Despite the fact that the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes have beaten their upcoming Big Ten East foe, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, by a combined score of 114-0 over the past two seasons, there is still optimism coming from Piscataway, N.J., as former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash is entering his third season as the school’s head coach, and he has turned the offense over to freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski.
We chatted with Aaron Breitman, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Rutgers blog On the Banks about what Ohio State fans should expect from the Scarlet Knights this season.
LGHL: There is a lot of excitement around Artur Sitkowski’s first start last week. What did you see that makes you optimistic about the freshman, and what might be the most immediate concern?
Aaron Breitman: He simply looked the part and showed poise in running the offense. He didn’t make any mistakes in operating the offense, and looked under control the entire game. He took some big hits, and made some good throws while taking contact.
Sitkowski was very accurate in completing 69 percent of his passes, but made three bad throws, all of which were intercepted. Those type of mistakes are expected from a true freshman, but obviously Rutgers can’t afford for all of his bad throws to be picked off. The first interception actually came after Sitkowski’s best throw of the game, a bullet he squeezed in traffic to tight end Jerome Washington for a touchdown that was ultimately called back due to a false start penalty.
He can make all the throws and has the IQ to be a very good Big Ten QB, but his success this season all depends on how quickly he learns from his mistakes and develops. An encouraging sign was that after his second INT, which was a pick six, he engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown in which he completed 4-of-5 passes. He’ll certainly need mental and physical toughness to hold up against Ohio State this weekend.
LGHL: The Buckeyes struggled giving up big plays against Oregon State in Week 1, which would seem to bode well for a player like Raheem Blackshear. What will the Rutgers offense have to do to give the sophomore running back opportunities to break free on Saturday?
Aaron Breitman: Blackshear is the best player on offense and will likely get 20-25 touches from scrimmage per game. I’d expect he will get plenty of short looks in the passing game with blockers set up in hopes of creating space for him to run through on the outside. He is very fast, athletic and can be elusive in the open field. However he is only 5-foot-9 with a 190-pound frame, so I don’t think it would make a lot sense to run him much up the middle of the Buckeyes defense.
Look for Boston College grad transfer Jon Hilliman and true freshman Isaih Pacheco to do most of the running up the middle. The key is to get Blackshear out on the edge of the defense with an alley to run. Expect some pitch and run plays to the outside as well.
LGHL: The strength of Ohio State’s defense is its line. With Tariq Cole appearing to be a bit dinged up on Saturday, and Sitkowski being under a lot of pressure against Texas State, what does the Rutgers offensive line need to do to keep Nick Bosa, Dre’Mont Jones, and company out of the backfield?
Aaron Breitman: That’s a great question with not a lot to answer back with, as this is the biggest mismatch personnel wise in this game. My initial reaction to your question was to pray. In my opinion, Rutgers’ inability to generate holes or forward push for any type of run game in the past against Ohio State has been the biggest problem in being competitive in the previous four meetings. I do have more confidence that new offensive coordinator John McNulty will have a better game plan this time and has more talent at the skill positions to utilize.
His head to head matchup against Greg Schiano is one Rutgers fans are intrigued by, as McNulty was the OC for him from 2006-08, the most successful stretch in program history. McNulty then left and coached in the NFL the past 9 years, while Rutgers hired 9 different coordinators in his absence. You could say we are thrilled to have him back and hope he will stabilize the offense for multiple seasons to come.
Fun fact that Ohio State fans might not be aware of: the 2007 Rutgers offense was the first in college football history to have a 3,000 yard passer, 2,000 yard rusher, and two 1,000 yard receivers.
Getting back on track, the offensive line has to do a better job of giving Sitkowski time to operate, or it will be near impossible to generate much offense in this game. I think McNulty will look to establish the short passing game early on in hopes of limiting Ohio State’s pass rush and to give the offense a chance to establish some rhythm. I also expect they will use a lot of two tight end sets to help with blocking and to be a safety valve in the passing game for Sitkowski.
LGHL: Elorm Lumpor plays a hybrid linebacker/end position for Rutgers. How will Chris Ash and his staff move him around to put pressure on Dwayne Haskins.
Aaron Breitman: Lumor was basically in training last season under now Indianapolis Colt Temoko Turay, who was the best edge rusher Rutgers had by far. There were signs that Lumor had potential to grow into the role and his performance last week showed that he may be ready sooner than expected. He produced four tackles, two for a loss including a sack, a fumble recovery and a blocked field goal in the opener against Texas State. Like Turay, he is most effective off of the edge, so I don’t expect him to be moved around too much.
I think it will be more of what Rutgers does with other personnel, especially the versatile Kevin Wilkins, who can play any position along the line. Rutgers also has four linebackers in Tyreek Maddox-Williams, Deonte Roberts, Trevor Morris, and Tyshon Fogg that allow defensive coordinator Jay Niemann to show more multiple fronts than they’ve ever been able to do before. I expect Rutgers to be creative and more aggressive in trying to put pressure on Haskins, and Lumor is a key in getting to him.
LGHL: Obviously, Ohio State fans know Rutgers’ head coach Chris Ash pretty well. Now that he’s in his third season in Piscataway, how has he changed the program, for better or for worse?
Aaron Breitman: There is no question that Ash has improved the program in his 2-plus years at Rutgers. Things were a mess when he arrived, and he has brought many aspects of the operation up to a Big Ten level. He has quickly inspired big-pocketed supporters of the program to donate money to build practice fields, a weight room and after this season, a new locker room. Arguably his best hire was taking former Ohio State employee Kenny Parker with him to Rutgers and putting him in charge of the strength and conditioning program. In regards to the eye test, Rutgers has more players that physically look like Big Ten caliber than ever before.
Despite the recent credit card fraud incident that involves eight players no longer on the active roster, the culture appears strong overall. The senior class is talented and fully bought into Ash, which has helped get the younger players acclimated quickly. The hope for this season is that Rutgers can get to 6-6 and a bowl game.
To Ash’s credit, he has said that was the goal multiple times and that he feels the program is on track where he expected it to be entering his third season. While recruiting hasn’t produced any top 40 classes yet, Ash has steadily added talent to the roster and some of the younger players have started to develop. The roster is extremely inexperienced, as 72 percent are redshirt sophomores or younger. This is a very important season to show progress on the field, develop the younger talent, and produce a clear message that things are getting better in order to improve momentum on the recruiting trail.
I think Ash has his strongest staff that he has had, and he has shown growth as a head coach since he arrived. His best quality is his adaptability, and being surrounded by a better support staff will only benefit him. Making the decision to hand the keys to a true freshman QB in Sitkowski, and invest in developing him, was the absolute right call long term, despite having bowl hopes this season.
I always viewed this as a five-year process before Ash should truly be judged, but being more competitive against the best of the Big Ten this season in games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State, while hopefully winning 5-6 games, would mark a significant step forward in my eyes.
LGHL: What do you have as the score for the game on Saturday?
Aaron Breitman: The average score of the previous four meetings since Rutgers joined the Big Ten has been 55-6 Ohio State. Moral victories aren’t typically the goal, but from a Rutgers perspective this week, staying in the game into the second half would be a major improvement.
I really believe the defense has the potential to be a top half unit in the conference and this is their chance to prove it. Overall, the front line talent is improved on both sides of the ball, but depth is still an issue. Rutgers has also struggled to stay healthy against Ohio State, so getting out of this game without major injury is key as well, as a winnable stretch of games follows this one. I’m optimistic Rutgers will produce it’s best showing against Ohio State in this series and the heavy rain expected may help keep the game closer as well.
My guess is Ohio State wins comfortably 38-14 and Rutgers leaves the Horseshoe with more confidence than they entered with after being more competitive in this matchup than ever before. For a program trying to rebuild in the Big Ten East, this would be considered a baby step forward.
The No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes will host the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday, Sept. 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET in a game to be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. Land-Grant Holy Land and On the Banks will have you covered from both sides of the B1G battle as we head into the weekend.