Purdue and Rutgers were the Big Ten factories of football sadness a year ago, going a combined 1-17 in league play. That won’t happen this year as both teams already have a win! This week we get to meet a new blog, as SB Nation’s On the Banks manages all things Rutgers. Aaron Breitman manages things for them and he has stopped by to answer our questions about Rutgers.
T-Mill: Rutgers won a Big Ten game! That's already a great improvement over last season. Was this a breakthrough for the program or was it more of Illinois being really down this year?
It was a breakthrough in the sense that they ended their 16 game conference losing streak and had their best rushing day in a long time. However, Rutgers lost three fumbles and committed eight penalties, so they certainly didn't play their best. While Illinois is a very bad team, a win is a win and Rutgers desperately needed one.
The frustrating part is that with all of their flaws, they're one drive away from being 3-3 and the narrative of true progress being made this season would have real substance. Losing to Eastern Michigan was a major disappointment and a stain on the coaching staff this season. The idea that players overlooked that opponent, which some have hinted at or even admitted to, is equal parts infuriating and flat out dumb.
With that being said, Chris Ash is recruiting fairly well and has improved his staff in the offseason. The culture appears to be strong under Ash, which is obviously important, especially after the issues the program had under former coach Kyle Flood. The reality is that the depth of the roster was in shambles when Ash took over and this rebuild is going to take time. He has a lot of work to do before I'll say he'll ultimately get the job done here, but another Big Ten win this season would be a step forward.
T-Mill: I see Rutgers lists three potential starting quarterbacks. Who will Purdue see?
Aaron: It's a good question that has no definitive answer right now. Redshirt junior Gio Rescigno started his first game of the season last week and played reasonably well. However, he took a lot of hits and is dealing with some type of knee issue. He said he took a helmet to the knee, but at the end of the game he fell after planting his leg on a throw with no contact. He was taken out after one play on the last full drive of the game. Head coach Chris Ash said at Monday's press conference that Gio's status is "day-to-day". Even if he does play, his ability to run is a key component to his game and if he is limited, his effectiveness will be as well.
In regards to true freshman Johnathan Lewis, he tweaked his ankle last week in practice and after being expected to have a larger role against Illinois, he played just two snaps. He is the future and they were being cautious. He is a true dual threat quarterback that could pose some problems for Purdue in the run game. I'd expect to see him get more snaps this week, assuming his ankle isn't an issue.
As for former starter Kyle Bolin, the grad transfer from Louisville, he struggled badly through the first five games and a switch was made during the bye week. To his credit, he came in on that last drive against Illinois and made a big completion on a 3rd and long situation that kept Rutgers in control up 11 points late in the game. They ended up scoring a touchdown on that drive and putting the game to bed. The problem is that Bolin is not a mobile quarterback and has struggled with accuracy, so he wasn't very effective. I'm not sure that changes much if he is the primary quarterback against Purdue.
T-Mill: The Rutgers passing game... needs some work, ranking 120th nationally. What is the biggest problem? Part of the reason is that offensive coordinator Jerry Kill is a run heavy play caller. However, Bolin was not efficient as a starter and Rutgers has struggled mightily to complete big plays in the passing game. Lewis has a canon of an arm but Kill has been cautious with him and he has mostly run it or handed off. I believe they should have given him the keys to the offense already, but it's been a work in progress. Rutgers also is limited with established playmakers in the passing game. Receiver Janarion Grant and tight end Jerome Washington are two good options and in my opinion, haven't been utilitized enough. Hopefully that changes this week.
T-Mill: Rutgers has played some pretty strong defense at times this year only to be betrayed by the offense. What is the strength of the unit?
Aaron: They've done a good job against the run this season, an area that has improved a lot since last year. In terms of personnel, the secondary was the strongest group entering the season but injuries have taken its toll. Starting cornerback and All-Big Ten preseason selection Blessuan Austin was lost for the season with a torn ACL against Nebraska. In addition, both starting safeties missed the Illinois game. Saquan Hampton is expected to be out for awhile, perhaps the season, while it's hoped Kiy Hester will return for the Purdue game. Depth is so scarce that last season's leading receiver, Jawuan Harris, who also plays baseball and led the Big Ten in stolen bases in 2016, was converted to safety last week. He actually played a huge role leading the defense with 11 tackles, while also forcing a fumble and grabbing an interception.
Even so, the lack of depth even with Harris is a concern and I'm worried that Purdue will attack the secondary early and often on Saturday. Rutgers will obviously need to get pressure on the quarterback, but they've been inconsistent in that area. My hope is that defensive coordinator Jay Niemann calls a more aggressive game by blitzing more often then they have so far this season.
Deonte Roberts is our starting middle linebacker and is having a great season. He is key in keeping the defense together and the unit overall has played well in stretches against Washington and Nebraska. However, they wore down in the second half of those contests and gave up more in the psssing game down the stretch. That's obviously a concern against Purdue as well.
T-Mill: Since this is Purdue's first ever football visit what can you tell out fans about coming to your campus?
Aaron: There are lots of fun places to eat and drink. Stuff Yer Face is an iconic place on Easton Avenue that serves a wide variety of Stromboli sandwiches and is where famed Chef Mario Batali got his start (He is a Rutgers grad). The grease trucks are a Rutgers tradition and their Fat Sandwiches are also a worthy place to eat.
In terms of higher end options, stop by Clydz for a martini and good food and for a big dinner, head to Steakhouse 85. There is also Old Bay, a New Orleans inspired restaurant that serves a mean Hurricane drink.
As for the area, the College Ave campus (Rutgers has five total) is a nice walk and there are plenty of nice looking, collegiate buildings to see. Rutgers is the eighth oldest university in the country and the original part, called Olde Queens, is right next to the train station. If you like art, the Zimmerli Museum is a great place to visit.
There are plenty of shuttle buses by the student center to take you to the Stadium, a quick 5 minute ride. It's a pretty walkable main campus otherwise. The tailgating scene is solid and most fans are very friendly, so the odds of being invited in to a particular group when wandering around is strong.
T-Mill: Finally, how do you see Saturday playing out.
Aaron: I think this is a terrible matchup for Rutgers. I believe the Purdue defense is underrated and and they were very impressive against Wisconsin. Mind you, the Badgers ran for 300 yards, but the fact is they only scored 3 points after the 1st quarter. For Rutgers to win this game, they need several big plays on offense, which hasn't happened much at all this season. I expect Purdue to do everything they can to stop the Rutgers ground game and they'll likely be much more effective against our offensive line versus Wisconsin's. In addition, the uncertainty of the health of our two mobile quarterbacks in Gio and Lewis is a major reason for concern. On the flip side, Purdue's strength is through the air and that is the weakness of the Rutgers defense. Our linebackers struggle in the passing game and our secondary will have just two regular starters on the field, best case scenario. I hate to be so pessimistic after Rutgers finally won a conference game, and on Homecoming no less, but I think this will be a comfortable win for Purdue. So much so, that I'm actually nervous that the final score could get out of hand. Purdue 31 Rutgers 10