Big Ten play is here! Er, well, it is here, unless you’re a Big Ten purist. In that case, you don’t really see Rutgers as a Big Ten team. Well, that’s too bad, Mr./Mrs. Purist, because it counts just the same as if the Hawkeyes were playing Ohio State or Michigan. Iowa is set to make its first ever trip to Piscataway, NJ to take on the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers University in a football game. That’s right - the team to play the first in a college football game has never played the Hawkeyes, as I’m sure you might have heard.
Chances are that you probably don’t know a whole lot about the Scarlet Knights (except for the fact that they haven’t been particularly good at sports since they’ve joined the Big Ten and that their athletic department has a tendency to succumb to scandal). Honestly, I didn’t either. That’s why I enlisted the help of Aaron Breitman, manager of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights’ SB Nation blog On The Banks, to answer some questions about their football team. Now, to the questions:
Max: How is Rutgers doing this season? Are they on their way to their Greg Schiano/late-Big East glory days, or are they still the #buttgers teams of late as their game against Washington would indicate?
Aaron: We really don’t have this team figured out yet. Despite getting blown out against Washington and trailing by multiple scores to both Howard and New Mexico, Rutgers did their job and finished non-conference play with a 2-1 record. There are certainly strong opinions on both ends of the spectrum regarding the outlook for this season, but I would sum up the feeling of the fan base as cautiously optimistic. There was definitely some bracing for a rough season after getting obliterated by Washington in the first game, but the Huskies might also be playoff worthy and look to be a very good football team. Rutgers is still learning and adjusting to the new staff and new systems they implemented on both sides of the ball. Opening up in Seattle against a talented team on the rise was a difficult start for sure. It was positive how the team rebounded some after the first quarter and never quit though. Their effort has been consistently strong all season and head coach Chris Ash has praised them for it repeatedly.
As for the wins over Howard and New Mexico, those games were about as frustrating as victories can be. Rutgers fell behind one of the worst FCS schools in the country14-0 in the 1st quarter and 21-0 to the Lobos in the opening frame. Rutgers eventually woke up and scored 52 unanswered points against Howard and outscored New Mexico 37-7 the rest of the game. Even so, a major concern with this team is they have had three consecutive horrific starts this season. If they do that against Big Ten teams, the likelihood of being able to recover is far less.
Playing in the Big Ten East will always be difficult and the first half of our schedule is absolutely brutal, as we have Ohio State and Michigan up next after this weekend. However, the hope is Rutgers survives this three game gauntlet as healthy as possible, setting them up to improve during the second half of the schedule. There is hope we can beat teams like Illinois, Indiana, and Maryland, as most of the fan base believes we should be better than all of those programs long term. Our last home game is against Penn State and you could say Rutgers fans are very much looking forward to that one, as we let a win against them slip away at home in our first ever Big Ten game two years ago.
Overall, 6-6 and a bowl berth would be the mark of a very successful first season for Chris Ash, but if they only get 3-4 wins, that would not be a surprise either. The long term view on Ash is very positive, as he has made many significant changes for the better with the program since his arrival. His background as a defensive coordinator at Wisconsin and Ohio State has prepared him for this job well. He understands the Big Ten and what he needs to change or improve at Rutgers to elevate this program. His no nonsense, candid approach has been embraced by the players and the fans. He assembled a staff that is balanced with several veterans with Big Ten experience, as well as some young coaches rising through the ranks, like offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. They have proven early on they are very good at making in-game adjustments that have helped Rutgers in the second half in all three contests so far. Recruiting for the class of 2017 is much improved, so once the staff get the right players to fit their system, there are high hopes Ash will turn Rutgers around and we will be consistently good.
Max: Rutgers is 12th in the Big Ten in passing, but also 3rd in the Big Ten in rushing. How will Iowa be able to slow down the rushing attack? If they do so, does QB Chris Laviano have the ability to win this game through the air?
Aaron: It’s a power spread offense predicated on the run game. However, Rutgers ran a pro-style offense for years and years, so the personnel doesn’t fit this new system very well. However, there is talent and Mehringer has done a good job of focusing on getting their three best playmakers involved. Junior Robert Martin is our lead back and he is a grind it out type of runner. He led all Big Ten running backs last season with yards after contact and has averages well over 5 yards per carry in his career. He rushed for 169 yards last week against New Mexico and is averaging 6.8 yards per carry this season. He missed the first game with a hamstring issue, but since his return he is getting the majority of the carries and gets better as the game goes on. Aside from Martin, the two other playmakers on offense are speed guys Janarion Grant and Jawuan Harris, both of whom are receivers. They both have big play ability, it’s just a matter of Laviano getting them the ball in space, which has been a struggle at times. Harris is also our best deep threat in the passing game and caught a perfect ball from Laviano last week for a 75 yard touchdown.
Grant is our best player and is effective in a variety of ways. He can take direct snaps in the wildcat formation and has three rushing touchdowns this season. He also threw a touchdown pass last week, and we can talk about his impact on special teams in a bit. The key to Rutgers starting strong is Laviano getting into a flow early, which hasn’t happened in any game this season. Rutgers has just three first downs in the first quarter through three games, which is pathetic. He has the ability to make good throws, but he has been wildly inconsistent and missed many short throws this season, often throwing short or behind receivers. The fan base is clamoring to replace him, but there is no perfect solution
If he struggles against Iowa, expect to see backup quarterbacks Gio Rescigno, who ran for a 42 yard touchdown in his only carry this season, as well as true freshman Tylin Oden, who also ran very well in his collegiate debut against Howard. The coaching staff isn’t confident with either of them in the pass game at the moment, so if you see them in expect run packages mostly. It's also possible they are mixed in during drives in combination with Laviano, in order to give Iowa different looks.
Max: Iowa's pro-style offense does its best work when it gets the ground game running, but especially thrives when they're able to mix in the pass (especially on play-action). Will the Hawkeyes have any luck against the Scarlet Knights on offense or will they have to adjust their game plan in order to have success?
Aaron: The rush defense was solid against Washington and abysmal against Howard and New Mexico in the first halves of those games. The issue was poor tackling for the most part, which is concerning since Ash is a defensive guru and instituted a new style of rugby style tackling. The defense had major issues the past three years and with Ash’s pedigree, particularly in improving Ohio State’s defense the previous two seasons, we are hoping for major improvement in this area. Let’s say the jury is still out, but I expect Iowa to have success running the ball. A bigger concern is our inability to cover speed in the pass game, which is the biggest weakness of our defense. If Iowa can establish the run quickly, I think Beathard will have success in play action and will definitely have opportunities to connect deep down the field. You could say I’m pretty worried about Iowa lighting up our defense.
Max: Chances are, Hawk fans know next to nothing about any Rutgers players. Who do we need to watch out for in all phases of the game?
Aaron: Our best player by far is Janarion Grant, who has won Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week four times in his career. He ran back a 84 yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Howard and a 69 yard punt return for a touchdown against New Mexico. This is in addition to his three rushing touchdowns and one pass for a score. The only thing the receiver hasn’t done so far is catch a touchdown, ironically. He can line up all over the field and will also be featured in bubble screens in the pass game, looking for open lanes to run through. He is explosive and very dangerous every time the ball is in his hands. Expect him to get a few carries, as well.
As I mentioned previously, Martin is a power running back and Jawuan Harris, who is making just his second career start, are the other big playmakers on offense. Aside from them, receiver Andre Patton is a good red zone target, as the 6’4” senior has two touchdowns among his five catches this season.
The defensive line is our strength on the other side of the ball, as that unit is very experienced and has talent. The two best players are defensive tackle Darius Hamilton and defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick. They led the team last week in tackles, with both reaching double digits and coming up big in the fourth quarter against New Mexico. Hamilton was injured most of last season, but is now starting to round back into form. JPO as we call him, has 3.5 sacks on the season and is our best pass rusher. Rutgers defensive coordinator Jay Niemann prefers to not blitz much and keep seven back in pass coverage, so it’s key for the defensive line to pressure Beathard regularly or it could be a very long day.
Our linebackers are all first year starters and have struggled so far, which makes the success of the defensive line that much more important. The secondary is a work in progress, but senior safety Anthony Cioffi is the leader and known ballhawk, grabbing seven interceptions for his career. He has three pass break ups and one interception already this season.
Max: A couple years in, how do you think Rutgers is acclimating to life as a member of the Big Ten? Do you guys like it here?
Aaron: This is probably obvious, but we certainly like being in the Big Ten a lot more than all the other schools like Rutgers being in the conference. I understand the lack of appeal towards Rutgers for most of the schools, based on geography and conference tradition, but I have been surprised by the extremely negative comments regularly spewed in our direction by a portion of certain Big Ten fan bases. The biggest surprise has been the vitriol that Michigan fans dish out on a weekly basis, at least on twitter and more times or not thrown our way. I mean they are Michigan, it just boggles my mind that they get in such a tizzy about Rutgers. If you want to really rile them up, just mention that Rutgers beat Michigan in their first ever meeting in 2014. It flares up their insecurities pretty quickly, in fact I should stop right now, as we don’t need our mentions flooded on yet another weekend.
That being said, obviously Rutgers has not done itself any favors with the rest of the conference since becoming a member. The frustration for Rutgers fans and supporters is that there was terrible leadership in place within the athletic department during the transition into the Big Ten, which resulted in a very bad first impression with the rest of the conference members. The good news is we all feel our new athletic director Pat Hobbs is the absolute right choice to lead Rutgers from Big Ten laughingstock to respectable, and even a down right competitive Big Ten school. Hobbs has made what seems like two outstanding hires early on in his tenure. Ash with football and men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell both appear to be perfect fits for Rutgers at this point and time in our history. So give us a chance Iowa fans, despite what you may have heard or thought previously. We have a smaller fan base by Big Ten standards, but a fiercely loyal and passionate one that fully embraces what the Big Ten is all about, minus the Rutgers jokes.
Max: Who are some Rutgers-based follows that Iowa fans should check out if they're so inclined this week (other than On The Banks)?
Aaron: These guys are all good follows and are either beat writers or cover Rutgers for other online sites.
Garrett Stepien: @GarrettStepien
Brian Fonseca: @briannnnf
Keith Sargeant: @KSargeantNJ
Ryan Dunleavy: @rydunleavy
Greg Johnson: @gregp_j
Richie Schnyderite: @RichieSRivals
Max: Prediction time! Who ya got?
Aaron: I do think Rutgers will be extra amped for this game, as there are several Iowa connections with the coaching staff. Ash is from Iowa, grew up a Hawkeyes fan and falls under the Hayden Fry coaching tree, which I wrote about here when he was hired. Rutgers Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann’s son leads your defense in tackles and his other son is a freshman for you as well. Our offensive line coach A.J. Blazek was an All-Big Ten center for Iowa back in 2000, so I think they will be very familiar with how Kirk Ferentz operates, which will help with game planning for this matchup. I think the players are excited for the conference opener at home and will really want to rectify their slow starts early in games. Still, there is no denying Iowa has more talent and depth than Rutgers and I expect them to be fired up after last week’s loss at home. (I won’t mention their name in hopes of gaining goodwill from your fan base). The run game for both teams will be key to the outcome of this game and while I’m hopeful Rutgers is improved on both sides of the ball, I fear C.J. Beathard will have a field day with our secondary. The best chance Rutgers has to win is to start fast and punch Iowa in the mouth early, jumping out to a multiple score lead. Otherwise, I see Iowa wearing down Rutgers and winning the game fairly comfortably. I am hoping the actual game will be closer than what I think the final score will be. Iowa 38 Rutgers 20
Thanks to Aaron for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw two hundred points on your team. For more on Rutgers football, check out On The Banks’s blog and follow them on Twitter at @OTB_SBNation and Aaron at @aaron_breitman. You can read my answers to his questions here. Go Hawks.