The 2019 version of Rutgers has a few talented playmakers (especially at running back), but how does the rest of their roster look? To find out we spoke with Rutgers writer Aaron Breitman from SB Nation’s On the Banks for this edition of Behind Enemy Lines Q&A:
Q: What’s the state of the Rutgers program as a whole? Are things trending up?
A: Bless you Trevor, but no, things are certainly not trending up. After last Saturday’s 30-16 defeat to Boston College, Rutgers has now lost 15 consecutive games to power five opponents. This team continues to shoot themselves in the foot, as they committed 11 penalties for 100 yards, which is a big reason promising drives ended in field goals rather than touchdowns. The defense allowed almost 300 yards rushing, as they tend to get worn down in the second half of games.
A: After the game, I called for head coach Chris Ash to be dismissed as soon as possible. Saturday’s loss was just part of the bigger context that this team does not appear close to achieving significant improvement this season, the vague metric athletic director Pat Hobbs issued after last year. Less than 20,000 fans showed up on a beautiful day against a former conference rival, proving we are at a critical mass. Fans have given up on Chris Ash and whether it’s an inability to score, a defense that does nothing special and a general lack of competitiveness in most games, it’s clearly time for a change. There is reason to be concerned another 1 win campaign is in the works.
Q: Jim Harbaugh said that Rutgers has two good running backs. (Raheem Blackshear and sophomore Isaih Pacheco) Are they the best players on offense for Rutgers? Who else should we be looking out for?
A: Yes they are as Pacheco is the workhorse back and Blackshear is the speedy, crafty back who is most effective catching the ball in the flat or out of the slot. Pacheco is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and you may remember he ran for an 80 yard touchdown against Michigan last season. Blackshear caught a screen pass last week and took it 76 yards for the touchdown. The issue is those type of big plays have been few and far between for the offense. Quarterback play has been a major struggle, the offensive line has been better in pass protection but poor in the run game, there is only one scholarship tight end available (redshirt freshman Matt Alaimo) and the receivers continue to be a disappointment. If there is one other name to know it is receiver Bo Melton. However, the former 4-star recruit hasn’t done much since a huge game in the season opener. Rutgers has scored 20 or more points just 9 times in 3 + seasons under Ash, 12 less than the second fewest in the Big Ten to Illinois (21).
The best weapons Rutgers has are on special teams in kicker Justin Davidovicz (5-5 FG with a 50 yarder) and punter Adam Korsak (12 of 16 punts inside the 20), who has won the Ray Guy Punter of the Week award twice this season.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about new Rutgers defensive coordinator Andy Buh and what the scheme looks like? Also, who would you classify as the best player on Rutgers defense?
A: A major frustration of the Ash Era is that his specialty is defense and they really have never developed that unit into a true strength. Ash and previous DC Jay Niemann played it pretty vanilla in terms of schemes and it’s been much of the same under Buh. Rutgers plays a lot of base packages and rarely brings pressure, which is a problem because the defensive line rarely wins their one on one matchups and create breakdowns in the opponents offensive line.
The secondary is talented but young and mistake prone.You could call the linebackers the best position group but they haven’t been as good as needed. That being said, middle linebacker Tyshon Fogg is a captain and the leader of the defense. He has had double digit tackles in multiple games this season, but certainly needs to play better than he did last week against Boston College. The defense can’t allow gaping holes for the opposition to run through, which has happened far too often already this season.
Q: What are your thoughts about Michigan so far this season?
A: I do appreciate the traditionally high expectations for the program and understand the frustrations after the big loss at Wisconsin last week, but at the same time it is slightly amusing as a Rutgers fan. We would kill for having a coach and team that only wins 9-10 games per season. I am surprised the defense hasn’t been as dominant as usual, but I also think it makes sense based on how much top talent they lost to the NFL after last season. The biggest surprise is seeing Michigan fans in a gloom and doom phase this week, which is the least confident our experience with them has been since the 2014 defeat to Rutgers. But don’t worry, we are here to likely make you feel better on Saturday, at least for this game.
Q: QB McLane Carter remains in concussion protocol and Art Sitkowski will be starting for Rutgers against Michigan. What kind of quarterback is Sitkowski?
A: He led the country in interceptions last season as a true freshman, but was really put in a difficult situation as he obviously wasn’t ready. Sitkowski has a big arm and can make all of the throws, but the speed of the game has been an issue. He has a tendency to lock in on his first option on a play and is still learning how to read defenses. He did look much improved in his first start of the season last week, completing almost 70% of his passes and throwing for 304 yards. However, while he did make a few difficult throws, the game plan didn’t ask him to do too much and Rutgers didn’t attempt any big plays through the air. With the run game unreliable, they need to make big plays through the air this weekend to have a chance. The fan base was encouraged by Sitkowski’s performance last weekend, but he’ll need to build off it and continue to show growth before there is confidence he is the long term answer at quarterback.
Q: How do you think this game will unfold? Any predictions?
A: Rutgers has been plagued by slow starts, allowing its opponents to score on the first drive in the last ten games. On the flip side, they rarely score on its first drive, going 0 for 3 this season so far. I’m certainly interested to see how much of a fight they can put up right out of the gate, which will be a big factor in the final score. I think this game will be predictable for Rutgers fans, with the game being relatively close until the defense starts to wear down and the talent divide on the field becomes obvious. Michigan 31 Rutgers 7
Thanks to Aaron for these answers, you can read my answers to his questions here.