Many outside of the Rutgers world worried about the commitment and competitiveness of Rutgers Scarlet Knights football. That worry was put front and center as the Scarlet Knights struggled through the 2015 season on and off the field.
However, a change in leadership was on the horizon for the athletic department and hope has sprung anew for the Rutgers athletic department in general.
While it is important to continue to look forward, one must always remember that moment when you hit rock bottom. Such is the case for the Scarlet Knights as we relive the highs (were there any?) and the lows of the season that was before we move forward to the season ahead.
Winning a game in Big Ten play was something, right? Doing so against a team that wound up making a bowl game appearance certainly didn’t hurt at all and neither did putting on an offensive showcase like no other in Power 5 conference football.
Rutgers crazy 55-52 victory over the Indiana Hoosiers in mid-October was a sight to behold. On the one hand, offensive firepower at its pinnacle is fun to watch. On the other hand, this was about as brutal a game as there was for defensive football. In fact, some might have said it was an affront to the game of football.
We weren’t in that camp totally, as this game literally came down to the final second before Kyle Federico knocked home a 26-yard field goal as time expired to give the Scarlet Knights a second year in a row with its biggest comeback in school history.
Things looked like a lock for the Hoosiers, up 52-27 with most of the third quarter gone, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the Hoosiers defense remembered how bad it was and Rutgers’ offense found a spark.
RU went on to score four touchdowns in just a shade over 10 minutes and the defense came up when its back was against the ultimate wall in this game. Somehow that group produced two key interceptions in the final five minutes to help set up the game-winning field goal effort.
In a season with many issues on and off the field, this was a huge bright spot.
A crazy win like Rutgers had against Indiana often times has a way of defining a season. It didn’t happen for the Scarlet Knights and head coach Kyle Flood’s tenure at the university was clearly over during the next four weeks.
Rutgers faced Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska and never put up more than 16 points in a single game against those four teams. Talk about momentum crushing? Try four straight weeks with score lines of 49-7, 48-10, 49-16 and 31-14.
At no point in any of those games against the Big Ten’s marquee names did Rutgers appear to be competitive. Not even after that rousing and dramatic victory on the road against Indiana.
That kind of failure, even against the top of the conference was the signal that it was time for a change at the top of the football program. Rutgers didn’t make the jump to the Big Ten to just lay down and be doormats. Yet, over the course of four weeks against some of the best the conference had to offer it got downright ugly.
Why didn’t we put that four-week stretch here? Well, we sort of are going to, and that is because Rutgers’ horrific defense showed its ugly head in all four of those games.
Simply put, Rutgers’ defense wasn’t just bad, it was U-G-L-Y.
Just how bad? Try rankings like these:
Scoring Defense: 34.9 (12th in B1G)
Rushing Defense: 186.1 (12th)
Passing Defense: 275.9 (12th)
Total Defense: 462.0 (13th)
The only thing keeping Rutgers’ defense from the bottom of the barrel in the conference last season was the awfulness that was defense in the state of Indiana. Only Purdue and Indiana were worse overall on defense than the Scarlet Knights were in 2015.
What It Means for 2016
The bad marriage is over, and everyone associated with Rutgers athletics, especially the football program is happy to have a fresh start. With a new administration coming in at the end of the season it was a perfect time to clean house and start with what AD Patrick Hobbs believes to be the right direct for the Scarlet Knights main program — football.
As far as the 2015 season teaching us anything for the future, it really was a blueprint of exactly what you don’t want to have happen. A coach embroiled in an academic scandal, players arrested on drug and domestic assault charges and a team that mustered up just one win in Big Ten play was pretty much a recipe for what not to do to succeed.
Tearing the program down to the studs and starting over was the theme of this offseason with the hire of Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash and a staff of exciting coaches. Now it is about getting the old to forget about the past and begin anew themselves, while getting their players in to the program as fast as humanly possible.
What is Rutgers offense identity with John McNulty hire?
Rutgers welcomes back John McNulty as offensive coordinator, does it signal more changes to the style of this version of Scarlet Knights football?
John McNulty should be a familiar face for a large portion of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights fanbase. After all, this will be his second stint at the school as offensive coordinator as NJ.com reports his hire on Thursday afternoon.
But, that was a decade ago and that was the beginning of an offensive revolution that has seen spread offenses take over the college football world. He last was seen coaching Rutgers during the 2008 season and since then has moved up to the NFL with various stops as a position coach up until this past season when he was the tight ends coach with the Los Angeles Chargers.
It’s an interesting move for the Rutgers program and a name that many didn’t have in their heads when thinking about where Chris Ash would turn after Jerry Kill decided to call it quits due to health concerns this past month.
But, Ash gets a chance to link to the past and get a coach with some loyalty to the Rutgers program too. At least that has to be the hope, but there are serious questions about just what kind of offense the Scarlet Knights will use under McNulty.
Ash has been adamant that he wants a power spread game in place and has been building recruiting classes in that direction. But, McNulty isn’t a coach well-versed in that world, although he does have some spread ideas from his days in the NFL.
On the one hand, he’s got a bit of spread offense experience after being the quarterback coach for the Tennessee Titans with Marcus Mariota in the fold. On the other hand, he also is well-versed in pro-style offenses and ran that while at Rutgers the last time he was in town and did so in record-breaking fashion.
So, who will the Scarlet Knights be under McNulty?
It’s likely that the answer to the identity of the Scarlet Knights offense rides on the players on the roster and what can be most effective in winning them games. Will it be straight spread or straight pro-style offense? We’re likely to see a mix and a lot of the answer to that mix may come from whom McNulty chooses as quarterback.
No question looms larger than if the prize get of the 2018 recruiting class, quarterback Artur Sitkowski, is ready to go or not.
Rutgers hasn’t found a quarterback that is wholly capable of running a spread attack since Ash arrived and it has stunted the offensive production in a big way. John Lewis had a big struggle as anything but a running quarterback in limited action, but with Giovanni Resicgno graduating there will be a new quarterback in the fold no matter what.
One has to believe that McNulty will know how to maximize a quarterback like the 6-5, 220-pound Sitkowski. He’s well-versed in multiple offensive looks, having run an option offense first in high school and then transitioning to a more spread look after transferring to IMG Academy in Florida prior to his junior season.
Sitkowski comes in as the No. 11 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 247Sports composite rankings, the type of recruit at QB that could transform a program like Rutgers if the projections are correct. But, does that mean Sitkowski is the immediate answer?
It will be interesting because McNulty’s offenses in Piscataway were some of the most explosive in the history of Rutgers football, but they were based solely on a strong run game and a complimentary pass attack out of a pro-style look. Names like quarterback Mike Teel, running back Ray Rice and wide receiver Tim Brown were stars under McNulty’s tutelage back in the day.
What McNulty sees from Sitkowski and the other quarterbacks in the room will likely dictate what his offense is built around this season and going forward. The good news is that this appears to be a fresh start for everyone involved in Rutgers’ offense.
Ash needs to get things right on offense, whether Kill stays or goes
Jerry Kill’s health-related decision could put Rutgers in a really awkward situation for the ninth straight year.
News broke on Tuesday that Rutgers offensive coordinator Jerry Kill was mulling over a decision to stay or go as the OC.
According to the report, Kill is having some health issues related to his epilepsy and may wish to move on to a different challenge.
The 56-year-old former Big Ten Coach of the Year is evaluating his options and is expected to make a health-related decision in the coming days, multiple sources told NJ Advance Media.
No one is going to begrudge Kill should he leave – his personal healthy and well-being trump anything on the football field to say the least.
But, this could be a huge blow to a Rutgers program looking for some stability on offense for the first time in nearly a decade.
Should Kill leave, it would mean the ninth different offensive coordinator in the last nine seasons for the Scarlet Knights. That’s not good news, especially when we’ve seen different styles trying to be blended together, recruited to and then abandoned in quick order.
The question that Ash and Co. need to answer is if the direction they were going in in 2017 was the right one? The results on the field weren’t all that spectacular — Rutgers finished 2017 ranked 10th in rushing offense, 14th in passing offense (115.6 yards per game) and total offense (262.7), as well as 13th in scoring offense (18 points per game).
Those were not bright numbers, but this was the season where things were supposed to be built from, not the end-game of the re-design of decades of pro-style offense in Piscataway.
So, perhaps the future tells us as much as we can gleam about the vision of Ash and Co. on offense. That’s where the good news comes in.
What we do know is that there is a growing sentiment that things are moving in the right direction.
Getting 4-star quarterback Artur Sitkowski to abandon a commitment to the Miami (FL) Hurricanes in order to stay home and build something says a lot about the coaching staff and direction of the program.
Sitkowski’s commitment led to a talented 3-star receiver and teammate at IMG Academy, Jalen Jordan, to commit to the Scarlet Knights as well. He’s the No. 88 ranked wide receiver in the country according to the 247Sports composite rankings and is the second-highest rated player Rutgers has a commitment from.
Even more telling, Rutgers’ top four players on the board are all skill position players on offense and eight of the top 10 players on Rutgers commitment list are offensive players in general.
That is the kind of recognition of who you are and who you want to be as a program. Rutgers sees the need to upgrade and is doing everything in its power to do just that.
No matter what Kill’s decision is, Ash and Co. have got to have a long-term plan in place to keep the offense stable. So far, that plan appears in place.
So, even if Kill decides to move on, Ash is likely to find someone who fits the philosophy that has begun to be built. While the instability of a new face for the ninth-straight year may not be good, the vision for what needs to be in place on offense is there from the top and that is what should matter now.
After a season of defensive improvement, can Rutgers offense manage the same thing? That may be the question that gets answered most by what happens to the offensive coordinator position this offseason.
Rutgers football gets first Big Ten win since 2015
Rutgers earns a rare Big Ten win, even if it was over fellow bottom-dwellers Illinois.
The start of the Chris Ash era has been painful, but the progress has been shown nearly every week. All of the progress and hard work finally paid off on Saturday, as the Rutgers Scarlet Knights earned the first Big Ten win in the Ash era, 35-24 over Illinois.
Rutgers went in to Champaign, Ill. in what many billed as the “battle of the bottom” of the Big Ten. Whatever you want to name it, the Scarlet Knights came away victorious in conference play for the first time since 2015 and that’s all that matters.
The last win came on a last-second field goal as the Scarlet Knights knocked off Indiana. This time there were no last-minute heroics needed.
It was power rushing attack that ate up Illinois young and undersized front seven. Rutgers rushed for 280 yards and all five of touchdowns on the day. Gus Edwards did most of the work, picking up 90 yards and pair of touchdowns on 21 carries.
Quarterback Giovanni Rescigno was hardly needed, and that was a good thing for this team as he only attempted 10 passes and had 89 yards. Most importantly, he played turnover-free football.
Rutgers ran the ball 47 times on the day, rushing for a healthy 5.8 yards per attempt. It all added up to the Scarlet Knights doing what they needed to do to win a ballgame.
While the offense was busy carving up Illinois rushing attack, the Rutgers defense was doing damage of its own. The Illini were held to just 86 yards rushing, while Jeff George threw two interceptions and was just 20 of 38 passing for 308 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Rutgers’ defense was never the problem though, and getting the offense to put up points has been. Seeing both sides come together was a sight for sore eyes in Rutgers nation.
Confidence can be contagious, so it will be interesting to see how Ash and his coaching staff are able to build on this moment. It’s clear the team continues to buy in and getting a B1G win is going to only help get this program on the right track.
Rutgers at Ohio State Preview: Can Ohio State Keep Rolling?
When: Sat. Sept. 30; 7:30 pm ET
Where: Piscataway, NJ; High Point Solutions Stadium (52,545)
All-Time Series: Ohio State leads 3-0
Last Meeting: Ohio State won 58-0 last year
Line: Ohio State (-28.5)
Ohio State appears to be on a roll after the Oklahoma fiasco, but the level of opponent is nowhere near where it needs to be to really get a gauge on how far the offense has come. Unfortunately, that doesn’t figure to be the case this week either.
Let’s call it what it is. Rutgers is out-manned and outmatched against a deeper and more athletic Ohio State team that’s out to unleash fire and brimstone to try and get back into the College Football Playoff discussion. The Scarlet Knights are just the next plate of butter to cut through.
Or are they? At times this season, Rutgers has actually looked like a real-live, American college football team. Washington came into Piscataway and had to break more than a sweat to escape the mystery of the night in week one. Since then though, the Rutgers team has looked like a team resigned to its fate to some degree.
On the other hand, the Buckeyes have looked dynamic with the Big Ten’s leading rusher, a senior quarterback that has all the leadership qualities you’d want, and an explosive playmaker at the hybrid position, Parris Campbell. On defense, there’s been some things to clean up at linebacker and on the back-end with pass defense, but the D-line is as talented as any in the country.
Last year Ohio State administered a public flogging to the Scarlet Knights in Columbus, but you can expect it to be a closer contest in 2017. But how close remains to be seen.
1 Burning Question: How far has Rutgers come from last year?
There’s not a lot to learn from a 58-0 beat down. In fact, most coaches will take the tape of a game like that and chew it up, spit it out and put in the rear-view mirror. All indications point to head coach Chris Ash making strides with this program, but how much remains to be seen against the top of the league.
Ohio State provides that true indicator, and while nobody expects it to be 58-0 again, we’ll want to all see how the athletic gap has been closed. It’s probably too much to ask for a tight affair here in High Point Solutions Stadium, but being more competitive throughout is a statement that must be made for the team to continue to climb the staircase set before it.
2 Key Stats:
520: That’s how many rushing yards freshman sensation running back J.K Dobbins has through the first four games for Ohio State.
It’s Dobbins, not Saquon Barkley that leads the league in rushing — despite all the hoopla. He’s just a freshman, but the 5-10, 208 lb. freshman has quick feet, explosiveness through the hole, and enough strength as a youngster to be a three-year wonder at the least in Columbus. OSU will look to continue the development of the passing game, but look for Dobbins to get plenty of touches again. It may not be as many as previous weeks with Mike Weber apparently back in the fold, but anyone watching this team knows which back is the more dangerous of the two.
163.5: It’s the amount of passing yards per game for Rutgers in 2017.
That’s not going to get it done, especially against an Ohio State team that is tough to run through. That D-line that is so deep and talented will wreak havoc on a team that can’t throw the ball. If there’s good news for Rutgers, it’s that Ohio State’s pass defense is ranked 80th in the country. And that stat got a boost from playing two straight run-heavy teams in back-to-back weeks. If QB Kyle Bolin can get time to throw, there should be some opportunities through the air.
3 Key Players:
Kyle Bolin, QB (Rutgers): It’s already been mentioned, but for Rutgers to have any shot at this thing, Bolin has to play the game of his life and make some plays down field. There’s just not going to be that much room to run against Ohio State, so scoring points is going to be an effort through the air. OSU will score. The Scarlet Knights have to find a way to keep up, and the best bet on that front is with Bolin’s arm.
Janarion Grant, WR (Rutgers): Will he suit up or not? If he does, how effective will the senior playmaking wide-receiver/kick returner be? Grant has yet to be cleared medically at the time of this preview because of headaches experienced after taking a shot to the head against Morgan State. He’s the one guy that measures up athletically with the OSU defense and can make the explosive plays needed to keep it close. Rutgers has already been offensively challenged this year and it gets worse without him on the field.
Parris Campbell, WR (Ohio State): The Buckeyes will want to continue the reps through the air, as long as the Scarlet Knights allow them to. That means the hybrid position with the biggest threat to take it the distance will see plenty of action. Campbell has had a bit of an issue snatching the ball out of the air at times this year, but when he does and turns up field, he can be a handful. He’s also leading the Big Ten in kick returns, so he could flip the field in favor of Ohio State at any time.
Ohio State 38, Rutgers 17
There’s just not enough talent for the Scarlet Knights to hang in there — not yet anyway. Head coach Chris Ash continues the molding of this program in just his second year, so it’s still too early to expect a shocker. It won’t be the blitzkrieg that happened last year in Columbus, but OSU just has too many weapons for this to be close for too long. The Buckeyes win by three touchdowns.