Are you ready? The first battle of the “War on Rutgers” occurs tomorrow!
On Wednesday, Trevor Woods introduced you to the Wolverines’ opponent, but, today, we take an even closer look at their East Coast enemy. Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman) is the manager of On The Banks (@OTB_SBNation), SB Nation’s Rutgers site, and was kind enough to answer our questions about the Scarlet Knights. Breitman discusses the feud between Michigan and Rutgers this past offseason, the impact of Janarion Grant’s season-ending injury, how both teams will match up, and whether Rutgers fans have any hope their team can stun the Wolverines tomorrow.
Check it out below!
Maize n Brew: This is Chris Ash's first season as Rutgers' head coach. How have fans accepted Ash? What were the expectations for 2016? Has any of that changed after the first five games?
Aaron Breitman: Ash won the offseason, as most new coaches do. He has made many positive changes regarding the culture and they way the program now operates. He is recruiting at a much higher level early on and his defensive pedigree breeds confidence in his ability to move the program forward. Of course, part of the fan base is frustrated with his insistence on keeping Chris Laviano as the starting quarterback, but we will get more into that later. A certain portion of the fans are in a bit of denial of how run down the roster had become under former head coach Kyle Flood. There are talented front line players on the team, but depth is a major issue. The program was far behind development wise, as well as with strength and conditioning. There is legitimate hope Ash is fixing those issues, which will be a great benefit long term.
It will also take time for the new coaching staff to learn on the job and gel as a unit. There is a good mix of veterans and young coaches rising up the ranks. But it's been a struggle at times because there simply aren't enough players on the roster that can play the way the coaching staff wants to. I am confident that Ash is on the right track. If he can keep the class of 2017 he has built so far on track through signing day, it will provide positive momentum that should continue moving the program forward.
MnB: Chris Ash and Rutgers have made an effort to get Michigan's attention off the field, especially with regards to recruiting and satellite camps, and create a rivalry with the Wolverines. It seems that way at least. How do fans feel about this strategy? Is there a reason why Ash isn't taking this approach towards Ohio State other than he was just there?
AB: Recruiting suffered badly under former head coach Kyle Flood and the class of 2015 in New Jersey was incredibly strong. Michigan and Jim Harbaugh dominated the class as you know and that certainly created some animosity with Rutgers fans. Ash has come in and made keeping the best in-state talent home a priority, something that obviously makes sense in rebuilding the program and has made fans happy. It has long been thought by the fan base that if Rutgers could ever keep a good portion of top in-state recruits from leaving, the program can ultimately become very good on a consistent basis.
In regards to Ash's strategy with Michigan, it was born out of Harbaugh's success in recruiting New Jersey with the last class. His uncommonly close connections to Paramus Catholic due to assistant coach Chris Partridge, who interviewed with Rutgers before taking the Michigan recruiting job last year, put pressure on Ash to respond. Harbaugh's satellite camp at a North Jersey high school power forced his hand and creating a competing satellite camp was embraced by fans and a good portion of local coaches as well. Partridge and
Paramus Catholic are not well liked by most other North Jersey schools, so it actually helped to unite support for Ash and the coaching staff so early on in his tenure. As far as Ash's connections to Ohio State, he has made no secret that he is trying to emulate a lot of what they do at Rutgers and he is close with Urban Meyer.
What did surprise me about Michigan was their decision to counter Ash's "Fence The Garden" recruiting mantra for New Jersey by creating their own "Harvest The Garden" slogan. I wrote that by doing that, Michigan actually legitimized Rutgers as a recruiting threat moving forward. I know that many Michigan fans laugh at this idea and I heard from plenty of them about it. What I find puzzling is why Harbaugh wasted a second of his time even thinking about what Ash and Rutgers are doing recruiting wise in New Jersey. It seemed unnecessary to try and undercut a program well below their status. If anything, the whole satellite camp drama and Ash's fresh approach in recruiting at Rutgers has made things more interesting between the two schools and fan bases.
MnB: Rutgers' offense is 114th in Offensive S&P+ for good reason. The Scarlet Knights have scored just seven points through two Big Ten games and mustered only 107 total yards on 54 plays against Ohio State. Other than the loss of Janarion Grant, which we will address in the next question, why has Rutgers' offense struggled so much? And does the offense possess any strength that can succeed against Michigan's defense (1st in Defensive S&P+)?
AB: Quarterback Chris Laviano is not a fit for the power spread offense, but Ash and offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer don't feel they have a better option among the four backups. True freshman Tylin Oden has seen spurts of action throughout the season and he has great running ability for a quarterback. However, the staff don't feel he is ready to be a full-time starter. His understanding of the offense and his arm need development, as well as the fact Oden needs to gain 30 pounds to his slight frame.
Laviano has worn out his welcome as the starter and the fan base, to put it mildly, is begging for a change. He is dead last in the conference in quarterback rating and while he has cut down on the turnovers recently, his inability to consistently make the short to intermediate passes has been extremely frustrating. Laviano is a gutsy player and has made some tough runs at times, but it's clear he is not the right fit for the power spread. The biggest issue with the offense is they don't have the right quarterback to lead it. It's been a struggle to sustain drives, leading to poor field position and keeping the defense off the field, ultimately causing them to wear down.
The most reliable player on offense is junior running back Robert Martin, who is fifth in the conference in rushing yards and averages 5.6 yards per carry. Martin had a solid game against Michigan last season, including a 54 yard run, so if any Rutgers player can cause a problem on Saturday, it is likely to be him.
MnB: How much of an impact does Janarion Grant's season-ending lower leg injury have on this Rutgers team? Do the Scarlet Knights have anyone that can replace his explosiveness?
AB: Grant is unquestionably the most talent player on the roster and was one of the most explosive playmakers in all of college football. With Rutgers switching to the power spread offense under Mehringer, Grant was made the centerpiece and used in multiple ways. Most of the personnel was recruited to play a pro-style under Kyle Flood. Grant was one of the few players on the current roster who fit the new offense well. Even though he was a receiver, he actually rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another out of the wildcat formation this season. He also returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns this season and is tied for the NCAA all-time record of eight combined for his career. He is irreplaceable.
Jawuan Harris is a first year starter and is the closest player Rutgers has to Grant regarding speed and athleticism. Harris plays baseball as well and led the Big Ten in stolen bases last spring as a true freshman. He is the best deep threat on the roster and is fifth in the conference with an average of 17.6 yards per catch. Harris is being asked to fill a similar role than Grant did, but the staff is not asking as much from him. He is the best receiver Rutgers has now, but he is still learning on the job.
MnB: Rutgers' defense allowed 53 points per game and 7.09 yards per play to the two ranked teams it's faced this season (Washington and Ohio State). Why were the Huskies and Buckeyes so successful against Rutgers? What must Michigan do to replicate that success?
AB: The speed of both Washington and Ohio State was simply too much for Rutgers to handle. Both teams were able to score on big plays early and often. The talent gap is simply too wide for the defense to compete against explosive offenses. The defense fared much better against Iowa, who are far less explosive and Rutgers was able to compete physically against them. There is optimism the defense is good enough to give Rutgers a chance during the second half of their schedule, which is much more manageable than the first half has been.
For Michigan to be successful against Rutgers, attacking with the intermediate passing game and running to the outside gaps off tackle will result in bigger gains as the game develops. They rarely blitz and prefer a four man rush from their line, so having receivers that can gain separation and a quarterback who can find them in open space will be an effective way to move the chains. If the offensive line can prevent Rutgers from creating consistent pressure from their front four, Wilton Speight should have plenty of time to pick apart the defense.
MnB: Is there a Rutgers' defensive unit that can give Michigan's offense trouble? If so, why?
The defensive line is the best unit of the Rutgers defense. Their best players and co-captains are seniors Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick. The entire line is a veteran group and is still the deepest unit, despite senior starter Quanzell Lambert out of the season after getting hurt late against Iowa.
Hamilton has returned from missing almost all of last season due to a knee injury and was starting to round back into form, before getting banged up from a chop block against Iowa. He wore down in the second halves against the Hawkeyes and Ohio State, missing a lot of the action. How much he can play against Michigan remains to be seen.
JPO (Pinnix-Odrick) is easily our best pass rusher and has 4 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries and 2 pass deflections this season. He has been a consistent disruption for opposing quarterbacks and is effective in stopping the run. If the line can create pressure on Saturday, JPO will probably be the biggest reason why.
MnB: What do Rutgers fans hope happens in this game? What do they expect will happen?
AB: No one is optimistic in the slightest. We have seen how Rutgers has fared against two other top 5 opponents and the results have been hard to watch. While Michigan's offense is arguably the least explosive of the three we have faced so far, that's not to say their offense shouldn't have a lot of success on Saturday. Michigan's defense is probably the best we will face all season, so I think if Rutgers scored double digits, most fans would be surprised. There will be a lot of recruits at Saturday's game, including a top target of both programs in Markquese Bell. We all fear that Harbaugh will pull his best John Kreese impression and show no mercy, looking to embarrass Ash and the team. The only hope is that the Rutgers defense takes a step forward and keeps it relatively close early, before the ineptness of our own offense eventually wears them down and the flood gates open.
MnB: Prediction time. What will happen? Which team will win? What is the final score?
AB: I'm cautiously optimistic that the Rutgers defense will put up a respectable performance and keep the score somewhat close in the first half. It's the first night home game of the season and first ever "Stripeout" this weekend, so the crowd should be fired up, barring a full-on Hurricane. If Martin can bust a long run or two early, hopefully they can get a few points on the board to gain some confidence. Either way, Michigan has an elite defense and far too much talent for Rutgers to compete for 60 minutes. I fear Harbaugh will look to embarrass Rutgers in front of so many New Jersey recruits and run up the score as much as possible. I think both scenarios work out to some degree and Michigan wins it going away 42-10.
There you have it! There may be a “war” between Michigan and Rutgers, but Aaron doesn’t see this being much of a fight. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with his prediction or his answers above? Please share your comments below!
And we must give a big thank you to Aaron for taking the time to participate in our Q&A. Make sure to follow him on Twitter (@aaron_breitman) and over at On the Banks.