Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers. Your first conference game will be against Penn State, a school you’ve defeated twice in 24 games. The second league game is against Michigan, followed by Ohio State and Nebraska – three of the winningest programs in college football history. For good measure, the Scarlet Knights see Wisconsin and Michigan State later in the season.
A tough schedule has done little to lessen the excitement from the fanbase. New Jersey is crazy about the Scarlet Knights and their move to the Big Ten. The past, well, 144 years have rendered Rutgers irrelevant for vast stretches. But now it’s returning to the spotlight, a status the Scarlet Knights enjoyed in 1869 when they played Princeton in the first ever college football game.
The enthusiasm could taper off by November. Rutgers has enjoyed fast starts in each of the past two seasons, only to go through prolonged losing streaks. The schedule sets up for a similar scenario in 2014.
Fair or not, the player who will impact wins and losses the most is quarterback Gary Nova. His play has mirrored the team’s win-loss record since his freshman season. Not surprisingly, it points to late-season struggles for the senior. Last season, he was benched after a disastrous tailspin.
Rutgers has lost just three games during Nova’s career when he has a passer rating of 100 or better. But the flip side of that equation is brutal. The 2013 season was a microcosm of Nova’s career. He threw 13 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in the first five games – Rutgers was 4-1. But Nova had four touchdowns and six interceptions the rest of the way – Rutgers was 2-6 – and he eventually watched from the sideline.
“He’s a better quarterback today than he was at the end of the season,” Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood told reporters in April.
The evidence was spring practice, which saw Nova throw one interception. Someone who could provide a significant boost not only to Nova but also to Rutgers’ entire offense is newly hired offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen. Throughout his career, Friedgen has engineered success in quarterbacks and offenses.
It started in the 1980s with Boomer Esiason at Maryland, then moved south to Georgia Tech, where the Yellow Jackets won a national championship in 1990 with Friedgen as offensive coordinator. Four years later, he orchestrated the San Diego Chargers’ run to the Super Bowl, before going back to Georgia Tech and tutoring Heisman finalist Joe Hamilton. His first and only head-coaching job at Maryland included a 75-50 record.
“We could not have found a better coach or person to lead our offense than Ralph," Flood said. “His track record of success both in college and the NFL is second to none on the offensive side of the ball. He will be a tremendous addition to our Rutgers football family.”
|8/28||at Washington State (Seattle)|
|10/18||@ Ohio State|
|11/22||@ Michigan State|
Who will Nova throw the football to? Not Brandon Coleman, who’s bound for the New Orleans Saints after a stellar collegiate career. He would have given the Scarlet Knights a legitimate big-play threat in a conference that’s lacking dynamic wide receivers.
Instead, Nova will have Leonte Carroo, Carlton Agudosi, Ruhann Peele, Janarion Grant and Tyler Kroft to target. Carroo is the team’s leading returning receiver, tallying 478 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013. The 6-foot-6 Agudosi gives him an advantage over cornerbacks in nearly every game. Kroft, a tight end, could immediately be near the top of the Big Ten at that position, finishing with 43 receptions for 573 yards last season.
“We have some young guys, but they’re confident,” Carroo said. “Ruhann and I are just going to do a great job leading the younger guys and helping them with whatever assignments they have.”
A solid run game could be had by Rutgers. Tailback Paul James, coming off an injury, gained nearly 1,000 yards (881) in nine games last season. Joining him in the backfield is Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, a smallish back who can weave in and out of traffic. But James’ Big Ten-type body sets up well for the physical conference.
Most importantly, Rutgers returns all five of its starting offensive linemen. There’s also depth on the line, with three players in particular – Brandon Arcidiacono, Ryan Brodie and J.J. Denman – who will be part of the rotation.
Without playing a game in the Big Ten, defensive tackle Darius Hamilton is one of the top defensive linemen in the league. He recorded 48 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season. Some believe he’s undersized at 260 pounds, but it hasn’t been an impediment to this point.
“I think the more I stayed in my playbook, the more I got with the coaches, I think things just became second nature,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t have to try and learn things, they were just there and I just had to make sure I played fast.”
Fellow tackle Djwany Mera is another capable lineman. Rutgers has depth on the line with a handful of players filling out the rotation. The Scarlet Knights allowed three yards per rush a season ago, but surrendered 31 touchdowns passes.
The secondary is stocked with two seniors – safety Lorenzo Waters and cornerback Gareef Glashen – giving the team experience, leadership and veteran savvy that’s needed with a boost in competition. Underclassmen corners Anthony Cioffri and Nadir Barnwell went through growing pains as freshman. But they’re expected to give Rutgers a strong attack against opposing receivers.
One of the strengths of the defense is linebacker, where Steve Longa (123 tackles), Kevin Snyder (96 tackles) and Quentin Gause (8.5 tackles for loss) patrol space.
New defensive coordinator Joe Rossi will keep things familiar for Rutgers, with an eye toward creating turnovers.
“We’ll be an attacking defense. We’ll be a defense that's opportunistic,” he said. “The things that we’ve been able to do at Rutgers over the years that have allowed us to play great defense are going to continue to be the things we’re going to look to do.”
Over the years is longer for the Scarlet Knights than every other program, and they’re happy to be back in the limelight.