With #Illinutgers right around the corner, we spoke with On The Banks’ managing editor Aaron Breitman to preview the Knights.
1. Entering 2018, Rutgers saw a two-win improvement from 2016-17. What was the expectation coming into 2018 and has the 1-4 start created any trepidation regarding Chris Ash?
Expectations were set by Ash himself, who declared that the program was on schedule entering his third season and that making a bowl game was the goal for the 2018 campaign. The way the season has played out would have been looked at as a disaster regardless, but I think Ash setting such high expectations has made fans angrier and less patient. After the 41-point loss at Kansas, which I believe was the worst defeat in program history, Ash said in his postgame press conference that the rebuild could take as long as six years. That was not what fans wanted to hear and it rubbed the players the wrong way as well. The best player on the team, cornerback Bless Austin, who is out again after re-injuring his ACL for a second straight season, went on Twitter and mocked that statement. Ash said they talked it out, but it has been fair to question whether there is a disconnect with some veteran players and Ash. In both the losses to Kansas and Buffalo, the effort of the team was questioned.
As for the fan base, patience is running out. No one was expecting miracles this season, but the hope was the team would exceed or at least meet last year’s win total of 4. Even the media has said the same. No one saw this type of futility coming and Ash’s ability as a head coach has come under scrutiny. Let’s be honest, both Illinois and Rutgers are looking at each other as their best chance to win a game the rest of the season. The reality is even if Rutgers does finish this season at 1-11, it would take a financial windfall for them to buyout Ash. He has close to $10 million guaranteed after this season. The problem is attendance is way down and hope is at an all-time low for the Ash Era. If they lose to Illinois, things will get even uglier.
2. Artur Sitkowski, who has started every game (but was injured in the OSU loss and pulled in losses to Kansas and Buffalo) and looked servicable under center against Indiana. Are there plans to continue him at QB or will the team move back to Giovanni Rescigno?
The true freshman has predictably struggled at times this season and after getting pulled in losses to Kansas and Buffalo, Sitkowski played his most complete game against Indiana. New offensive coordinator John McNulty, who is back after serving the same role for Rutgers a decade ago, has made it clear Sitkowski is the best option at quarterback, both in the short term and long term. He can make all the throws and has NFL potential per McNulty, but he has had a rocky start to his career. He has struggled with honing in one target and not working through his progressions. Sitkowski has also thrown 8 interceptions so far.
To his credit, he has taken responsibility and hasn’t blamed the offensive line or wide receiver group, both of which have made things hard on him. The pass protection has been abysmal and he has taken a beating, including getting knocked out of the Ohio State game after a vicious hit from Joey Bosa. The wide receivers have dropped a lot of passes and struggle to gain separation on a consistent basis. Sitkowski has earned respect by continuing to stand in the pocket and make throws while taking big hits. The performance of Indiana showed sticking with him is the right move and he indicated the game is beginning to slow down for him. Rutgers needs to develop a long term option at quarterback and Sitkowski is that guy.
3. Rutgers added a few new assistants to the staff for 2018. How are those hires panning out?
Well I really liked the additions of Noah Joseph (from Indiana) and Cory Robinson (from Temple) to coach the secondary, but that unit, once perceived as the strength of the defense, has been pretty bad this season. Of course, they’ve had major injury troubles, as three of the top six players in the secondary have missed significant time. I think they are both good coaches and need time to develop this group moving forward.
I’d say the best hire Ash made based on his group’s performance and his potential recruiting impact is running backs coach Nunzio Campanile. He was the head coach of New Jersey Prep powerhouse Bergen Catholic, one of the best high school programs in the country. His hiring was smart from a strategic standpoint in recruiting North Jersey, a hotbed for talent that traditionally leaves the state. At the same time, Campanile is a tireless worker and the running back group has performed as well as any position group this season.
4. What are fans looking for in 2018 in order to call this season a success?
Oh boy, at this point, I don’t think the season can be salvaged to the point of calling it a successful one unless they win the next three games (Illinois, at Maryland, Northwestern) and upset one of the big four they play in November (at Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, at Michigan State). I would say the odds of all that happening are less than 1%. Obviously, the best hope Rutgers fans can have is that the team show progress the rest of the season by winning 2-3 Big Ten games and being more competitive against the big four.
I pointed out after the Indiana loss that it was surprising how low expectations have become in just under a month, calling it depressing that some fans were okay with this team just being competitive against the Hoosiers. In year three of the Ash Era, things should be better than that.
5. If Chris Ash does not work out, who is your dream, realistic hire? Is there a specific coaching style you would like to see a new regime bring in?
A good portion of the fan base still has hopes that former head coach Greg Schiano, current Ohio State defensive coordinator, could return to bring the program back to respectability. I’m skeptical that would ever happen for many reasons. However, he is the only modern era coach that has won at Rutgers, so I understand the sentiment. His teams at Rutgers were built behind an aggressive defense and finding local talent that became playmakers on offense. I would love to see a return to that type of team, although I think a transition to the spread offense makes more sense over time.
In regard to a realistic dream coach I’d like to see considered, I would say that’s a very difficult question to answer when including the realistic part. I really like Mario Cristobal, who is a former Rutgers assistant, but I couldn’t see him leaving Oregon. In terms of a big name, Les Miles is an obvious one, but he is 69 years old and would probably cost $5 million. So realistically, I don’t think a dream coach exists.
Rutgers would need to make a smart choice and taking a chance on someone to a degree. It’s safe to say I wouldn’t want them to hire a lifetime coordinator and rather go with someone with head coaching experience, even if it is not from a power five program.
6. Game prediction?
It’s a tough call. Both teams can’t defend the run and Illinois has been more successful with their own ground game than Rutgers. They both struggle in similar areas, but the biggest discrepancy between them is turnover margin. Illinois leads the Big Ten at +5, granted in one less game, while Rutgers is tied for last with Nebraska at -6.
The reality though is that RU has an even turnover margin on the season aside from the debacle against Kansas. I think both teams will be motivated to get the victory and while the bye helps Illinois, I think Rutgers finally being competitive in a game after last week against Indiana gives them enough confidence to give them a slight edge at home. Rutgers 27, Illinois 24.
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