Rutgers, like Penn State, stands atop the Big Ten East with an early 2-0 record. Unlike Penn State, one of those wins came at the expense of a nominal Power Conference team, beating Washington State in Pullman. The early results, and the rest of the Big Ten's well-publicized struggles, have Rutgers fans thinking that their first year in the conference could be a special one. Then again, nobody ever confused Rutgers fans for a fanbase overflowing with humility.
But there's more to Rutgers than a pair of wins and a rivalry they seek desperately. And for that, we're grateful to Kevin Recio, of fellow SBN blog On The Banks, who answered my (admittedly patronizing) questions. I strongly recommend checking the site today--and, of course throughout the season, but especially today--when Kevin posts my answers to his questions. To make a long story short, I might not make it out of Piscataway alive. Seriously, though, they do a great job over there. Come for the flame war I will have instigated, stay for the #content.
Anyway, on to the questions!
Black Shoe Diaries: I'm seeing a lot of Rutgers fans refer to Saturday as the biggest game in Rutgers history. Isn't that crazy talk? I mean, 2006 Louisville did happen, right? I'll try and put it bluntly: Do Rutgers fans realize that this rivalry only exists to them?
On The Banks: I think a lot of us do realize that it might be a little one-sided. But you have to step outside of your own fandom to see where we're coming from. A couple of years ago, Rutgers fans were looking at a conference schedule that included games against Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, and SMU (probably not all in the same season at least). To be able to join the Big Ten and play a program close to home like Penn State is like hitting the lottery, and you could say the fanbase is a little excited about it. Furthermore, there's a contingent of RU fans who are old enough to remember those old games between the two schools, so this game rekindles the animosity towards the Nittany Lions. Will this Saturday be the biggest in school history? I'm not sure about that. Depending on how the rest of the season goes, this game might just be a footnote. But as of right now, all of us are counting down to 8 PM on Saturday night.
BSD: Kyle Flood made a splash by hiring Ralph Friedgen as his offensive coordinator. Through two games, how's that been paying off?
OTB: The Scarlet Knights are leading the conference in pass efficiency, fifth in total offense (ahead of Michigan, Maryland, Ohio State, and Wisconsin), and second in scoring offense. Even the most homerish of RU faithfuls did not see that playing out with Gary Nova at quarterback. Of course it's only been two games, but the effects of Ralph Friedgen on the offense are clearly paying off extremely well. This has been especially true for Paul James, who is leading the conference in scoring as well. Penn State has a much better defense than Howard and Washington State, so it'll be interesting to see what the Fridge has in store.
BSD: It seems like the Knights' offense has outpaced its defense so far. Where is that unit vulnerable, and what will it have to improve upon to slow down Christian Hackenberg?
OTB: The secondary remains a concern. After the unit gave up the most passing yards in school history last season, the defensive backs are still giving up big cushions to receivers and have a penchant for missing tackles. Statistically, Howard did not produce a ton of yards through the air, but there were lots of dropped balls, including one pass that was a gimme for a touchdown. With Hackenberg's pass attempt numbers, the corners will have to improve quickly to stop receivers from running free in the next level of the defense.
BSD: What under-the-radar players should Penn State fans be on the lookout for, as X-factors for Rutgers in this game?
OTB: Defensive end Kemoko Turay is quickly turning heads as a redshirt freshman. He only has one year of organized high-school football on his resume, but Turay already has three sacks through three games. Even though he's a bit light at 235, his 6'6" frame has speed and strength to beat opposing linemen off the line.
BSD: It seems, from an outsider's perspective, like the Big Ten is kind of using Rutgers and Maryland for the TV markets, and then setting them up to fail by plopping them in a division with Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Penn State. Is there a path to long term success in the B1G for Rutgers?
OTB: Other than winning, I don't really see any other path. That might sound daunting with that lineup you mentioned, but those programs aren't exactly lighting the world on fire, and the Big Ten is by all accounts a weak conference at the moment. Kyle Flood may or may not be the guy who brings them to the conference championship game, but I think the program is in great shape and can compete at the highest level with the right coach. The athletic department was willing to pay Greg Schiano $2.5 million per year with a bunch of mediocre seasons after the 2006 campaign, so I imagine with larger paychecks coming from the Big Ten, the athletic department would be willing to open up the wallet even more for a big name, or at least put in place lots of incentives for up and coming coaches.
BSD: There are going to be plenty of Penn State fans in Piscataway on Saturday. Where are the best places for them to grab a beer or a bite to eat near campus?
OTB: For most of the postgame entertainment, you'll have to cross the river into New Brunswick. The famous RU Hungry grease trucks on College Ave have been featured on Man v. Food, and the Fat Darrell (chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, french fries, marinara sauce) was voted #1 by Maxim some time ago. The most popular place is Stuff Yer Face, a bar and restaurant that specializes in strombolis. They don't take reservations and it fills up quickly, but you can find plenty of other bars on or around George Street, including a nice craft brew pub called Harvest Moon Brewery and Cafe. If you want to make it easy on yourself, there's also a World of Beer there as well.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up
OTB: Really tough to gauge, which makes it more exciting. Hackenberg is going up against a weak secondary, but the Nittany Lion offensive line hasn't exactly tempered concerns with only one returning starter. Seven sacks from Rutgers through two games makes me think they'll find a way to cause some havoc in the backfield. Paul James might get bottled up in the run game, but he's proven to be an effective pass-catcher as well. I think it'll be 21-24 with some fourth-quarter drama, RU on top.
Thanks again, Kevin, and remember to read On The Banks all season long for the best Rutgers coverage on the interwebs.