Hello, all! Welcome back to our 2018 Opponent Q&A series.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Penn State interview was not able to get worked out. But have no fear! Aaron Breitman is here to save the day. Aaron is a writer over at OnTheBanks.com — the Rutgers SB Nation site.
I sat down with Aaron and discussed the season as a whole — the Rutgers point of view. Follow along as we talk about that, and more.
Josh LaFond: Entering his 3rd season as head coach, there have been ups and downs in the Chris Ash era. Being said, is his seat getting warm or does he still have time to produce a consistent winner?
Aaron Breitman: Chris Ash’s seat is not warm and Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs even tweeted this past weekend confirming that fact. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports had written an article recently listing Ash as one of five power five coaches on the hot seat, which didn’t make sense to those that have been following the program at all. Hobbs took the rare approach of retweeting the article and rebuffing it. He spoke about his decision to do so at Big Ten Media Day, which was to counter other programs using the article against Ash on the recruiting trail.
Rutgers was in complete disarray and the roster was devoid of talent and depth when Ash took over less than three years ago. He has done a good job rebuilding and getting things much closer to resembling a Big Ten program in regard to facilities, coaching staff, front line talent, and overall organization.
Depth is still a concern and while the culture appears much stronger than the Kyle Flood era, there are eight players being investigated for credit card fraud, which was likely why two players were dismissed from the program two weeks ago. It doesn’t appear that any players involved are key to this season, but it could hurt depth if more are dismissed. Ash is only 6-18 in two seasons and they remain non-competitive against the best teams in the conference.
The point is obviously Ash’s tenure has had ups and down’s, but he deserves more time based on the state of the program he took over. I’ve said from the beginning this was a five year build and based on that, if they can go 6-6 and make a bowl game, Ash’s tenure should be looked at favorably after year three so far. Even if they don’t do that, it’s too early to pull the plug and if they only win 3-4 games this season, Ash should still get at least another season. A program like Rutgers can’t be changing coaches every three years and based on the situation Ash inherited, I don’t think it’s fair to fully judge him until after five seasons and at that point we will know if he is the long term solution or not.
Josh: What has been the biggest problem keeping Rutgers from busting through in the Big Ten East?
Aaron: Rutgers has been last in total offense in the Big Ten the past two seasons and one of the worst two or three passing teams in all of college football. The team showed steady improvement defensively (Ash’s strength) and on special teams last season, but the offense has held them back in a big way. While Rutgers was somewhat effective running the football last season with two senior running backs, Gus Edwards and Robert Martin, the passing game has been dreadful for awhile now.
There is legitimate hope that the offense will be much improved this season under new offensive coordinator John McNulty, who returns to Rutgers after a decade long stint in the NFL. He oversaw the most successful offenses in program history from 2006-2008 with players like Ray Rice, Kenny Britt, and Mike Teel at his disposal. The program had nine different offensive coordinators in the nine seasons since he left, so his return was welcomed. After Ash’s failed attempt to implement the spread offense, McNulty is returning the program to its pro-style roots. There is also more talent at receiver, although unproven, than anytime since Ash arrived and the tight end position will be a strength. Expect Rutgers to be far more unpredictable offensively under McNulty and while it’s not fair to expect miracles, especially with such youth at the skill positions, improvement is expected.
Josh: Is there a “must win game” on the Scarlet Knight’s schedule?
Aaron: Although Rutgers went just 4-8 last season, they did win three Big Ten games and finish in fifth place in the East. This season, they have their most manageable non-conference schedule in years, as they face Texas State, Kansas, and Buffalo. After laying a massive egg at home against Eastern Michigan last season, going 3-0 in non-conference play is an absolute must to prove progress is occurring this season.
In Big East play, after a week 2 visit from your friends in Columbus, Rutgers has three winnable games in a row with Illinois and Indiana at home, followed by a road contest at Maryland. I would consider Illinois and Indiana must wins for a few reasons. The second half of the schedule is brutal and it’s possible Rutgers could lose all six of those games (at Maryland, Northwestern, At Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, At Michigan State). While winning six games and making a bowl game is possible, anything less than five wins will lead most fans to be disappointed in Ash’s third season. Ash, to his credit, didn’t back away from what he called a three year plan at Big Ten Media Day and confirmed expectations should be higher this season.
The point being, if Rutgers wants to achieve a minimum of five wins, they must take advantage of the non-conference schedule and beat both Illinois and Indiana. That would actually put them at 5-1 overall midway through the season, which would generate a lot of positive vibes towards the program, something Ash desperately needs to help with recruiting. If they lose to say Indiana, who embarrassed Rutgers last season, they could be looking at just a one win season in conference play, unless of course they blow it against Illinois.
I went from being optimistic before hearing and answering this question, to now being petrified. Thanks, Josh
Josh: Who will win the starting QB job?
True freshman and former 4-star recruit Artur Sitkowski has a great chance to start from game 1. He showcased his big arm in the spring game and threw for three touchdowns. As with any freshman, he’ll have growing pains (2 INT in spring game), but he looks to have the stuff to be a legitimate Big Ten quarterback, something Rutgers hasn’t had since Gary Nova four years ago. He is a good fit for new offensive coordinator John McNulty, who is implementing more of a pro-style offense and Rutgers has more talent at the skill positions than in some time. Sitkowski has the ability to throw the deep ball and already has established a good connection with receiver Bo Melton, another former 4-star recruit, which could give Rutgers a big play capability they haven’t had in a long time. It makes sense to hand the keys over to Sitkowski from day one and let the offense grow around him. He has given real hope to the fan base that better days are ahead and hopefully he can deliver during his career at Rutgers. All signs point to him being able to do that.
Josh: Is 6-6 and a bowl birth good enough, or do Rutgers fans yearn for more?
Aaron: That’s the goal for now and if it happened this season fans would be happy. Of course fans always yearn for more, but based on where the program was when Ash took over, it would be hard to complain about a bowl trip in year three. The real key for Rutgers right now is to ascend above Indiana and Maryland year over year. Overtaking any of the big four in the East is certainly a long term goal, but something that will take time and the tide needs to turn recruiting wise before that will ever happen. As you know, you need to better recruits to win, but you need to win to get better recruits, so a bowl trip would mean a lot for Ash and the staff to take a step forward on the recruiting trail. And if Rutgers only goes 5-7 but shows progress and is more competitive against the big four, I think Ash’s tenure would still be trending in the right direction. Anything worse he would still deserve more time like I mentioned above, but the challenge of truly turning things around would get that much harder.
Josh: Let’s end on a question that I know will stir the pot: Who are the Scarlet Knight’s biggest rival in the Big Ten, and how much do Rutgers fans dislike Michigan?
Aaron: Maryland is the natural fit to be our rival, despite the unwillingness of the Terps to see it that way. They’ve played four close games since being Big Ten members, including huge comeback wins on both sides, and have split the series 2-2 so far. In fact, the series is tied 4-4 all-time. They compete for a good amount of the same recruits and geographically, they are the closest to one another in the Big Ten. A decent amount of Jersey kids go to Maryland and both programs have had similar success, or lack there of, since joining the Big Ten in football (Maryland is 10-24 in Big Ten play, Rutgers is 7-27). As a whole, Maryland is far superior in most sports, but these two programs make sense being rivals in football. But hey, Maryland fans have to actually attend their home football games to help spark a rivalry, right?
As for your last question about Michigan... being the managing editor of OnTheBanks.com I can honestly say no fan base has given Rutgers a harder time than Michigan fans. I’m not referring to our SB Nation sites, by the way.
The 78-0 loss didn’t help relations on our end, but I think the overall level of abuse stems from Rutgers beating Michigan in 2014. What drives us crazy is the small portion of UM fans who claim that victory doesn’t count or give legitimacy to it because Brady Hoke was the head coach. Obviously, that’s a ridiculous notion, as we had Kyle Flood as head coach at the time, so it was a proverbial pillow fight when it came to matching wits between our leaders in that game.
I personally didn’t help matters when I wrote this article two years ago after Michigan oddly countered a Rutgers recruiting slogan by mocking it. It seemed absurd that Harbaugh and the program would give a damn about Rutgers on the recruiting trail and I argued they actually legitimized them as a threat. Of course, I didn’t mean Michigan would struggle recruiting wise because of little old Rutgers, but Michigan fans freaked out on social media and to this day I get an occasional mention from a UM supporter reminding me what an idiot I am. I actually got emails from some Michigan fans telling me they agreed with me as well, so overall the back and forth is fun and part of what being a true fan of your team and school is all about. Overall, Rutgers fans more or less feel no other Big Ten fan base likes to point out their superiority to us more than Michigan fans.
Thank you to Aaron Breitman of OnTheBanks.com for taking the time out of his hectic schedule — and being the father to a newborn on top of that!
Whether you pull for Rutgers or not, Aaron and the rest of the staff over at On The Banks provide great coverage and give great insight on the Scarlet Knights, and the Big Ten. Be sure to head on over and check out their work.