Hello, all. Welcome back to another edition of Behind Enemy Lines. This week I interviewed Aaron Breitman, the manager of On The Banks, the SB Nation Rutgers Scarlet Knights blog. So without further ado, let’s get into it.
Josh LaFond: The Scarlet Knights have had their share of ups and downs this season, most notably a loss to Eastern Michigan and a win over America’s darling, Purdue. With that being said, is Chris Ash taking his program places, or is mediocrity the ceiling under his tenure?
Aaron Breitman: The past two weeks were very important for Chris Ash in his mission to rebuild Rutgers football. He has greatly improved the culture, upgraded the coaching staff, as well as the strength and conditioning program, gotten big donors to believe in him, which has led to a new weight room and practice facility, and he has been resourceful in improving the roster through grad transfers. While he and his staff's ability to recruit at a high level long-term remains to be seen, the staff has done reasonably well this recruiting cycle so far coming off of a 2-10 season (17 3-star verbal commits).
The biggest question entering October was when Ash's hard work was ever going to lead this team to a win. A 16-game conference losing streak and the possibility of a 1-11 season were hanging over this program less than two weeks ago. The win over Illinois, while not impressive from a quality opponent standpoint, was so important to finally generate a positive result. The fact that Rutgers came back the following week and beat an upstart Purdue team with a gutty effort finally gives Ash something tangible to promote to recruits, donors and fans. Responding from a 56-0 loss to Ohio State with the program's first Big Ten winning streak was huge and a necessary development to show that real progress is happening this season.
As for the long-term view, I'd say the jury is still out on what Ash's ceiling is at Rutgers. I think he has shown he can learn on the job and has improved on a few first year mistakes he made last season as a new head coach. Of course, how successful he can be in recruiting, especially in the tri-state area, will have a big impact on his future outlook. If Rutgers can get one more conference win in 2017 and finish better than last place in the East, that will make it a successful campaign in Ash's second year.
Josh: Rutgers’ improvement may be tough, but it will help strengthen the conference as a whole. It's something Big Ten fans should root for.
We all know about Michigan’s decisive 78-0 victory over Rutgers last season in Piscataway. This year, though, the Scarlet Knights are on somewhat of a come up. So, what’s been the biggest change from that dreary night last year in New Jersey to now being tied with Michigan for 4th in the Big Ten East?
Aaron: The talent and depth on the roster is still a ways off, but both the defense and special teams are definitely improved this season. While the defense has gotten better and has been effective with a bend, but don't break approach, the biggest improvement has been with special teams. This was always an area of strength during the decade-long bowl run under former head coach Greg Schiano, but that unit was dismal last season and caused major problems. Ash upgraded the specialists this season and added many true freshmen to the coverage teams, improving the talent level overall. While the offense continues to struggle this season, the defense and special teams are either keeping Rutgers competitive (except for the Ohio State game) or helping them win games.
Obviously, playing Illinois and Purdue in back to back games was a fortuitous break in the schedule, but considering Rutgers has played Wisconsin or Nebraska every season in the West crossover games, sometimes both in the same year, they were due. The fact is last year's team would have lost against both of the West teams they beat this season, so they are certainly making progress.
One benchmark fans are using to judge how much progress is actually happening this season is how Rutgers performs against the top four teams in the Big Ten and against Washington, the reigning PAC-12 champion. Rutgers was far more competitive against the Huskies this year, holding their offense to 23 points in the season opener in a 16-point defeat. They lost to Washington 48-13 in 2016 and were down 24-0 after the first quarter. In fact, Alabama, USC and Rutgers were the only three teams to hold Washington under 31 points in their past 23 games before the Huskies lost to Arizona State last weekend, 13-7. The Ohio State game was a disaster again this season, so Rutgers is 1-1 in terms of showing improvement against their toughest opponents. This week is certainly a big test against Michigan after last season's debacle.
Josh: I remember watching that game and thinking, "wow they're keeping up with them pretty dang good, and that Jacuzzi looks interesting."
If Rutgers can niche out to a spot here in the East and make serious strides towards division contention, what needs to be improved on most?
Aaron: On the field, Rutgers needs help in pretty much every area. However, I think the biggest need is improved talent and depth on both lines.
The offensive line is simply not good enough in Big Ten play to be successful with a “run first, early and often” approach that first year offensive coordinator Jerry Kill has taken. That's not a criticism of Kill, who I think is trying to figure out how to best operate offensively based on the personnel he has to work with. There is frustration from fans due to his ultra conservative play calling, which I agree with to a point. The failure to get their best play-makers on offense more involved in Janarion Grant and Jerome Washington has been frustrating. The bottom line is Rutgers needs added size and talent up front on offense to truly compete at a Big Ten level.
On the defensive side, the line has played reasonably well at times, but they simply lack depth and wear down against better teams in the second half. They need more talent on the two deep so the coaches feel more comfortable rotating players more evenly and enabling the line to hold up against the big, strong offensive lines they face in conference play.
Of course, improvement on both lines personnel wise all comes down to recruiting. I think Rutgers has some intriguing younger players on the offensive line, including former 4-star Micah Clark who held offers from Alabama and the top four teams in the Big Ten East, but chose to stay in-state. Rutgers is still lacking bodies on the defensive line and currently have just one commit for that group in the current recruiting cycle, so that's a major concern.
Josh: Micah Clark was definitely a huge get, and I think he will develop into a nice piece for that budding offensive line.
Let’s turn our attention away from the big picture, to now focusing on the task at hand Saturday in Ann Arbor. Who are a few guys for Rutgers that can impact the outcome of the game in a big way?
Aaron: Gio Rescigno and Johnathan Lewis are the quarterbacks to know, hopefully. Louisville grad transfer Kyle Bolin started the first five games of the season and to put it nicely, he wasn't very good. Gio has started the past two games after the bye week and is a gutty player who has reduced mistakes by the offense. He is best when he can run, but he is reckless and got banged up against Illinois. He was noticeably limited last week against Purdue and Kill confirmed he was playing injured. Gio is a solid game manager though and was able to throw for the winning score against Purdue. Lewis is an intriguing dual-threat quarterback that is clearly the future for Rutgers. The true freshman has gotten some opportunities this season and steamrolled FCS opponent Morgan State by running for four touchdowns and throwing for one. He did play a decent amount against Ohio State, but has since tweaked his ankle and has only played two snaps total the past two games. If he healthier on Satuday, I do expect to see him some against Michigan, if Gio is still less mobile under center. It's been quiet regarding updates on Lewis this week.
Miami grad transfer Gus Edwards, senior Robert Martin, and true freshman Raheem Blackshear are the three backs to know. Edwards has run for 90+ yards the past two weeks and scored a 74-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage that set the tone in the win over Purdue. He has a good combination of size and speed. Martin has played a lot the past four years and has rushed for over 2,000 yards in his career. He hasn't gotten as many carries as in previous seasons due to Edwards being the starter now, but Martin can be an effective, physical back if he can get into rhythm, averaging over 5 yards per rush in his career. Blackshear has been a pleasant surprise and has produced multiple big plays the past two weeks. He scored the game-winning touchdown on a 35-yard reception off of a wheel route and had a 41-yard run against Illinois. He is small, but fast and is great at making tacklers miss. All three make up a solid group, but against Purdue they had no time for plays to develop, as the Purdue front seven were constantly in the backfield within two seconds after the snap. The offensive line has to do a better job against Michigan for Rutgers to be able to effectively run this week.
Wide receiver Janarion Grant and tight end Jerome Washington are easily the best two options in the passing game. Grant should be a name Michigan fans are familiar with, but he has struggled to get going this season after last year's ankle injury, in which he missed the last eight games of the 2016 campaign. He has still generated some big plays this season, but part of the problem is that he isn't being targeted enough in the pass game. Kill indicated this week that needs to change. If any player can break a big play in open space against Michigan, it's Grant. Washington is a monster target and requires multiple tacklers to bring him down after he catches the ball. He needs to be more of a priority as well.
On defense, Kemoko Turay is the best pass rusher on the team. He was the one who blocked Michigan's field goal attempt at the end of the game when Rutgers beat them three seasons ago. Turay has been inconsistent, but has the potential to wreck havoc if he is feeling it on Saturday. Deonte Roberts is a captain and starting middle linebacker. He has had a great season and has done a good job keeping the defense organized, which will be a key play in the Big House. All-Big Ten cornerback Bless Austin is out for the season with a torn ACL and starting safety Saquon Hampton will miss this game also due to injury. However, Damon Hayes and K.J. Gray, who have replaced the junior defensive backs, have both stepped up and grabbed interceptions last week. Kiy Hester is very experienced at strong safety and is very important at the back of the defense.
On special teams, kickoff specialist Justin Davidovicz and punter Ryan Anderson have made a huge impact this season. They've helped improve field position for Rutgers tremendously and both have been consistently good. Anderson was arguably the MVP of the Purdue game, as his big leg pinned Purdue deep in their own territory very often and forced them to have to produce long drives to score, which they failed to do.
Josh: Hmmm, very interesting. I appreciate your in depth analysis, I'll be sure to keep my eyes peeled for those guys.
For those that didn’t know the game Saturday serves as Michigan’s homecoming. So, for the Scarlet Knights to spoil homecoming what has to happen?
Aaron: The first thought that comes to mind is Rutgers absolutely needs big plays and scores from all three units. The offense will need to be able to run the ball effectively and control the game by dominating time of possession. Whoever does stand under center, the QB will need to find play-makers Janarion Grant and Jerome Washington in the passing game. Rutgers MUST win the turnover margin by at least two. The defense has nine interceptions this season and three have been returned for at least 25 yards, including one for a touchdown against Nebraska. The run defense needs to rebound after Purdue scorched them last week and the defensive line needs to generate consistent pressure on the Michigan quarterback the entire game. On special teams, Grant needs to finally break off a big return this season and give Michigan fans deja vu from his touchdown on a kickoff return two seasons ago. The specialists all need big days with Davidovicz kicking multiple touchbacks, Andrew Harte needs to be perfect in field goal attempts and Anderson needs to be a weapon yet again in the battle for field position. Lastly, Rutgers needs to limit mistakes and play as clean a game as possible. Sometimes you create your own luck, but they'll need some any way they can find it too.
Josh: The weather forecast looks like it might be a wet one, so that might even up the playing field. Then again, it was also wet last year so you can never really know.
Let’s wrap this up, Aaron. Give me a score and game prediction.
Aaron: I'm excited to see how Rutgers fares defensively and on special teams in this game because those two units are greatly improved. As for the offense, it's fair to question whether they'll be able to muster any points in this game. They were able to score two touchdowns against a Washington defense currently ranked #2 in S&P+, but they punted 12 times and went three and out nine times against Purdue, who last time I checked don't have as strong a defense as Michigan. Coming into this game, Rutgers has nothing to lose and I hope they come out and play that way. They'll need to play with poise and be mistake free to have a chance to make this a game. I think Rutgers will play relatively well early on and ultimately get worn down by Michigan and their depth in the second half. I think fans of the home team who are knowledgeable and fair will come away realizing Rutgers is getting better, although there is still a long way to go.
Michigan 27 Rutgers 7
I'd like to take the time to thank Aaron Breitman for taking the time to not only answer my questions, but for him interviewing me. For all info on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights head on over to OnTheBanks.com.