Rutgers (1–7, 0–5 Big Ten) has not won a conference game this season after winning three last year and four contests overall. Former Wisconsin co-offensive coordinator Chris Ash has seen both sides of the ball struggle as the program has appeared to take a step backward in his third season.
Both Rutgers’s offense and defense rank among the worst in the nation. If Wisconsin does not put up 50 points and over 350 yards rushing on Saturday, it may be a disappointment.
- Scoring offense: 15.1 points per game (129th in nation)
- Rushing offense: 131 yards per game (104th in nation)
- Passing offense: 138.9 yards per game (121st in the nation)
- Total offense: 269.9 yards per game (128th in nation)
- Third-down conversions: 34-of-114 (30 percent, 129th in nation)
Since scoring 35 points on Texas State in the season opener, Rutgers has not scored more than 17 in a game over the last six contests. The quarterbacks have thrown only three touchdown passes AND A COMBINED 17 INTERCEPTIONS. Former Wisconsin recruiting target and former Miami commit Artur Sitkowski has completed only 49.5 percent of his passes for 839 yards with those three touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Raheem Blackshear leads the team in rushing (399 yards, 4.4 yards per attempt, two touchdowns) and in receptions (27 catches, only 5.7 yards per, one touchdown). Freshman Isaih Pacheco averages 4.8 yards per carry on 62 opportunities and had a 44-yard touchdown against Northwestern.
- Scoring defense: 33.8 points per game (103rd in nation)
- Rushing defense: 224.0 yards per game (115th in nation)
- Passing defense: 183.5 yards per game (20th in nation)
- Total defense: 407.5 yards per game (79th in nation)
- Third-down conversions: 54-of-122 (44 percent)
When asked what he sees on film from Rutgers’s front seven, redshirt junior left tackle Jon Dietzen noted the Scarlet Knights’ front.
“I think their d-line is probably the strongest part of their defense,” Dietzen said. “They got some guys that can get some good extension, and they play low and they play fast.”
Sophomore defensive end Elom Lumor leads the team in tackles for loss (6.0) and sacks (3.5), with redshirt senior end Kevin Wilkins second on the unit in the former category (4.5). Redshirt freshman defensive end Mike Tverdov has also recorded 3.5 tackles for loss with three sacks.
Senior linebacker Trevor Morris leads the team in tackles (71) and also has four pass break-ups, four quarterback hurries, and 1.5 sacks.
Junior strong safety Damon Hayes leads the team in interceptions (two of the team’s four) to go along with 45 tackles while freshman starting corner Avery Young is first on the team in pass break-ups (six).
Kicker Justin Davidovicz has connected on seven of eight field goals this season, including a long of 52 yards.
Punter Adam Korsak averages 43 yards per boot with a long of 79 and 13 downed inside the 20.
Rutgers has only attempted seven punt returns all season, with Young averaging 6.8 yards per attempt on six returns. Kickoff return-wise, Pacheco averages 20.7 yards per attempt.
A 1-7 start is not what Rutgers wanted (obviously), but from covering this team, what is the general feeling among the program and fans on where it’s heading with head coach (and former Wisconsin co-defensive coordinator) Chris Ash?
Let’s cut to the chase, Jake. Rutgers has been awful this season and after blowout losses to Kansas and Illinois by a combined 62 points, rightfully deserve the title of worst power five program in the country. They also lost to Buffalo by four touchdowns and it would have been worse had the Bulls not shown mercy. After taking a step forward and winning three Big Ten games last season, this year has been a disaster. This is an inexperienced team with 73 percent of the roster redshirt sophomores or younger, but it’s been the way they’ve been losing that’s so disturbing. Granted, they played Northwestern to the wire in their last game and have now lost to them and Indiana by one score. However, those moments have been fleeting and with expectations for 5-6 wins this season, coming close in two winnable conference games isn’t an acceptable result when you are 1-7.
Fans and longtime supporters are very upset and rightfully so. I think Ash is a standup guy and has improved facilities, infrastructure, academics and deserves credit for that. However, this team is poorly coached and the defense, his speciality, has been abysmal this season despite having the majority of the starters back from last year when they were respectable. Ash has also refused to take ownership of the offense, regularly deferring to his offensive staff in postgame questions, which is alarming.
The majority of fans want a change made after the season but with a 9.8 million dollar buyout for Ash’s final four years on his contract, that seems unlikely. Recruiting is suffering and the month of November won’t help. Rutgers plays Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State after this game against Wisconsin. Perhaps a four-game scoreless sweep and epically embarrassing losses would get enough big money donors to act, but Rutgers also doesn’t have a lot of those. However, season tickets are already down and actual attendance is much worse. With Ash probably returning, it would result in a hopeless offseason and fans would have a bleak outlook on his fourth season.
We always ask about injuries. Who could or will be out, who is returning, and what could the impact be?
Rutgers has had its fair share of injuries this season. Cornerback Blessuan Austin is the team’s best player and had season ending surgery on his ACL for a second consecutive year, this time only playing one half in this campaign. Another cornerback, Tre Avery, is a former Ohio State signee and has been lauded by his coaches but has barely played this season due to an injury. He may return this week but we’ve been hearing that since September. Defensive lineman Tijuan Mason has been out for the season since the opener as well. Other defensive players have been banged up, but hopefully benefitted from the bye week.
On offense, tight end Jerome Washington, who is the best threat in the passing game, has missed the past few games with injury. Running back Jon Hilliman missed the last game as well. The offensive line has had some issues all season, as star left tackle Tariq Cole has said to have been playing hurt all year and has struggled at times. Other lineman have missed time here and there.
I’m sorry for not having specifics on who may exactly return this week, but Ash does his best to keep the injury status of players who aren’t declared out for a significant time as secretive as possible. The optimist view is that Rutgers will be as healthy for the Wisconsin game since they’ve probably been since the opener.
Looking at Rutgers’ offensive stats, they rank among the worst in the FBS in some major categories. What has contributed to the struggles on offense?
The offense has been awful ever since Ash arrived. Rutgers is on its ninth offensive coordinator in nine years. However, this season’s coordinator is John McNulty, who started this viscous cycle when he left that position in 2008 to spend the next decade in the NFL. He led the best three-year period for Rutgers offensively in the mid to late 2000’s, including the first season any FBS team ever had a 3,000-yard passer, a 2,000-yard rusher and two 1,000 receivers.
Unfortunately, this edition of the Rutgers offense is nowhere near as explosive. True freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski has struggled badly at times and leads the country in interceptions. He has shown flashes and I think he’ll ultimately be a good quarterback, but not having any help around him has not served him well this season.
The wide receiver group has been been bad overall. They struggle to gain separation and have dropped a lot of passes this season. The offensive line has struggled in pass coverage and failed to get a consistent push in the run game. Converting on third down and producing big plays has been an issue all season. It’s a very bad offense, Jake, and one that hasn’t scored more than 17 points since the opening game of the season.
When speaking with starting left tackle Jon Dietzen on Tuesday, he believed the defensive line is the strongest part of the Rutgers unit. Against the pass the defense statistically looks solid, but going up versus the run the Scarlet Knights ranks 115th in the nation. Who should Wisconsin fans know about for Saturday’s game?
Rutgers has been awful against the run this season. They allowed 400 yards rushing to Kansas. Illinois also made it look easy in the run game against this defense. Ash likes to cite that it’s typical just 3-4 big plays surrendered and if you take those out of the average, Rutgers is giving up less than four yards a carry. That has been the case at times but the problem is Rutgers gives up three-to-four huge plays every game. I’m talking 150-200 yards worth in those few plays.
Depth is a major issue on defense and the line has the least of any position group. Senior Kevin Wilkins can play any position on the line and has been his usual solid self. Redshirt freshman Mike Tverdov has been a pleasant surprise and has 3 sacks this season. However, there simply aren’t enough playmakers on the line and they haven’t generated much pressure or push against opposing offensive lines all season. The problems are deeper though, as a mostly veteran linebacking core has been extremely disappointing as well.
Rutgers fans are dreading this matchup because the likelihood of having to watch former commit Jonathan Taylor shred the defense for a record day may be too much for them to take in what has been a nightmare season.
What are your expectations for this game and your game prediction?
There is a sentiment among some that Rutgers can keep this game close because Wisconsin is banged up and doesn’t have an explosive offense. I do not agree and the fact is Rutgers has failed to be competitive in any of the prior matchups against the Badgers. I don’t buy into the notion that since Rutgers played Northwestern tough, they have a chance against Wisconsin since they lost to the Wildcats last week. The Badgers’ offensive line is going to bully the Rutgers D and I think they will run rampant all day. As for the offense, I do hope to see some improvement after the bye week, but I’m skeptical they can be productive enough to keep the game legitimately close. I don’t think this will be an epic blowout, but I think Wisconsin wins handedly, 38-7.