic. He was the guy that could really take off. I expect him fully to and just sometimes it’s a matter of timing.”
Rebuilding the offensive line is one of the biggest priorities for this coaching staff. Recruiting and adding players from transfer portal next season will be important, but if converting a player like Brown leads to long term improvement, that would be a big win for offensive line coach Andrew Aurich and the rest of the staff.
Redshirts won’t hinder decision making
Schiano has repeatedly said that he will play the best players on the roster. There are many first or second year players who have already exceeded the four game limit and are no longer eligible to redshirt this season. The 12 players are S Alijah Clark, RB Jamier Wright-Collins, C Bryan Felter, DL Kyonte Hamilton, TE Victor Konopka, CB Chris Long, DB Robert Longerbeam, CB Max Melton, RB Kyle Monangai, RT Hollin Pierce, LB Tyreem Powell, and RG Troy Rainey. Their ability to make a positive impact on this team and gaining valuable experience now will only further their development.
As for whether Rutgers is weighting the redshirt option with 18 year old Gavin Wimsatt, Schiano was non-committal when asked about it.
“It’s something you think about,” Schiano said. “I don’t know exactly what to tell you on it. I kind of have an idea what my thinking is. I’m probably not going to share it. But yeah, there’s something you have to consider for sure. Every player, not just Gavin.”
Wimsatt could still see action in three more games and maintain his redshirt eligibility for this season. It seems like Rutgers will likely be selective in how they use him, not just because of the redshirt but in how they want to manage his development. His fourth down conversion was a significant first step, but it seems clear his next opportunity will be planned and strategic. That seems to be the driving force in how Wimsatt will be used.
Preserving his redshirt would be a positive but I don’t see it as an absolute necessity. The goal should be to get him opportunities to gain experience and develop on the field in whatever situation the coaching staff feels he is able to handle. If he has enough of a grasp of the offense that they feel he should play in each of the remaining four regular season games and it could be beneficial for his development towards next season, then he should. Whether that next opportunity comes against Wisconsin remains to be seen.
Rutgers needs a strong start in the stands
During the bye week, I spoke with noted sports psychologist Dr. Charlie Maher. He confirmed that the fans in attendance can have a significant impact on the players on the field. He referenced the negative effect it can have on a team when the fans pack up and leave early. It seems fair to apply that same assessment to the team coming onto the field for a big game and seeing the stands only half full as a bit deflating.
Schiano made his plea to Rutgers fans about filling out SHI Stadium for what could be the biggest win for the program since joining the Big Ten.
“Well, it’s very important,” Schiano said. “It’s only a home field advantage if you make it one though, right? So first of all, we need to get our fans here. It’s a great 3:30 kickoff. Great opportunity. You know, we’re in November now and there’s a lot on the line. There’s a lot on the line for our football team, for our fans, and I believe that home field advantage is very real, but you have to give the fans a reason to get excited on game day. When that happens, the entire level of the whole stadium goes like this. So it works hand in glove, and we got great, great fans, great student section. We need to have that student section packed. That’s going to be critical.”
The Scarlet Knights need a strong start to the game against Wisconsin and so do the fans in attendance. Fans do make a big impact on their teams as Dr. Maher confirmed. Saturday is a great opportunity for both the team and the fan base.