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The Only Questions: Q&A with Rutgers

Get to know the Scarlet Knights

NCAA Football: Penn State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

EAST LANSING — Well Spartan fans, it’s officially time to wrap up the regular season against the Scarlet Knights.

Michigan State will be celebrating Senior Day, where they will recognize 18 players in a pregame ceremony. The senior class was able to accomplish quite a bit, while experiencing all of the highs and lows of college football. They brought the Spartans a College Football Playoff appearance and a Big Ten Championship in 2015, along with many other accolades.

This week, we’ve brought in Aaron Breitman, the managing editor of On the Banks, to tell us all about this Rutgers team.

In year two under head coach Chris Ash, the Scarlet Knights doubled their win total from two to four and won three Big Ten games. He matched the program high since joining the conference in 2014. They were coming off of a 0-9 conference season, something only six previous teams had done since 1960. Unfortunately, Rutgers is on the verge of doing the same thing in 2018. What has happened this year? And is Chris Ash’s job in jeopardy?

This season has been a disaster. Losing to Kansas, Buffalo and Illinois by a combined 91 points was inexcusable and made it easy for the program to be referred to as the worst in power five football. Ash has been a mess with the media and his corporate approach as head coach is not working. This is a very young team but not enough players have developed this season. While the scores have been more competitive the second half of the season, part of it has been the games being decided early on. The defense returned the majority of starts from last season when they were a solid unit, but they’ve been a major disappointment overall this season. The fact that this is Ash’s expertise is a red flag. He has gotten more involved the past few games and it’s garnered better play from the defense. However through three seasons the offense continues to not have a long term identity and its hard to be optimistic about next season. A lot of fans want a change but with a 9.8 million dollar buyout, Ash’s return for a fourth season seems likely.

What do you believe needs to happen in order for the Scarlet Knights to turn their football program around in the near future? (Let’s say over a five year span).

It all starts with recruiting and Ash has struggled to make up enough ground locally to successfully sell the best players in New Jersey on Rutgers. It’s always been a talent rich state and many coaches have failed to keep the best recruits away from Notre Dame, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State to name a few. Ash talked a big game early on but has failed badly in this area and Rutgers is currently ranked 66th for the 2019 class. It’s un To expect Rutgers to land five of the top ten players right now, but they aren’t landing any and even missing on too many of the top twenty five prospects in the state.

It’s pretty simple really in that Rutgers needs to improve the talent and depth on the roster to be able to compete in the Big Ten. The biggest struggle has been improving the play of the offensive and defensive lines. Rutgers continues to be overmatched on a consistent basis with both units and it’s been a killer.

Player development is the other major key and while there have been a few bright spots this season, there simply hasn’t been enough evidence of the current roster improving to a level it will make a difference on Saturday’s.

Facilities have improved and will continue to get better. Ash has also done a good job improving infrastructure and nutrition, etc, but until Rutgers can recruit at a top 40 level, it’s going to be very hard for the program to make any real jump up the Big Ten ladder.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the disappointing season, Dantonio has said “I don’t really look at their record as much as I look at their players.” Who has impressed you this year and why?

The running backs have been the lone bright spot on offense this season. Sophomore Raheem Blackshear showed flashes last season but couldn’t stay healthy. This season, he has been the focal point of the offense and he has performed fairly well. He is a shifty, speedy back that has done his most damage in the short passing game. Blackshear is dangerous in open space and his stats should be even better if not for the quarterback missing him on several short screens this season with an open field in front of him.

In addition, true freshman Isaih Pacheco complements Blackshear well as a power runner and broke out with an 80 yard touchdown run against Michigan. Fans have clamored for him to get more carries as the season has wore on and it finally happened against Penn State, but he didn’t have his best game. Still, he has a lot of promise and having two backs like Rutgers has to pair for the next two seasons is certainly a step in the right direction.

Rutgers has had a few different guys taking snaps under center (much like the Spartans). Walk us through their quarterback situation and if you think any of them can lead the Scarlet Knights to victory in the future.

True freshman Artur Sitkowski has been the starter since day one and leads the country in interceptions. He hasn’t had much help as the receivers have been awful with plenty of drops and not getting open enough, while the line has been terrible in pass protection. However, Sitkowski appeared to be making progress in throwing just one pick against Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Michigan, only to throw two awful one’s in the first half against Penn State.

Fifth year senior and captain Gio Rescigno came in and performed admirably, as he has done as a spot starter his whole career, but he is not a passing threat. Some argue Gio should have started all season after leading Rutgers to three conference wins last year. However, I think the defense was the major reason for the success last season and Rutgers needs to develop a quarterback long term. Going with Sitkowski made the most sense this season, but there is a strong likelihood Gio will start his last collegiate game against Michigan State in his home state (Macomb Twp/De La Salle HS).

NCAA Football: Penn State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Scarlet Knights have totaled 193 rushing yards against Michigan and 188 against Penn State, for their top two rushing performances against Big Ten opponents this year. How will they fare against Michigan State’s stout rushing defense?

I’m not optimistic simply because the offensive line has not been good this season. Granted, they’ve been better in run protection versus pass protection, the stats against Michigan and Penn State could be anomalies. They did spring for an 80 yard TD that I mentioned above against Michigan, but didn’t have enough consistent production the rest of the game. Against Penn State, Rutgers abandoned the game plan and essentially played a wishbone style offense with Gio in at quarterback. They were able to run some in the second half against PSU, but they only averaged 3.4 yards per carry in the game.

I don’t think Rutgers will have success against Michigan State if they try and pound it up the middle. They’ll need to get the short passing game going and look to be creative in the run game to have any success.

Michigan State won last season’s matchup in Piscataway, 40-7. After giving up an early touchdown in the first half the Spartans posted the final 27 points of the ball game. In 2016, when MSU finished the year 3-9, they blew Rutgers out 49-0. What has to occur for the Scarlet Knights to win this contest? Can they take advantage of the worst offense Michigan State has had in years?

The Rutgers defense was a major disappointment earlier this season, but has played better of late. One issue is the offense of Rutgers so inefficient that the defense gets worn down in the second half of games. However, they played their best game of the season last week, as Penn State only scored on touchdown on a drive starting in it’s own half of the field. They frustrated Trace McSorley and played as smart and tough as we’ve seen all year. If they can play the same way against Michigan State they’ll keep it close, but I don’t have any confidence in the offense to be able to take advantage of it.

Prediction time: Final score? Why? Who wins?

Michigan State has dominated Rutgers recently and while the score will probably be closer this season, I don’t see the issue ever really being in doubt. Michigan State plays a tough, physical style that Rutgers doesn’t do well against. I the Sparty wins easily, 28-3.

Michigan State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images