In this week’s Interview with Frenemies, we caught up with our good friends over at On The Banks to learn more about the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. In particular, we talked with Aaron Breitman, the sites managing editor.
Let’s get right into it!
1. Rutgers has shown a vast improvement over under Greg Schiano this fall despite everything working against them this offseason despite COVID. What do you believe has been the keys to Rutgers improvements this fall and has this team met or surpassed your expectations so far?
The major keys to this team being much improved starts and ends with coaching, culture and confidence.
Schiano assembled arguably the most qualified and best group of assistants in program history. The coaching staff has made a big difference, especially on the offensive end. Rutgers had scored 20 or more points in Big Ten play just 5 times in the previous four seasons, but have now accomplished that feat in every game this season and just scored 35 or more points in back to back games for the first time since 2008.
Slogans can be corny but Schiano’s program mantra of “Keep Chopping” has had a major impact on the psyche of this team. The players talk about chopping the moment often and it’s given them a singular focus on how to play to the best of their abilities.
A major change this season is the confidence of the players, as their body language and performance on the field have been dramatically improved. Players trust the coaches and the preparation they go through each week has instilled a belief in them that this team can win.
Rutgers is not a particularly good football team, but they are also not a team that opponents enjoy playing either. They’ll make mistakes, but they are playing extremely hard and the coaches have done a great job game planning week to week. Trick plays have become a normal occurrence. Depth is an issue and injuries are a concern ahead of this game, but the frontline talent on this team is much improved, in part due to transfers that are new to the roster and the development of veterans.
Overall, they have exceeded my own expectations this season and checked several boxes in doing so. They ended the 21 game Big Ten losing streak on the first try this season, the offense is dramatically improved and they’ve been competitive in every game. The most important thing in my mind was whether the team would improve as the season went along, as well as the staff being able to develop a good portion of the players. Rutgers has accomplished all of it.
2. The Rutgers offense has really taken a step forward and it has become a respectable offense this season, what has been the keys to success for the Scarlet Knights this season. How do you assess the game of Noah Vedral this season?
AB: Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson has been tremendous and has tailored the system in part around the current personnel. His spread offense employs a fast paced style that has helped to minimize the deficiencies of the offensive line. The development of the wide receivers in Bo Melton, Aron Cruickshank, and Shaheem Jones has been significant compared to years past.
Vedral has been a bit up and down, but he is understands the offensive system well and leads the huddle with confidence. While he has made some costly throws that resulted in two separate games with three interceptions, the Nebraska transfer has played relatively well and ranks in the top five of the Big Ten in several categories. His ability to make plays with his legs is key as well. He missed last week due to an undisclosed injury after playing the best game a Rutgers quarterback has since the 2014 season in the triple OT loss to Michigan.
3. That being said, the defense has continued to struggle for most of the season. Obviously Schiano is a defensive minded head coach and one of the best defensive coaches in the country. Despite allowing 35 points per game, what has the Scarlet Knights defense done well this season and that Penn State fans should watch for Saturday?
AB: They are much more aggressive in trying to swarm and strip the football, as well as in play calling by switching coverages around and blitzing much more than in previous seasons. They’ve been able to generate pressure on the quarterback at times, but need to do so more often long term. Depth along the defensive line is lacking and this group has slowed down some late in the season. Statistically, the defense hasn’t been very good, but they have stepped up in key moments in the second half in victories over Michigan State and Purdue. They certainly can get worn down so another key on Saturday is the offense sustaining drives to keep this group fresh late in the game.
4. How has the improved play of the Scarlet Knights this season changed the views of the program from the fan base that you’ve at least seen? How hopeful are fans for the program going forward and what do you think are realistic expectations for the next few seasons?
AB: Those of us that were around for Schiano’s first tenure are not surprised by how much this team has improved. However, it’s certainly happened quicker than anyone thought, especially with the unique offseason that COVID-19 brought.
The program that Schiano inherited was in disarray but he was extremely well prepared for his second go around. His ability to upgrade the frontline starters with several impact transfer players this season, as well as his relationships and credibility with New Jersey high school coaches has been another key. It’s allowed him and his staff to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail despite the pandemic. It has inspired hope the roster will be much improved from a talent and depth perspective sooner rather than later. We knew Schiano coming back instantly raised the long term floor for the program. The biggest question is what is the ceiling? I think it’s realistic to expect Rutgers to become a team competing for six wins and low level bowl games in the short term with the hope that they can move into the mid-to-top half of the Big Ten in five years on a somewhat consistent basis. Competing at the top of the division is something that Rutgers needs to the next decade to work towards, but it might be unrealistic to think that will happen even over that time frame.
5. What’s your prediction for this weekend’s contest? Rutgers has played Penn State tough the last few years and it seems the Nittany Lions tend to come out flat against them as well. That being said, do you think Rutgers can take down the Nittany Lions this weekend? If they do, what would such a victory do for the program going forward?
AB: Greg Schiano has exceeded expectations in the first season of his second tenure and a win over Penn State would make it a huge success. He is a master motivator and will have this team ready to play. RU has played with confidence and emotion this season, which is why Saturday should be no different. Don’t be surprised if Rutgers gets off to a good start in this game, as they are outscoring opponents 54-24 in the first quarter this season. Winning the turnover battle will be key and I expect a close game the entire way. Ultimately, Rutgers makes one more big play and pulls off the upset 34-31. It doesn’t matter what Penn State’s record is. The fact that they have blue blood DNA and a much more talented roster would make it a significant win. It would be the most satisfying Rutgers victory in years and help change perception of the program both within the conference and on the recruiting trail in a big way.
Thanks to Aaron for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Scarlet Knights for tomorrows game!