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Behind Enemy Lines: Rutgers

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Schiano’s back and Rutgers is playing hard this season.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines have won against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights handily in recenty years, but they’re less than a two touchdown favorite heading into Saturday’s game.

With head coach Greg Schiano back with the program, the team is trending in the right direction and playing a more competitive brand of football. We spoke with Aaron Breitman of On The Banks to get some intel on Rutgers.

Greg Schiano is back as head coach, there seems to be more optimism surrounding the program now than in recent memory. What are your general thoughts about the team so far this year, and the overall trajectory of the program moving forward?

Schiano has made the positive initial impact we expected in his return. He has given the program an identity and instant credibility across the recruiting landscape within New Jersey and tri-state area. He has also galvanized the fan base in a way I don’t think has ever happened before.

On the field, this team is playing very hard and the coaching staff is being aggressive with play calling with all three phases. The play to win mentality is giving the team confidence, as fourth down attempts and trick plays are now the norm. This team is limited talent and depth wise while still making mistakes with too many turnovers while leading the Big Ten in penalties. However, they are executing at a higher rate than in recent seasons.

The offense is averaging 26.5 points per game, a dramatic improvement over the 8.5 points per contest from last season and on pace for the highest since joining the Big Ten. They also have scored 20 or more points in all four games this season, the longest streak since joining the conference. It might not seem like a big deal, but it does signify major improvement.

In regard to the long term outlook, it’s guaranteed the basement has raised. The question remains is how high is the ceiling? Schiano turned Rutgers into annual bowl team that typically won on average 8 games per season. I think it’s fair to hope that he can come close to that again and make Rutgers a middle of the pack team in the Big Ten on a consistent basis. Anything more than that would be gravy, anything less would be a disappointment.

It’s going to take time though as he inherited the worst power five program in the country. The progress made so far this season and during a pandemic no less has inspired confidence things are moving in the right direction.

What are the schematics of the offense and defense?

With the 11th offensive coordinator in as many seasons, Sean Gleeson has instituted a spread offense that he has smartly built around the personnel that Rutgers has. He has been aggressive with play calling and creative as well with several trick plays and a wildcat package. Speeding up the huddle and moving at a fast pace is a priority. It’s helped compensate for an offensive line that has issues but has performed admirably in part due to this approach.

Defensively, Rutgers has also been much more aggressive than in previous years but consistent with the way they played under Schiano in his first tenure as head coach. The strength and conditioning approach shifted and the defensive players are less bulky but able to close to the ball faster. A swarm and strip approach is their philosophy, while playing in a 4-3 base defense that has led to multiple different blitz calls.

Could you give us a couple players to watch on both sides of the ball?

Bo Melton is finally reaching his potential as a former 4-star recruit and has emerged as one of the better receivers in the Big Ten. He has scored two touchdowns twice this season and also added a punt return TD against OSU. He is beating defenders one on one and being utilized much more effectively in the new offensive system.

Isaih Pacheco is the lead running back who is up to 5.2 yards per carry after a big game against Illinois. He is a tough runner who also has breakaway speed and has developed into a passing threat out of the backfield this season.

Julius Turner has been a pleasant surprise along the defensive line and has been the top disruptor this season within that position group.

Olakunle Fatukasi not only has an All-Big Ten name, but is leading the conference with 50 tackles. including 6.5 for a loss. He and fellow linebacker Tyshon Fogg (second in B1G with 41 tackles) are in on basically every play.

Brendon White is a safety who transferred from Ohio State that has been been a big factor. However, he missed the Illinois game due to injury and is questionable for Saturday. His absence would be a big loss for Rutgers.

What’s Rutgers biggest strength and weakness?

It sounds basic but their biggest strength is the team’s belief in the coaching staff and confidence they have due to the preparation for each game. Without getting too much into the past, it’s clear the returning players feel much more prepared and the “keep chopping” mantra has been something they all have bought into. They no longer seem overmatched physically and are playing with much more energy and purpose, as the strength and conditioning program refocused on increasing speed over size/strength.

As far as biggest weakness, the talent and depth of the roster just isn’t where it needs to be to compete at a high level in Big Ten play. Their limited in certain position groups and if injuries to frontline starters becomes an issue, it could get ugly quick.

Are there any position groups that are more talented than Michigan’s?

I know rushing yards per game aren’t much different between the two teams but I do think Isaih Pacheco will be the best running back on the field Saturday. Backup Kay’Ron Adams ran for a 33 yard touchdown against Indiana as well.

What are your predictions for this game?

The odd thing about this game is that Michigan fans are giving me more confidence that Rutgers can actually win than I should probably have. However, Michigan’s struggles on offense give real hope that an upset can occur. I do think Schiano will have this team ready to play and they’ll be aggressive in all three phases from a play calling perspective. Whether Michigan can control the game on the ground will likely determine the outcome, as Rutgers struggled mightily against a running quarterback (Isaiah Williams) against Illinois. Special teams play has been particularly strong for Rutgers and I think that will continue this week. In a year that anything can happen and the stranger the better, I have a weird feeling that after Rutgers blew a winnable game in which they were favored to win, they come out playing inspired football and shock Michigan in a low scoring contest. Rutgers 20 Michigan 17.