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Interviews from Outside Nittany Nation: Rutgers Edition

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Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It seems the only questions asked by Penn State fans these days are “What do the Lions have to do to earn a spot in the Playoff” and “How much does to non-stop flights to Indianapolis cost?” There might be one more in there if only Saquon Barkley hadn’t played himself out of Heisman consideration last Saturday. The point is, no one seems very concerned with this upcoming game against Rutgers, especially after the Scarlet Knights were blown out 49-0 by lowly Michigan State six days ago.

That game did a lot to make fans forget about how competitive Rutgers has been against the middle tier of the Big Ten this season. Sure, there are some major blowouts on the slate, but there are also close losses against Iowa, Minnesota, and Indiana. Two of those teams are ones that the Lions themselves had trouble putting away.

Plus, this will be Penn State’s fifth road game of the season. Here’s how the previous four went: heartbreak at Pittsburgh, blowout at Michigan, tied at halftime with Purdue, and down by 10 in the third quarter at Indiana. The Lions prevailed in those last two, but those road performances could lead to a closer-than-expected affair in Piscataway this weekend.

What about the Knights, though? Is Rutgers ready to face another stiff challenge or are they wilting away late in head coach Chris Ash’s first year at the helm? For answers to those questions and more, we interview Aaron Breitman of On the Banks, SB Nation’s Rutgers blog.

Black Shoe Diaries: Everyone likes to look at Rutgers’s shutout losses against Michigan and Ohio State, but the Knights have been competitive this season against the middle tier of the Big Ten. The Knights had a chance to win against Iowa, Minnesota, and Indiana, but then Michigan State happened. In a game that some thought was a possible victory for the Knights, what went wrong?

On the Banks: Rutgers has been plagued by awful starts in the first quarter of games this season. The defense has been ineffective in stopping the opposition from scoring on their opening drive, and the Rutgers offense has made critical mistakes early on. Last week, we were duped into thinking this game would be different, as Michigan State went three and out on the opening drive. Of course, so did Rutgers and the Spartans responded by scoring a touchdown on an eight-play drive, which was immediately followed by a pick six on a bad pass from Rutgers quarterback Gio Rescigno deep in his own territory. After Rutgers went three and out again, Michigan State started at midfield and promptly threw a 50-yard touchdown pass. Less than 10 minutes into the game, Michigan State was up 21-0 and that was that.

It was very disappointing to say the least. Like you mentioned, Rutgers had a legitimate chance to win in games against three conference foes at .500 or better. To see them no-show on the road against the Spartans was upsetting and raised a red flag. Head Coach Chris Ash alluded to distractions being an issue, but did not elaborate. The one thing Rutgers fans could hold hope to this season was that the team played hard and wasn’t giving up. After last week’s loss, it’s fair to question that thought and wonder how they will play on Saturday. It will be very interesting to see how much of a fight they put up against Penn State.

BSD: Earlier this season, Giovanni Rescigno took over the starting quarterback duties from Chris Laviano. Both guys have had their struggles this year, but is Rescigno definitely the better option for the rest of the season? Or is he just in there to get him some experience before next year.

OTB: Gio is definitely a better option than Laviano, who was so ineffective that he literally gave the coaches no choice but to remove him. He had a long leash this season, but after not producing any points in the first half at home against Illinois, Ash had to make a change. Laviano simply is not equipped to run a power spread offense. Gio is a dual threat and can run well for a quarterback. However, he tweaked his hamstring in the Minnesota game and hasn’t been the same since. As a straight drop-back passer, he is less effective and the results have proven that. He put up Laviano-type numbers against Michigan State and looked indecisive at times.

A cause for concern now is the lack of execution on third downs with Gio at quarterback. In the Indiana game, the offense was a dismal 1-for-16 in conversion attempts and followed that with a 3-for-12 performance last week. This was a big drop from the previous two games, when Rutgers was actually 19-for-35 on third down conversions against Illinois and Minnesota. The inability of the offense to convert on third down plagued Laviano and now we are back to the same problem with Gio. I think he is more of a stopgap than a long-term solution, but I like his toughness and he can make some big throws.

In terms of next year, Gio will certainly be in the mix to start, but I will put my money on incoming freshman Johnathan Lewis. He has the exact skill set the staff wants for the power spread offense and he is physically ready to play from day one. He was invited to the Elite 11 Finals last summer and has continued to improve during his senior season at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t win the job outright. I think the real rebuilding process will begin for the program next season, as the bulk of the current commits in the class of 2017 will have an opportunity to play right away.

BSD: Halfbacks Robert Martin and Justin Goodwin have split carries pretty evenly this year. Can you explain the difference between the two backs and which one we’re likely to see more of on Saturday? Will Rescigno get back into the running game this week after just one carry against the Spartans?

OTB: Robert Martin is the best running back on the team, but he has been plagued with injuries off and on all season. He started the season strong, but hasn’t been healthy enough to produce much since. He is more of an elusive back, predicated on speed and bursting through open holes. He tends to start slow, but his production increases as his reps do, allowing him to get into a rhythm. Last week, he got back into the mix with eight carries and hopefully he gets a lot more this week.

Justin Goodwin is a bigger back and has great hands, making him a good option in the passing game. He can barrel through tacklers some, but he really needs open space in front of him to be at his maximum effectiveness. He isn’t the fastest either, so he isn’t the type of back to break a long run up the middle. However, he has been the steadiest back this season and combined for 279 all-purpose yards in losses to Minnesota and Indiana.

One player who is a bit of a wild card in this game is running back Josh Hicks, who is the best power runner of the group. Hicks and Martin flourished together their freshman season, each having their moments at times last year. Unfortunately, under a new coaching staff this season, Hicks has not been used nearly as frequently. There was a brief position switch to safety due to injuries at the position one week, and he hasn’t seen much more than a handful of carries since. It’s a bit baffling that a player of his ability who has had big games in the past hasn’t gotten going at all this season. I would like to see him get more carries this week, but am not counting on it.

BSD: We expect Rutgers to struggle in pass defense with all three starting linebackers and three of four starting defensive backs being underclassmen. However, rush defense has also been a big problem for the Knights. Are they not getting enough out of Darius Hamilton and the other experienced players up front?

OTB: The defensive line, although a veteran group, has not been able to consistently generate enough pressure on the opposition. Although their size and strength has improved since the revamping of workouts under Ash, they are still getting pushed around at times.

As for Hamilton, I think health has been an issue. It took him a few games to shake off the rust of missing all of last season with the exception of the Penn State game. He did have a career-high 10 tackles against a run-heavy team in New Mexico, only to get banged up on what was ruled a chop block in the Iowa game. However, after being a non-factor for three straight games, he came back strong after the bye week and had another 10-tackle game against Indiana. It’s upsetting to see his last season go the way it has, but he has been a class act his entire career at Rutgers.

The player who has been the most consistent on the line for Rutgers this season is Julian Pinnix-Odrick, who leads the team with 4.5 sacks. He is the brother of former Penn State star Jared Odrick. However, he too has struggled against better competition and hasn’t been as much of a force the past few games.

Kemoko Turay, who burst onto the scene in 2014, has battled back from shoulder surgery and is finally starting to play more. Still, he has a long way to go. When starting lineman Quanzell Lambert was lost for the season against Iowa, I think the consistency for the unit overall dropped off some. Of course, the competition has improved since as well.

The reality is, for Rutgers to ever truly compete in the Big Ten, they need to greatly improve both their offensive and defensive lines. The Rutgers defense has played well against the run in spots, but then will give up a huge run that kills any momentum they had. Saquon Barkley tore them apart last season and I fear the same will happen again on Saturday.

BSD: Jawuan Harris is Rutgers’s biggest weapon in the passing game despite his small stature. However, he only has two games this season with more than three receptions. What does offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer have to do to get him the ball more?

OTB: The hope for Harris was that he could step into the role that Janarion Grant starred in before being lost for the season after getting injured in the Iowa game. Those were certainly unfair expectations, as Grant is one of the most explosive players in all of college football. Harris is just a redshirt freshman and was showing promise behind Grant as the deep threat.

Now that he is the top athlete in the receiving core, the focus from opposing defenses have stifled his ability to get going. Offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer has made less of an effort to be creative in getting Harris involved lately and its been a bit puzzling. Harris has made some mistakes, including a key fumble on lateral play, but I would have liked to see more action called his way in recent games. He is the fastest receiver on the team and is the reigning stolen base champ in the Big Ten for baseball.

I think Harris has great potential to be a star in his career at Rutgers, but he needs players around him at this stage of his development. I think next season he will make a leap, as Rutgers is projected to have more talent at his position group. He will also have more seasoning after missing most of spring ball due to baseball last cycle. For Saturday, it would make a lot of sense to make a concerted effort to get him involved early and often.

BSD: It’s only been 10 games so far, but what are your impressions of new head coach Chris Ash? Does he have what it takes to build Rutgers into a consistent winner?

OTB: I think the fan base was hopeful that Ash would get things moving in the right direction on the field this season and that obviously hasn’t happened in terms of results. However, I think he has done a good job of laying a solid foundation for the future. His emphasis on accountability, nutrition, overhaul of the strength and conditioning program, as well the in-roads he has made in building relationships with high school coaches in New Jersey, have all been positive and necessary changes. It takes time and we reviewed this week how quite a few successful coaches struggled in their first year after taking over a program that was in poor shape.

Ash has prepared for this job his entire career and has worked for some great coaches. He has been far from perfect this season, but I also think fans need to be more patient with a first year head coach. It’s going to take time, but I think Rutgers is certainly moving in the right direction compared to where the program was going this time last season, despite having fewer wins this year.

Ash took over a program with some solid front-line players and very little depth otherwise. It’s not rocket science; he needs to recruit better players and improve the talent base and depth of the program. He prepared the current commits for what was to come this season and other than two running backs reopening their recruitment recently, the rest of the class remains solid. If Ash can secure the current class through signing day, the base for the future will be set and that will be a big step.

I believe Ash will definitely improve this program long-term and I think we will see an uptick in year three. I’m not sure what the ceiling is for the Ash era, but I think he will only get better with more experience and seasoning as a head coach.

BSD: The Knights are 28-point underdogs on Saturday. How do you see this game going for Rutgers?

OTB: You can Google “not good” and there are countless synonyms you can use. I’ll pick my three favorite, which are rough, sad, and awful. This will be another tough game for Rutgers fans to watch, as Penn State has far more talent on both sides of the ball and is a far better team. I hope Rutgers comes out playing hard on senior night in primetime, but it comes down to execution. Rutgers has failed to execute in big situations all season and until they do, there isn’t a lot of hope they will for the rest of 2016. If Penn State can stifle the offense and force multiple three and outs, the defense will eventually wear down and break instead of just bend. That’s basically the story of this season in a nutshell and I see more of the same this Saturday. Penn State 42 Rutgers 7

Thanks again to Aaron for taking the time to answer our questions. Remember to keep reading On the Banks to stay up to date on the Scarlet Knights all season long.