Kansas welcomes Rutgers into Lawrence, KS on “Todd Reesing” day, when the former KU QB is to be inducted into the Ring of Honor. While that event is likely to be the highlight of the day no matter what the final score is, we still have a game to watch. To help us get ready for that game, I touched base with Aaron Breitman over at On The Banks, the SB Nation site that covers the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. He answered a few questions for us.
The last time most Kansas fans thought about Rutgers, it was back in 2015 while getting ready for what was playfully dubbed “The Power 5 Toilet Bowl”. How has Rutgers fared since then, and what are the expectations for them this year?
With all due respect to Kansas fans, the Rutgers faithful are a bit salty about the association. Yes, the team was a disaster at the end of the Kyle Flood era and in Ash’s first season. However, Rutgers went to a bowl game nine times in ten years between 2005-2014 and even went 8-5 in it’s inaugural Big Ten campaign. So when Rutgers was being referred to as potentially the worst power five team aside from Kansas, it didn’t make sense to us a close to equal comparison.
It will take time for Rutgers to become a regular bowl team again based on playing in the Big Ten East now. Last season, there were ups and downs, but Rutgers won three conference games despite having an awful offense. There have been substantial improvements to the facilities and overall structure of the program under head coach Chris Ash.There is optimism they can get back to a bowl in this being his third season and to his credit he has stated it as a realistic goal.
There is a stretch of six winnable games begins this weekend against the Jayhawks. The blowout loss to Ohio State and injury issues have some worried. The reality is this game will tell us a lot about this team and a loss would be viewed as a big disappointment by Rutgers fans.
While Artur Sitkowski has been cleared to play this week, how worried are you about him aggravating his injury? And what does the backup situation look like if he does go down?
Well it seems as if there isn’t an actual injury per say, but more of soreness and pain from just getting battered regularly in the first two games, particularly against Ohio State. He took a brutal hit from Buckeyes star Nick Bosa right before halftime that knocked him out of the game. Ash said at his Monday press conference that it was more of a pain management situation and nothing showed up from the MRI.. Footage of Sitkowski throwing at practice on Tuesday surfaced and he looked good, which backed up media reports saying the same. I think he will be good to go on Saturday but you never know how his body will react to the first couple hard hits. We do know after just two games the kid is tough as nails and the coaching staff has been vocal to that fact as well.
As for the backup situation, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Redshirt senior captain Gio Rescigno has started games each of the past two seasons and played the second half last week after Sitkowski was knocked out. He is a tough player as well and can stabilize the offense in a relief situation, but doesn’t have the skill set to be a consistent passing threat in Big Ten competition. Sophomore Johnathan Lewis is spread style quarterback brought in before Rutgers switched to pro style under new offensive coordinator John McNulty. He is intriguing and could be used Saturday on a couple of run heavy packages to mix things up.
Where can this team best attack the Jayhawks?
Ground and pound with the run game behind a three back attack of Raheem Blackshear, Jon Hilliman, and true freshman Isaih Pacheco. Blackshear is the shifty speed back who can cause damage out on the edge and is also a threat in the short passing game. Hilliman is a grad transfer from Boston College who is a battering ram and can wear defenses down, as well as a threat near the goal line and in short yardage situations. Pacheco is raw but could end up getting the most carries by the end of the season. He is a hard runner who is still learning, but his potential is immense. With Sitkowski having taken so many hits already and being a bit limited this week, as well as the receivers not proven enough yet, Rutgers must establish the run game and control the line of scrimmage. They can control the clock and bleed the Jayhawks defense to a slow death.
Which defensive player names should the Jayhawk faithful expect to hear a lot on Saturday?
Well, the best player Rutgers has, cornerback Blessuan Austin, is out and contemplating surgery after re-injuring his knee that ended his season early last year and kept him out since midway of the first game in 2018. He is being replaced by true freshman Avery Young, so Kansas may target him. On the other side is four year starter Isaiah Wharton who is a captain and talented player. The secondary was also missing corner Tre Avery and safety Kiy Hester last week, both are expected to play tomorrow. Starting safeties Saquan Hampton and Damon Hayes provide stability in the back of the defense.
The deepest position group Rutgers has though is linebacker. Seniors Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris are names you will hear often in this game and they have improved year over year. Tyreek Maddox-Williams plays on the outside and is active as well. Rutgers has the ability to mix different looks because of the depth at linebacker, as former 4-star recruit Tyshon Fogg, Rashawn Battle and Olakunle Fatukasi can all come in and make plays.
As for rushing the passer, defensive end Elorm Lumor is the best option and needs to be aggressive in this game. The two best interior lineman are seniors Kevin Wilkins and Jon Bateky.
Prediction Time! How do you see the game shaking out?
This is a big test for a Rutgers team that got torched by Ohio State 52-3 last weekend. Playing a second consecutive road game is never easy. There is no way to know how true freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski will respond after getting knocked out of the game last week on a viscous hit. The secondary is having health issues as well. However, I think the running back trio of Rutgers has success early and often in this game and the defense will bend but not break. It will be relatively close until Rutgers puts it to bed late by wearing down the Jayhawks defense, winning 31-17.
BONUS: It seems pretty certain that Kansas is going to be looking for a new coach and staff next season. Name one guy on the staff at Rutgers who you think would excel on the new staff, either in the current role or in a new spot.
Offensive line and associate head coach A.J. Blazer is an up and coming assistant who has been a positive force since arriving at Rutgers under Chris Ash. He is the staff’s best recruiter, is a high energy guy and well liked by the team. He is a former starting center and captain at Iowa, who tried to hire him away before last season and he declined. The offensive line has struggled at times under Blazek but he has brought in a lot of young talent that will be exciting to watch develop over the next few years. He is a Midwest guy and while I don’t think he is ready to be a head coach, he would be a strong addition to any staff.
A huge thanks to Aaron for helping us out. For more coverage of the game, don’t forget to check out On The Banks, where I answered some questions to prepare for the game as well.