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Behind Enemy Lines: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Aaron Breitman of On The Banks joins us to discuss this weekend’s matchup versus Rutgers.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini hit the road this Saturday to face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights for the first time since 2006. It’s been a disappointing start to the year and a shocking overtime loss to Purdue at home last weekend didn’t help. Lovie and company will try to salvage the season by picking up a conference win against the Knights. Aaron Breitman from the SBNation blog On The Banks was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Rutgers.

1. Rutgers is in Year One under Chris Ash, and this season has already included three losses by at least 35 points. How long until the Scarlet Knights turns this around or how long do fans expect this rebuild under Ash to take?

The fan base is split between those who feel the team should be far better than it is right now and those who understand the talent level on the roster simply isn’t very strong at the moment. People are tired of the blowout losses from the past few seasons, but the reality is Rutgers has played three top 5 teams in the country this season. No other team in college football can claim that fact.

I think the coaching staff is still working to gel together, but is still much better than the previous regime. A lot of fans are hopeful for the future and believe Ash is the right coach. Of course, every fan base has their “the sky is falling” contigent and Rutgers is no different.

It’s all about recruiting, which I’ll go into detail in a bit. Realistically, I think it’s going to take Ash 4 years to really have his players and system running the way he wants it to. Rutgers played a pro-style offense for years, so most of the current personnel doesn’t really fit into the new power spread offense. Rebuilding and coaching transitions take time. Having such a difficult first half of the schedule hasn’t help perception of the program nationally, but I think things are certainly headed in the right direction.

2. Five different players have taken at least one snap under center for Rutgers this season. How has Chris Laviano performed at QB? Who are other offensive playmakers for the Illini D to pay attention to?

Chris Laviano has been disappointing to say the least and the fan base would be happiest if he didn’t show up for the game tomorrow. He has struggled in the new spread offense, which in his defense, he simply doesn’t have the skill set to succeed in it. Laviano isn’t a speedy runner and he is tentative at times in his decision making. He tends to underthrow and fail to lead receivers properly. He has cut down on his turnovers, but he isn’t making plays either. Tomorrow is a huge game for him, as he will get a quick hook if he can’t produce early on.

True freshman Tylin Oden will probably see some action at quarterback tomorrow, regardless of how Laviano does. He is a run-first signal caller and has shown some burst, but he is very thin and doesn’t have a solid grasp on the passing game, per the coaching staff. However, they are definitely trying to develop him to start in the future, which could be even later this season. TCU grad transfer Zach Allen relieved Laviano in the Michigan game and was just as bad. I think they spared Laviano of further physical and psychological damage by pulling him early in 2nd quarter last week. It’s possible Allen gets another chance tomorrow, but I think Oden gets the call first if Laviano struggles.

Robert Martin is our best running back and will be the key to getting the offense going tomorrow. The offensive line has been atrocious the past two weeks, so they need to give him room to run. He has averaged over 5 yards per carry for his career and if he can get into a rhythm, he will get better as the game goes on. Running back Justin Goodwin has had his moments and there was talk this week of possibly lining him up in the backfield at the same time as Martin to give a new look to the offense.

Andre Patton has been inconsistent at receiver and had a key fumble deep in Rutgers territory that led to Iowa’s winning touchdown. However, he is the team’s best red zone target in the passing game and has three touchdowns this season.

3. The Knights almost have more sacks this season than they accumulated all of last year. What has attributed to this change in defensive philosophy and a more “rugby-style” attack? Who do the Illini need to watch out for on this side of the ball?

Ash and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann bring a lot of expertise to the defensive side of the ball that has led to some moderate improvement this season. The defensive line is the most veteran group on the team and has the most talent on the defense. They are led by senior captains Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick. Hamilton missed all but one game last season due to injury and has shown flashes of his old self at times this season. He has bulked up a lot and was a beast in stopping the run against the option offense of New Mexico. JPO, as he is nicknamed, has been the best player on defense this season. He leads the team with 4 sacks and has been a consistent force in creating pressure for opposing quarterbacks. Both need to have huge games tomorrow in order to contain the Illinois ground game.

Tackling has been atrocious the past couple of seasons and there has been some improvement. One thing to note is the linebacker core of Rutgers is inexperienced with three first-year starters and depth is an issue right now, as several key guys are battling injuries this week. Pass coverage has improved as well, but is still susceptible to giving up a deep pass here and there. Limiting big plays tomorrow is obviously a major key.

4. Janarion Grant, who was Rutgers’ best and most versatile overall player, was lost for the season after an injury during the Iowa game. How has the offense picked up the slack since Grant’s injury (or have they)? Who is being forced to step up into his role on that side of the ball?

Grant’s injury couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Rutgers actually had momentum against Iowa and had the life and their offense sucked out of the game after he went down. Heading into the two game terror stretch against Ohio State and Michigan was always an uphill battle, but losing Grant right before was a disaster. The offense lost its identity and was not even remotely effective in either game.

Redshirt freshman Jawuan Harris is in the mold of Grant and can do some of the same types of things on offense. He is our best deep threat in the passing game and is an elite speedster. Harris plays baseball as well and led the Big Ten in steals last season. Rutgers will look to get him on track early tomorrow with some bubble screens and maybe even a handoff or two. He also replaced Grant in the return game on special teams, but he hasn’t made an impact yet.

5. Rutgers has put together a top 30 recruiting class for 2017 so far. Is this already a part of the “Chris Ash” effect? If not, how have they managed to put together a better class than the likes of Michigan State, Oregon and Texas?

It is 100% due to Chris Ash and his staff coming in and completely revamping recruiting for the program. It is the single biggest reason Rutgers fans have to be hopeful that better days are ahead. Keeping in-state talent home has been his major focus and it’s already starting to pay off. While there is a concern they will have de-commitments if Rutgers continues losing this season, Ash wisely prepared the commits and is selling the program on the future potential if they come on board. The previous coaching regime left the cupboard almost empty, so it’s going to take 2-3 recruiting cycles for Ash to really put his mark on this team personnel wise. Ash’s national championship pedigree at Ohio State and his preferred style of play on both sides of the ball resonates with recruits. I think he will only continue to improve with recruiting moving forward.

6. Finally, who wins this weekend’s Game of the Century? Will it be as thrilling as that Illinois-Rutgers basketball game this past February?

Rutgers enters this game beat up, both mentally after the past two blowout losses, and physically, as the defense in particular has multiple key players battling injuries. However, the saying goes that the most dangerous type of animal is a wounded one. Illinois will try and run it down the defense’s throat and Rutgers needs to respond. The seniors know this game is crucial and I expect captains Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to step up in a big way. On the flip side, I am optimistic OC Drew Mehringer shows some more creativity on offense this week and gets the ball into the hands of Jawuan Harris and Robert Martin. A dark horse player of the game candidate for me is kicker David Bonagura. He is going to need to make at least one big kick tomorrow, possibly more. Rebuilding is tough and the reality is certain steps have to be made along the way to respectability. Beating Illinois is a necessary step, both in building confidence for this team and calming the outcry about what the rest of the world thinks about Rutgers football. I think they pull it out on homecoming in front of a crowd desperate for something to cheer about, 23-19.

Thanks again to Aaron for answering our questions and be sure to head over to On The Banks for some excellent Rutgers sports coverage.