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Interviews with Football Frenemies: Rutgers Scarlet Knights Edition

Rutgers hasn’t shown the growth this year that its fans had hoped for.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This season hasn’t gone exactly as planned for many Penn State fans, but the team still is on pace for nine wins and a pretty good bowl game. We can’t say the same for poor Rutgers, as the Scarlet Knights have suffered nine straight losses, included blow-out defeats to the likes of Kansas and Buffalo. That’s not great for a program that is supposed to steadily be getting better under third-year head coach Chris Ash.

Rutgers has shown a little life lately, as it led in the fourth quarter against Big Ten West champion Northwestern, but this team isn’t ready to consistently compete with the big boys yet. On Saturday, Rutgers fans will be looking for positives, while Penn State fans will be hoping their quarterback stays healthy.

For more on the Scarlet Knights, we spoke to Aaron Breitman from SB Nation’s Rutgers blog, On the Banks. Thanks to Aaron for giving us some insight on the Knights!

Black Shoe Diaries: Rutgers fans were very excited about Artur Sitkowski at the start of the season, but he hasn’t produced at a high level. Do you see head coach Chris Ash making a change at quarterback before the end of the season, or is Sitkowski showing enough promise that he’s still the leader of the future?

On the Banks: Sitkowski is the future and Ash has stuck with him throughout his struggles. I think it makes sense because it’s obviously a lost season and Rutgers needs to develop a quarterback. He has all the tools and needs to gain experience more than anything. The other issue is Sitkowski has had very little help. The pass protection hasn’t been great and the receivers have been very bad. He also isn’t helped by Rutgers constantly falling way behind and it’s forcing him into situations that are difficult for any quarterback, let alone a true freshman. Offensive coordinator John McNulty has started to adjust the game plan for Sitkowski to incorporate more short passes into the offense and that’s helped keep him on his feet and get into a rhythm at times. Sitkowski has shown maturity throughout the season and has taken a ton of hits, but keeps getting back up. His toughness and leadership qualities are strong. I think he will develop into a good quarterback and he will learn a lot from this season.

BSD: Speaking of Ash, what’s his future look like? The program appears to have taken a step backwards this season after winning three conference games a year ago.

OTB: Ash has taken about a mile step backwards, at least in terms of how most Rutgers fans feel about this season. Rutgers lost to Kansas, Buffalo, and Illinois by a combined 91 points. The 1-9 record is obviously horrible, but it’s the way Rutgers lost those early games that made fans lose hope in the Ash era overall. While Ash has taken a more proactive role in the defense and Rutgers has been more competitive to a degree of late, I’ve stuck to comparing this team to preseason expectations. Everyone expected Rutgers to at least equal last season’s win total of four games with the hope they could win six this season and make a bowl. Ash himself said making a bowl was a fair expectation in his third season. The fact that this team is so much worse than last year is a major red flag.

While the team was very inexperienced coming into the season (72 percent are redshirt sophomores or younger), the most alarming development has been the huge step back by the defense. The majority of starters returned, but the defense went from being a solid unit last year to at times being unable to tackle anyone this season. They allowed 400 yards rushing to Kansas. The fact that Ash is a defensive coach made it all the more concerning. A lot of fans want a change made, but with a $9.8 million buyout after this season, it seems unlikely that will happen. In terms of hope, there isn’t much left among the fan base.

BSD: Isaih Pacheco has take over as the lead back lately and he’s now scored a touchdown in three of his last four games. That 80-yard dash against Michigan was particularly impressive. Does the freshman have what it takes to be the long-term bell cow for Rutgers?

OTB: I think he does and he is physically advanced for his age. Pacheco also plays with a passion and energy that makes him extremely likable. A major frustration of Rutgers fans this season is the staff’s reluctance to use Pacheco more frequently. Ash’s explanation after one game that he had to check with the offensive staff to see why he got so few carries, which was infuriating to hear from the head coach. Pacheco is a power runner who you saw in the 80-yard touchdown run against Michigan that he does have breakaway speed, the longest run that stout defense has allowed all season. It will be interesting to see how he performs when he is given 20-plus carries, as I suspect he could be a back that gets better as the game goes on and he is in rhythm. After losing Saquon Barkley and Jonathan Taylor as former commits, Rutgers fans are hoping Pacheco can soften the pain of those losses with an outstanding career of his own.

BSD: Raheem Blackshear was used sparingly as a receiver last season, but in 2018 he’s got 15 more catches than anyone else on the team. Does offensive coordinator John McNulty look to get the ball to Blackshear as often as possible, or is his usage more a product of Sitkowski’s limitations as a passer?

OTB: Blackshear was labeled the best play-maker on the offense before the season and it’s been true all fall. Part of that is because the receivers have been terrible dropping multiple passes and struggling to gain separation on a consistent basis. In addition, tight end Jerome Washington, who led Rutgers in receiving yards last season, has been injured since the early part of the season. McNulty has tried to get Blackshear 20 or more touches a game and as the season has progressed, it’s come more so in the short passing game. Part of that is it suits Blackshear better to work in open space and with a head start, as rushing him up the middle repeatedly produced little results. He is a quick and crafty speed back, which made it frustrating to watch him get so many early-season carries straight at the heart of the opposing defense. His ability to catch and run has certainly helped Sitkowski as the season has progressed.

BSD: Senior safety Saquan Hampton is tied for the team lead in interceptions and is second on the team in solo tackles. How important is he to slowing down Trace McSorley on Saturday?

OTB: Hampton has been playing better and better as the season has progressed. He is a four-year starter and it’s great to see him finish his career on a strong note. I’m not sure how much he can slow McSorley down himself, but he is obviously a key in preventing big plays. The secondary was supposed to be a strength this season and while the group has suffered a lot of injuries, Hampton has been a reliable play-maker.

BSD: Last year Rutgers as a team allowed 4.6 yards per rush by opponents. This season, the Knights are allowing 5.6 yards per rush. What’s caused the team to become so vulnerable on the ground?

OTB: They lost Sebastian Joseph and Kemoko Turay to the NFL and depth along the defensive line is not close to where it needs to be. They’ve been unable to generate any consistent push in run defense, as well as generate any pressure on pass plays. While senior Kevin Wilkins is a good player and redshirt freshman Mike Tverdov has had a great first season (four sacks), there simply haven’t been enough guys making plays on a consistent basis. The linebackers have been a disappointment this season as well and are part of the issue the run defense has been so porous.

BSD: The Knights are big underdogs at home this weekend. How do you see the game going for Rutgers?

OTB: Rutgers struggles against the run and mobile quarterbacks, so I expect Penn State to have success on the ground as the game progresses and the defense wears down. I think Rutgers will keep it close early on due to the emotions of senior day and the fact that they have played better in the first half of games lately. The biggest question in this game isn’t the outcome, but how many Penn State fans fill the stands at Stadium. I’m thinking between 20,000 and 25,000 are there to witness James Franklin keeping his foot on the gas pedal en route to a 45-10 victory.

Thanks again to Aaron for taking the time to answer our questions. For more on Rutgers athletics all year round, be sure to check out On the Banks!