It only make sense that the first real football game played on a Sunday this fall will involve two perennial JUGGERNAUTS—the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Northwestern Wildcats (rawr). Honestly, its very cool that the college football gods are giving us this matchup as a standalone nationally televised game on CBS. We waited patiently through the dead of summer for games like this and, to be frank, we are extremely fortunate. All HAIL THE FOOTBALL GODS!
Okay, joking aside, this is certainly going to be...a game. Offensive fireworks? ESPN Top 10 Plays? Probably not. A game we would be happy to watch in April when there’s no football? You bet your ass! Enjoy every college game this season because before you know it, the season will be over. I’m actually a little sad it already started because now we are THAT much closer to the end (kidding, I’m so freaking happy college football is BACK).
While we all are excited to watch our Scarlet Knights take the field for the first time in months, there a few things that you should keep a closer eye on...
1. Aaron Lewis statement game?
The best player on NW the last few seasons has played LT. Both Rashawn Slater and Peter Skoronski went onto become first round draft picks. Now, NW will need to replace a massive void at LT with Skoronski on the Tennessee Titans. Despite a torn ACL that ended his season early, Josh Priebe is expected to take over the reigns at left tackle. Priebe is the only lineman returning that started for the Wildcats in their 2022 Week 0 victory against Nebraska and it is unclear if he will be ready for Week 1. On top of this uncertainty, Priebe previously played guard, so he will be playing a new position this fall.
So, what are we going to look for based all this information?
The answer is easy. AARON LEWIS. The most talked about defensive player this offseason, Lewis starts his junior season with a golden opportunity. Graded by Pro Football Focus as the eighth-best returning edge rusher this season (I only like PFF when they grade RU players favorably), Lewis is poised for a explosive Week 1 game against an offensive line that is working through their own problems (read more here). Even though Priebe is slotted to start LT, Aaron Lewis should be to take advantage of the new blindside blocker for the Wildcats.
Last season, Lewis lead all edge rusher in QB hits. This season, he needs to turn those hits into sacks — and that is exactly what we will look for during the season opener. Going up against a converted LT and a completely overhauled offensive line presents Lewis with the opportunity to prove in front of LITERALLY THE ENTIRE WORLD why he is one of the nation’s best edge rusher!
Aaron Lewis: 19 QB hits last season— PFF College (@PFF_College) February 9, 2023
Led all Edge Rushers pic.twitter.com/42vaTz8wfc
2. RU’s new look offensive line
Like NW, Rutgers’ offensive line will look different. Outside of center, the rest of the offensive line will be occupied by new faces. Incumbent starters Hollin Pierce and Curtis Dunlap Jr. are moving from the right side to the left side of the line (Pierce at LT and Dunlap at LG). The right side is still up for grabs as Schiano and the coaching staff are yet to announce the remaining two positions.
Kobe Asamoah and Mike Ciaffoni are battling to start at right guard. Asamoah has Big Ten experience as he started the final three games of the season, but he hasn’t shown enough to earn the starting job over Ciaffoni. At right tackle, Tyler Needham and Kamar Missouri have competed all throughout training camp and, unfortunately, the battle wages on. In order for this unit to show early improvement, the coaching staff must prioritize creating consistency among the group. Since Schiano’s return, the offensive line has been anything but consistent. Of course injuries can complicate lineups, but rolling out the same five on the offensive line is paramount this season.
It’s great that Schiano announced Wimsatt as the starter ahead of Big Ten Media Day, but now we need to sort out who will protect the QB in the trenches. According to his training camp press conferences, Schiano regularly speaks about the depth of the offensive line (see below video). While the ongoing position battles could mean there’s depth among the offensive line, it’s possible that very well may be a mirage. Maybe, despite valiant efforts in training camp, the right side of the offensive line is an area of major concern for the team this season.
Fans should pay extra close attention to the right side of the line against Northwestern. Will the same 5 play the entire game? How often will we see players rotate in and out? It’s easy to just watch who has the ball in football, but in week 1 do your best to watch the B1G boy up front.
3. Who makes the first mistake?
I really wanted to write about the WR group or which player will make the first explosive play of the season; however, if Rutgers wants to win this game they cannot play sloppy. Protecting the ball on the ground and in the air must not be ignored. As we know, the schedule is tough, so in order to win games we cannot allow mistakes like the below:
Here’s a look at Evan Simon’s pick-six, the second interception of his career: pic.twitter.com/gepKYsM3FT— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) September 24, 2022
Now, I do think some of the interceptions last season were a function of poor play calling (having inaccurate passers make difficult throws against good defenses), Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense needs to hold onto the ball. Additionally, Rutgers needs limit penalties on offense and defense. Nothing deflates an offensive possession like a big play getting called back due to holdings, or a game shifting interception being overturned because of roughing the passer.
Rutgers has a tremendous opportunity to start off the year with a convincing win. The defense needs to force turnovers with an offense that protects the ball. While there’s certainly a possibility for a 3+ score victory, NW’s “cats against the world” mentality can make fans very uncomfortable if the game is closer than they would hope. DO NOT, i repeat DO NOT mark this as a game as a W until the clock shows 00:00.
Bonus: Crowd at SHI Stadium
SHI Stadium’s capacity is 52,454. Personally, I am really hoping the attendance is announced at 52,543, with the only unattended seat being the one that would’ve been mine if I wasn’t going to be at Citi Field (if your are curious why this is the case, I cover that here).
Again, this is a nationally televised game. Am I expecting a sellout? Realistically, no. Can the lower bowl be at 75%-80% capacity? I think so. This is important because we already know how people feel about Rutgers in the Big Ten (spoiler: they don’t think we belong).
Fans have the unique ability to demonstrate their unwavering support for their favorite teams. We’ve seen what Rutgers fans are capable of when they show up in FORCE at the Jersey Mike’s Arena and there’s no reason that can’t be replicated at SHI Stadium.
As always, students do a great job showing up the first game. Last season, I really thought they did a great job not only showing up for games, but getting to their seats BEFORE kickoff (yes I am giving some nasty side eye to the people still tailgating at 12:15pm). Shout out the students, keep being great!
Freshmen move in is this Wednesday. This is such an exciting time for the next generation of Scarlet Knights and I wish you all the best. Two reminders:
- Parties do not start at 9pm. Do not make the mistake I made my freshmen year. Although it may seem like a good idea, walking aimlessly around College Ave with your lanyard around your neck is a dead giveaway that you’re a freshmen. The embarrassment sticks with you for a while, especially when your brother is on the porch of his fraternity house laughing at you (I never told Mom about this, Anthony, but I’m prepared to).
- Use the below link to claim your student tickets!
Follow me @ayopaisan for more!