The Spartans head to New Brunswick for a Big Ten game for the first time this weekend. Awaiting them is a Rutgers team looking to notch a signature win under the lights. Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman) of On The Banks joined us to preview the second edition of the newly-dubbed #BanksRivalry
1. It's Year Two in the Big Ten. How is the program adjusting to life in #America'sConference?
I'd say at this point, Rutgers is adjusting at about the pace that should have been expected, but slower than the fan base prefers. It has helped recruiting in terms of expanding territory, but not to the point where we are landing top in-state recruits. That is probably the biggest frustration of the fan base, as New Jersey is loaded with talent. Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State are the three schools that continually grab top recruits from our state. It's a major concern for the long term success of the program.
The other issue is that Rutgers only receives a partial share of the money from the Big Ten conference, and our athletics department has the biggest subsidy in the country. We are badly in need of new facilities to compare to other Big Ten schools, which of course would help with recruiting. There was a plan released in June with the understanding that all the funding would need to be raised by donors. There hasn't been a lot of progress made, at least announced publicly, and the fear is the administration will not expedite the process until enough money is raised. The other issue is the administration seems content to wait until 2020 when Rutgers receives a full share before making significant improvement in all other areas of athletics.
In terms of being competitive, Rutgers exceeded outside expectations with football last season. We expected and hoped to be competitive and had high expectations for this season. It's been a nightmarish second season so far, but there is talent on this team. I would say there is now some division as to what is best for the football program moving forward. Kyle Flood had, been generally liked but has always had his detractors. The events of this season have not only fueled the fire for those who want him out, but he has alienated and lost many supporters. Again, we go back to money, as the fear is the university will not pony up the money that is needed to replace Flood with a coach and staff needed for the Big Ten. But I will get into that more in a moment.
2. This is the first of two home night games against the cream of the Big Ten crop -- MSU and Ohio State. What kind of atmosphere do you expect for Saturday night's game?
It is our annual blackout game so the atmosphere should be great! We had two night games last season, Penn State and then Michigan for the blackout game, and it was a raucous crowd both games. Tailgating will be in full force as well, as there are many designated areas around the stadium and even up to about 1/2 mile away. In addition, with Michigan State being a top 5 team and now with the return of wide receiver Leonte Carroo, our best player, the place should be wild and fired up.
3. Ok, sorry, I have to do this, but off the field...what the hell is going on in New Brunswick? Is there any way anyone in the football program keeps their job after this year?
As I was mentioning before, Flood's reputation is now in the mud after emailgate. We wanted to believe Flood reached out to a professor in order to help a player do better in the class. Once the report came out, we realized the inappropriate contact with a professor was much more than an email. Secret meetings off campus and denials of knowingly breaking university policy resulted in fans seeing Flood in a new light. A much darker one.
The arrests of the players before the first game was bad, but this was much worse. The leader of our program had deceived everyone and jeopardized the academic integrity of the football team and university. I think the only reason he wasn't fired is the university felt it wasn't a clean cut fire with cause case, but they are working on it. It came out this week they hired a law firm that specializes in the NCAA violations. I would be shocked if Flood and the staff survive past December.
As for Carroo, his arrest took the start of the season from awful to disaster zone quickly. This week the charges were dropped and it appears the incident is behind him. Regardless, losing your captain and best player under those circumstances was almost too much to take.
One note on the arrests before Carroo, most were related to one off campus fight and it involved most of the two deep in the secondary. We now have one redshirt freshman and three true freshman as our top four cornerbacks.
4. Alright, now let's go...positive: Rutgers is 2-2. What have you seen early on from this team that can inspire confidence moving further into the Big Ten season?
There hasn't been a lot from this team to inspire a lot of confidence as they move into the Big Ten portion of their schedule. We have a talented group of running backs and receivers but their potential has been stunted by the lack of discipline from the offensive line and the frustrating play of quarterback Chris Laviano. The offensive line has talent and has provided above average protection, but they have had multiple back breaking penalties every game so far.
The bigger issue is Laviano, who won a close battle over LSU transfer Hayden Rettig at the start of the season. He leads the Big Ten in completion percentage while also frustrating the entire fan base. Laviano dinks and dunks, rarely looking to throw downfield. He has thrown several interceptions off his back foot and has six turnovers in three starts. A big concern is his lack of arm strength and inability to properly lead receivers. However, he is tight with Carroo and connected on three touchdowns with him in the season opener. They are close and having Carroo back in the huddle should benefit him, how much remains to be seen.
5. Which players, on both sides of the ball, should Spartan Fans keep an eye out for?
On offense, Rutgers does have a few players with big play ability. Running backs Josh Hicks, Robert Martin and Paul James combine for a solid rushing attack. Hicks and Martin emerged late last season as true freshman. They have combined for close to 600 yards rushing in four games so far this season. James has struggled to regain his form after consecutive season ending injuries, but he has had his moments.
Janarion Grant is a dangerous slot receiver and even more dangerous return man. He has already ran two kickoff returns and one punt return back for touchdowns this season. Of course the big news is the return of Leonte Carroo back from his suspension. He has 22 touchdowns in 28 career games and is the best wide receiver in the Big Ten.
On defense, Kemoko Turay was a freshman all-american from a year ago. He has been battling injuries and has failed to live up to expectations, despite having two sacks so far. Our best defensive player and captain Darius Hamilton is out for the season with a knee injury. Without him, Rutgers has failed to establish a consistent pass rush, so the need for Turay to step up has been even greater.
A highlight is our strong linebacking core with Steve Longa, Quentin Gause and Kaiwan Lewis. Longa is on his way to leading the team in tackles for the third consecutive season. Gause does so many little things for the defense, is the most experienced player on that side of the ball and a captain. Lewis is a graduate transfer from South Carolina and is an explosive tackler.
6. At this point, what would constitute a successful season for the Scarlet Knights?
Heading into the season, the expectation was Rutgers would equal last year's performance with some hope of improving. Now, after all that has happened, getting to six wins and making a bowl game would make it a successful season. With Army and Maryland the only games left on the schedule in which Rutgers will be favored, it will be tough to find two more wins. The thought is next week at Indiana and at home against Nebraska are our best shots. That shows how bleak our chances are and how winning those games would be a big accomplishment, based on how this season has started.
Rutgers needs to play close to a perfect game to win. They have had 38 penalties in four games, haven't thrown down the field effectively, have generated no pass rush and have the most inexperienced secondary in the conference. I think Rutgers has a big edge in special teams and can potentially run the ball effectively against the Spartans. The return of Carroo, being fully rested off the bye and the team feeding off the "blackout" atmosphere give them a chance. For Rutgers to win, they need to jump out to a lead early and minimize penalties and turnovers. I do think they are capable, but they have failed to come close to putting it all together so far this season. I think Rutgers plays their best game of the season but ultimately falls short in heartbreaking fashion, losing on a late Connor Cook touchdown pass, 31-28.
BONUS QUESTION: Best gameday bar?
Main campus is a bus ride or 20 minute walk to the stadium, so tailgating is your best best. However, especially for those taking the train in from NYC, Brother Jimmy's is right next to the station, has a great atmosphere and they will show every Big Ten game that is on when you are there.
Thanks to Aaron for answering The Only Questions!