Oh, Rutgers. Poor, sweet, Rutgers.
If this were happening to almost any other Big Ten program, it would be tragic. But when it happens to you, Big Ten Powerhouse Rutgers, our little brother we love to laugh at--oh, it's high comedy. It's implosion-as-art-form. It would be enough if Kyle Flood had been forced to kick a half-dozen players off the team the morning of its season opener. It would be enough for Rutgers to lose in awful, soul-crushing fashion to a Wazzu team, reeling in its own right. It would be enough for Rutgers' best offensive weapon to get suspended for misdeeds that would be almost risible if they weren't so heinously contemptible. It would be enough for Kyle Flood, perhaps the least inconsicuous person in the planet, to have his super-secret-spy-moves blow up in his face, and end up suspended for three games. But all this? Dayenu.
Anyway, apparently there's also a football game on Saturday, and there's more to Rutgers than just a rash of hilarious headlines. There's also a football team--or at least, the remnants of one. Hey, Penn State can comiserate--we've played with a depleted roster, too. But at least ours wasn't inadvertently self-imposed.
Anyway, schtick aside, Aaron Breitman was generous enough to spend some of his time answering our questions about Rutgers, and he's responded with thoughtfulness and eloquence that Kyle Flood wishes he could've supplied on behalf of Nadir Barnwell. Breitman heads the Rutgers coverage on SBNation's On The Banks, a site that offers trenchant Rutgers commentary and delightful derangement in the comment section. So, you know, go read it. He also asked me for some insight on Penn State and oh boy, did I have some insight for him.
On to the questions!
Black Shoe Diaries: Between mass player expulsions, allegedly interfering in players' academcs, seemingly regular player arrests, and what portends to be a miserable 2015 campaign, there's no way that Kyle Flood survives the season, right?
On The Banks: Since you asked me this question, Kyle Flood has been suspended for three games due to improper contact with a professor regarding a player's grade. It turned out to be much more than just an email, as was originally reported. I'll spare you the details here but if readers want more information, they can find it here.
The fan base is still coming to terms with Flood's actions in this incident, with most feeling some level of betrayal. Personally, I have believed in Flood since he became head coach and he has represented the football program and university with class, up until this point. When the news of this investigation first broke, there was a big backlash towards the media for making something out of nothing. As we now know, there was definitely more to it and Flood was brazen, reckless and plain dumb in how he operated in this case. While no one was happy about all of the recent arrests, Flood did suspend and then dismiss every player up to the Carroo arrest. Everyone agrees it's not a good look to have so many players arrested, especially the timing of it, but Flood handled it fairly well publicly.
BSD: Speaking of those suspensions, Rutgers appears to be heading to State College without perhaps its best offensive and defensive players. What would the (potential) losses of Leonte Carroo and (due to an injury) Darius Hamilton mean to Rutgers on Saturday, and what can you tell us about their statuses?
OTB: There is no chance that either Carroo or Hamilton plays on Saturday. Carroo pleaded not guilty to his simple assault charge on Wednesday [ed. note: Carroo reportedly assaulted an ex-girlfriend outside of High Point Solutions stadium following Rutgers' loss to Washington State] and the next court date isn't until October 1st. Hamilton is listed as out on the injury report and has been since the start of the season. The extent of his injury is unknown other than it being the lower body. He was been seen walking with a knee brace. In terms of impact, they are our best player on each side of the ball. Hamilton's absence was felt last week, as our pass rush was ineffective and at times, non-existent. We only registered one sack and four quarterback hurries. Granted, Washington State threw quick passes most of the time, but the lack of pass rush was alarming. Hamilton creates space and opportunities on the line for others when he is in there, so his loss is huge. As for Carroo, he is clearly the best receiver in the Big Ten and has 22 TD's in 28 career games. He is a gamer and brings the offense to another level when he is on the field. He is also tight with starting quarterback Chris Laviano, which might effect his comfort level in a hostile environment, being without his best option. It should be noted Carroo and Hamilton are two of our four captains. To Hamilton's credit he has been vocal and involved on the sideline, coaching up his teammates.
BSD: After struggling a little bit early against Norfolk State, and losing to a Washington State program that had just lost at home to a mediocre FCS program, how have Rutgers fans adjusted their expectations? What would've been considered a "good season" two weeks ago, and what could salvage the season now?
OTB: The fan base was pretty much across the board was thinking 6-6 was a worst case scenario, with the potential for 8 regular season wins within reach. Now, some may consider actually finishing the regular season, like fielding a team for all twelve games, as an accomplishment. There is definitely a contingent of fans that feel the sky is falling and the season is already over. I still feel a winning record or 6-6 and a bowl berth is possible. The Penn State game is must win for us. Lose and aside from our next game against Kansas, it's very possible the wheels fall off and we lose the next six games in a row after that. Kansas, Indiana, Army and Maryland are all winnable games. The best opportunity on our schedule to get a win after those teams is Penn State. That would give us six wins and a bowl berth, which with what we have gone through the past month, might feel like the Super Bowl! Of course, I could be in complete denial and if the drama continues to get worse, we could finish with only 2-3 wins.
BSD: Speaking of last week's game, it seemed like Rutgers was its own worst enemy, with backbreaking penalty calls taking multiple touchdowns off the board and the defense failing on 3rd and 4th downs on Wazzu's last couple drives. To what extent was last week an aberration, or a trap game, and to what extent will Rutgers' struggles a week ago stick with them throughout the year?
OTB: Good question and in terms of the penalties, I am hoping it is an aberration. They committed 11 penalties in both of their first two games. Last week, they had two touchdowns called back in the 4th quarter due to holding calls. The offensive line has three new starters and other than the penalties, have played relatively well. However, playing against the Penn State defensive line in a hostile environment will be a huge test for them. Turnovers were a big issue last week as well, as Laviano threw 1 INT and fumbled in WSU territory. Running back Josh Hicks also fumbled on a reception in the 4th quarter. They were costly mistakes that really should have prevented them from even having a chance to win at the end of the game.
In terms of not being able to stop WSU late in the game, our secondary is still a major work in progress. After the arrests and suspensions, our top four cornerbacks on the depth chart are one redshirt freshman and three true freshman. WSU was the worst possible match-up for them, especially in only their second game. There is talent in the secondary and the hope is they will get better each week. A major concern that arose from Saturday was our lack of pass rush. It was a combination of WSU's offensive line neutralizing our pass rush, a lack of blitz and pressure calls from our defensive coordinator and many quick passes that didn't give our front seven a chance. Penn State is actually a much better match-up for our defense in terms on what schemes you run and game plan on offense.
BSD: Janarion Grant has burst out in the first couple weeks, highlighting Rutgers' committment to special teams play. How has Rutgers managed to so consistently excel on that side of the ball, and what else should Penn State worry about when it comes to special teams play?
OTB: Grant had a good year last season as a returner and was voted 1st team on many preseason Big Ten all-conference teams this summer. He has exploded this season and was the only reason we had a chance to beat WSU after so many mistakes. He can change a game every time he touches the ball, including on offense as a wide receiver. With Carroo out, Grant has a opportunity to really take over and become a star. He set the all-time record at Rutgers with 337 all purpose yards in the game last week. Look for offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels to get Grant involved early and often. I know Penn State has been successful with neutralizing kick returns thus far, so that will be a key. I figure punt returns is where Grant will have a chance to run one back this week.
As for the rest of our special teams, Rutgers has led the nation in blocked kicks with 42 since the 2009 season. They have had at least 4 blocks per season dating back to 2007. There have been several close calls so far in the first two games, so be on alert, as they will be coming hard this weekend. Blocking kicks and strong special teams play has been a staple of Rutgers football dating back to former coach Greg Schiano. They practice blocking kicks every day and also put their best athletes on special teams. This focus has won them a fair share of games over the years.
BSD: Last year, it seemed like Rutgers was staking the future of its program on a rivalry with Penn State--between Kyle Flood refusing to say "Penn State," a relativedly one-sided battle of words in the media, and the atmosphere for what was RU's first Big Ten game. After last year's game, and now that things have regularized a bit, how are fans settling in--does Saturday's tilt still mean that much to Rutgers?
OTB: With all due respect, I disagree that the battle of words was one sided. James Franklin rustled a lot of feathers with his "I consider New Jersey in-state" and "they might as well shut them down because they don't have a chance" comments. That was last May, before Flood ever made his comments about "that team from Pennsylvania". Now I'll say Flood hasn't done much to prove Franklin wrong, which is a frustration of our fan base.
Truthfully, this game absolutely means more to Rutgers fans than other games. We understand we are perceived as the little brother and last year's loss was especially painful. A big reason was the way we lost and how we fell apart at the end. But even if we were blown out, the feelings of dislike towards Penn State and wanting this to become a true rivalry would have been the same. We have a thing for Maryland also, but it pales in comparison. Penn State fans have been very supportive of us this week on our site and I wanted to say thank you. I think over time it could end up being a fun match-up for years to come (I won't use rivalry for your sake for now.)
BSD: The line for this game is Penn State -10. [ed. note: as of press time, it's -9] In order for Rutgers to pull off the upset, what will need to go right for the Knights?
OTB: In order for Rutgers to pull the upset, they have to win the game in the trenches and play mistake free football. Our defensive line needs to put constant pressure on Hackenberg and get to him early. The pressure will also help our inexperienced secondary. On offense, we need to run the ball effectively. You will see a rotation of Josh Hicks, Paul James and Robert Martin. All three have big play potential and can bruise their way through the line, picking up tough yards. The key is getting ahead early so they can continue to pound it on the ground with the goal to wear down your defense in the 4th quarter. Expect a conservative passing game with Laviano making only his second start and first on the road. He did play some at Nebraska last year and had a 40 yard scramble while playing smart. It was frustrating last week that Laviano barely threw the ball downfield. Ultimately, Rutgers will need a couple of big plays on special teams combined with an effective pass rush and a consistently strong running game to win.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
OTB: I know both teams are reeling in their own ways, but I think it will be a high energy, hard fought game. I think Rutgers will bring everything they have and are highly motivated. They have been talking about an "us against the world" attitude this week with all the controversy surrounding the program. They will want to win for their coach, who in their eyes was only trying to help a player who was struggling academically. I wrote earlier this week, I think hitting the road and getting out of town for the first time all season is exactly what this team needs. Being in a hostile environment, they will either come together or fall apart. They also are looking for payback from last year's bitter defeat. Rutgers will need to play smart and stay focused to have a chance. I see this being close the whole way and it coming down to one or two plays late game. There is a strong sentiment among our fan base that our season will end up going the way the outcome of this game goes. I think Rutgers pulls the upset and wins 24-20 with a late touchdown run, similar to how Penn State won last season.
Thanks again, Aaron, and remember to read On The Banks today (to read my answers to Aaron's questions), and all season long (to stay up-to-date on Rutgers football). And remember, folks, it's easy to take these pot-shots at Rutgers, but it's all in good fun. Let's not embarrass ourselves in the comments--here or at OTB--like I assuredly have and will.