Things are much improved in Piscataway, and that is thanks to Greg Schiano returning after a long absence. Schiano coached Rutgers to their highest heights since they created college football, and now he is overseeing a massive rebuild. To discuss that rebuild I spoke with Aaron Breitman of SB Nation’s On the Banks to see what he said about Rutgers.
T-Mill: You guys might be 1-4, but you’re fun as hell to watch and I said on our site that playing you is like enduring a root canal: Rutgers might lose, but they are going to make you earn. How encouraging is that or is there frustration there haven’t been more wins?
Aaron: It’s frustrating in the moment, as Rutgers let two very winnable games slip away. However, this season was always about the big picture and the significant improvement made already this season has been very encouraging.
In terms of wins and losses, I felt the only necessary objective was to end the 21 game Big Ten losing streak at some point this season and they accomplished that on their first try. Anything else in the win column should be viewed as gravy. Obviously, another win would be great as the players have worked really hard and deserve a lot of respect for the way they’ve transformed themselves as a team. It would only help further a positive change with perception and help recruiting as well.
At the end of the day, we know a few things for certain about this team. They’ll commit a lot of penalties, they’ll make some big plays but are inconsistent throughout the game and they’ll play as hard as possible while leaving it all out on the field. After carrying the title of worst power five program in the country the previous two seasons, their new identity is a much welcomed change.
T-Mill: You’re running trick plays, multi-laterals, and everything in the book. Is this because of a talent deficit or did you steal old Jeff Brohm from us?
Aaron: It’s a combination of both. Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson ran high powered offenses at Princeton and Oklahoma State previously, but with two different approaches. He has been very good at adapting to the personnel he has to work with and is able to get the most out of them.
Trick plays have been called on the regular and it certainly has helped keep defenses off balance. They were a few inches from pulling off arguably the best trick play in history against Indiana and even pulled off a big man touchdown with left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal against Ohio State.
The biggest deficiency Rutgers has on offense is the offensive line and trick plays have helped compensate for that. However, the fast paced, quick huddle style that they’ve implemented with the new spread offense has been the biggest factor in helping the offensive line keep things simple and it’s resulted in that unit exceeding expectations.
Overall, the Rutgers offense is vastly improved. They scored 51 points in 9 Big Ten games last season and just scored 42 in one game in the loss to Michigan. After averaging less than 6 points per conference game last season, they are now averaging 30 points through five league games this season. Rutgers has never averaged more than 21 points in Big Ten play since joining the conference sevens seasons ago.
T-Mill: What else is working on offense?
Aaron: The production in the passing game and development of the wide receivers has been impressive. QB Noah Vedral transferred from Nebraska and while he has thrown for three interceptions in two different games, he has also made some big plays with his arm and been fairly accurate. He is also able to make plays out of nothing with his legs at times. His knowledge and command of the offense is strong and been a key reason this unit is much improved.
Former 4-star receiver Bo Melton had two career touchdowns in his first three seasons but already has five this fall and another on special teams. He has emerged as a big play threat and one of the best wideouts in the Big Ten. Another who has improved is Wisconsin transfer Aron Cruickshank, who was an All-Big Ten kick returner for the Badgers but rarely used on offense. This season, he leads the team with 29 receptions and has been solid in the slot. Shameen Jones is a third receiver who has had moments. All three wideouts had at least 80 yards receiving against Michigan and the last time that’s never happened before in a Big Ten game for Rutgers.
T-Mill: The defense is still the worst in the league at least in terms of points given up. What is its biggest challenge?
Aaron: Talent and depth are still an issue. Head coach Greg Schiano did a good job upgrading the frontline talent with transfers who include defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour (Michigan) and safety Brendon White (Ohio State). Linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi (O3) leads the Big Ten in tackles and had 2 sacks against Michigan, while senior Tyshon Fogg remains steady. Julius Turner is the most improved player on the entire team along the defensive line and has been a consistent disruptor. However, the defense is still making mistakes mostly due to being allowed to playing much more aggressively than under former head coach Chris Ash. Schiano has said its something they are willing to deal with and will continue to work on.
Their defensive mentality of “swarm and strip” was very successful against Michigan State (7 takeaways), but since then opponents have been prepared for that style. Schiano has always emphasized speed over size and strength on the defensive side and its also been an adjustment for players who are now faster but less bulky than years past. In time, there is confidence will continue to improve but it’s not going to change dramatically this season.
T-Mill: Welcome to West Lafayette for the first time! How does it feel to finally get your last Big Ten “First visit”?
I’ve always heard great things about Purdue’s campus but unfortunately due to the pandemic Rutgers fans are unable to enjoy the experience. I know many were looking forward to doing so and it will probably lead to a good amount of fans making the trip out to West Lafayette whenever they play there in the future. As for the significance of making the last ‘first” trip to a Big Ten opponent, it does feel a little strange settling in to becoming a not so new member of the conference. But it’s also feeling a lot more normal being a Big Ten member now, even if some fan bases still resent Rutgers.
T-Mill: Rutgers is playing with a lot of confidence and Purdue’s might be shattered some after the Minneapolis Screwjob. What is your prediction for Saturday?
Rutgers has been consistently good with being ready to play at the start of games this season outside of the loss to Ohio State. I do think the emotional state for each team will be something interesting to watch for. Rutgers is susceptible to giving up big plays on the defensive side and can’t afford to fall behind by multiple scores early on. I think it will be a competitive game but unless Rutgers can clean up their act with penalties and also win the turnover margin but +2 or more, Purdue will pick up the hard earned victory. Purdue 35 Rutgers 24.