IT'S THAT TIME AGAIN. Your Nebraska Cornhuskers are hosting the Rutgers Scarlet Knights for the first time in nearly a century this weekend in Lincoln, as you'll be able to see it on ESPN2 at 11am Central.
What do we know about the Scarlet Knights as they make the trek West to the Great Plains? We talked to Kevin Recio, site manager of On The Banks, the Rutgers SBNation community.
I worked with Kevin during the B1G Conference Call this summer, and he's a great guy to collaborate with. Thanks to him, and follow both him and the OTB twitter to get their thoughts on the game tomorrow.
1. So, Rutgers in their maiden voyage into the Big Ten is 5-2, with some decent wins, one bad loss to Ohio St and one close loss to Penn State. Tell us about how the Scarlet Knights have gone this year so far in your eyes.
So far, it's been close to what most Rutgers fans have expected. The arrival of Ralph Friedgen has turned senior QB Gary Nova into a more consistent player, and every facet of the offense has improved. The rushing attack is averaging around 30 more yards per game and the passing game is leaning on the exceptional play of Leonte Carroo. Defensively, Rutgers has a much improved pass rush, but issues in the secondary still linger. I think the win-loss total was well within the realm of possibility but still surprising to some fans. The Ohio State loss definitely sent us back down to Earth however.
2. On offense, the Rutgers rushing attack seems to be a three headed monster between Desmon Peoples, Paul James and Justin Goodwin. How has this rushing attack become so well balanced?
I think there are two factors that have helped the rushing attack this season: better coaching and a veteran offensive line. The addition of Ralph Friedgen is apparent in his play-calling, as he planned on bringing balance to an offense that struggled with run production out of multiple backs in recent years. But new offensive line coach Mitch Browning has been another great addition by Coach Flood, as he's fixed fundamental issues that went unnoticed in the past. The veterans on the offensive line have also combined for 133 starts, so the experience definitely helps as the Knights make the leap to bigger and better defensive lines.
3. Gary Nova is going at a 61% clip for almost 1800 yards. In the 2 losses though, he’s seemed to have his worst 2 games. Does Rutgers go as Nova go? Or is there something more than just that?
He definitely has a huge effect on the game just from being the quarterback. If you take away one or two interceptions from the Penn State game, that loss very well could have been win. That was a game where the defense put the offense in a position for victory, but the offense just couldn't capitalize. The Ohio State loss was completely different. Nova didn't particularly have his best performance, but he was far from the scapegoat. Nova wasn't to blame for J.T. Barrett shredding the defense.
4. Leonte Carroo is the man getting the ball when Nova throws it, having over double the catches as the #2 man, Janarion Grant. What’s the secret to the pass catchers? Do you expect someone else to step up?
Rutgers struggled with injuries at the wide receiver position before the season even started, leaving Carroo and TE Tyler Kroft as the only pass-catchers who entered the season with legitimate experience. Kroft has been disappointing through seven games considering he led the team in receptions last year, although teams have admittedly sent extra defenders his way to limit his production. Kansas transfer Andrew Turzilli has emerged as a big-play threat for Gary Nova, as his seven catches on the season have resulted in three touchdowns and a 41.9 yard/catch average. Wideout Andre Patton is getting healthier as well, and if Janarion Grant can learn to be more consistent catching the ball, the Fridge will most certainly get him the ball more to take advantage of his athleticism.
5. The Defense isn’t bad per se, but the Ohio St game didn’t help their stats at all. Outside of that game, how has the Knights D gone this season?
The defense has been boom or bust all season long. Rutgers is seventh in the nation in sacks, as the defensive line has a crazy amount of depth from a combination of veterans and young talent. The line is anchored by former five-star recruit Darius Hamilton and breakout player of the year candidate Kemoko Turay, who is third in the B1G in total sacks and leads the nation in blocked kicks. As good as the defensive line has been, the secondary has been as bad at times. 2013 was a campaign to forget for the Rutgers defensive backfield, and it seems that the unit is suffering from lingering effects from last season. Opposing quarterbacks have been taking advantage of open space downfield, leaving the Scarlet Knights with atrocious big-play numbers.
6. We talked in the B1G Conference Call about Kyle Flood and whether he should have come back. Now it looks like it was a good decision to keep him in Pistcataway. Do you agree?
It's difficult to say what the future holds for Kyle Flood. It's nice that he preserves the tradition that Greg Schiano started in the early 2000s, and he's a coach that still holds his players to a high standard academically and personally. He's shown that he can recruit at a high level when the team is winning, as he held on to the nationally-ranked 2012 class and had another great group of prospects in 2013 until they all decommitted simultaneously. The issue is whether or not he can elevate his coaching to a more competitive level. Since he took over the program before the 2012 season, he's only beaten two FBS schools with winning records (Syracuse and Cincinnati, 2012). I hold out hope that Kyle Flood is the guy to lead Rutgers to glory, but I'm still skeptical that he's capable of actually doing it.
7. Large trip from the most Eastern school in the Big Ten to the most Western school in the Big Ten. Even with some tickets returned, think many fans make the trip to check out Lincoln?
In the preseason, tickets sold for the Nebraska game was more than Maryland and a few hundred less than the Navy game despite being almost 1000 miles further away, so there's definitely a lot of interest. I would expect somewhere around 2,000 Rutgers fans, as an uneducated guess.
8. Tell us about anyone else that we should watch Saturday that you have not talked about in the above questions yet.
Steve Longa plays weakside linebacker and has speed to burn. I predict that he'll meet up with Ameer Abdullah quite often on Saturday, and it'll be interesting to see if he can limit Abdullah's penchant for big plays. Also keep an eye on WR John Tsimis, whom Nova likes to throw to in clutch situations.
9. Prediction time. Tell us how you see the game unfolding, and who you think will walk away with the victory in Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
The spread opened at +17 for the Knights, and that seemed fair considering the previous week in Columbus. Memorial Stadium is just as tough to win in as Ohio Stadium, so there's no doubt Rutgers faces an uphill battle. I don't think it'll be as ugly as last Saturday against the Buckeyes, but I don't think RU has the horses to pull off the upset. Nebraska wins, 41-27.