The Ohio State football team is set to make just its second trip to Piscataway, N.J., this weekend as the Buckeyes play Rutgers on Saturday night.
Ohio State has won all three of its games against the Scarlet Knights since Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014, including a 58-0 victory at Ohio Stadium last year, by at least 39 points.
Can the Scarlet Knights, in their second year coached by former Ohio State assistant Chris Ash, keep this year’s game more competitive?
For this week’s edition of Across the Field, we caught up with Rutgers beat writer Ryan Dunleavy of NJ.com and The Star-Ledger to ask him how the Scarlet Knights have improved, whether Ash has the program moving in the right direction and what Ohio State fans making the trip to Piscataway should do.
Q: Rutgers lost all nine of its Big Ten games last season. Have the Scarlet Knights improved enough this season to at least be competitive in conference play?
Dunleavy: In conference play? Yes. Against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State? No. The blowout scores of last season are cited much more often than the fact that Rutgers lost to Indiana, Minnesota and Iowa by seven points or less last season. Throw in this season’s 10-point loss to Nebraska. In my mind, Rutgers already is competitive with teams outside of the top tier in the Big Ten. Now it’s about breaking through and winning one of those games. It won’t be this one. But Illinois and Purdue are up next.
Q: What are the biggest differences between this year's Rutgers team and the team that Ohio State beat last season?
Dunleavy: On defense, the personnel and scheme is similar, but the results are much-improved. The rushing defense is significantly better despite replacing three starters. Rutgers essentially plays three defensive tackles in the front four as a way to make up for a size disparity that the current staff inherited. Rutgers previously believed in recruiting smaller, quicker defensive ends, but found out those players were pushed around in the Big Ten.
On offense, the personnel and scheme are different, but the results are only slightly improved. New offensive coordinator (Jerry Kill). Three graduate transfers – quarterback Kyle Bolin, running back Gus Edwards and wide receiver Damon Mitchell – and a traditional transfer (tight end Jerome Washington). Still a no-huddle but not a hurry-up offense. But it’s been a conservative style played so far.
Q: Chris Ash is just 3-12 in his first 15 games as Rutgers' head coach. Do you think he will eventually be able to get things turned around?
Dunleavy: The jury is out because there are way too many variables at play in his 3-12 start. It was only a few days ago that the NCAA finally handed out a ruling – a two-year probation sentence – for all the violations that happened and led to former coach Kyle Flood’s firing. That’s been a dark cloud looming over the perception of Rutgers.
The talent level and depth that Ash inherited was far from Big Ten-caliber. He’s upgraded that with recruiting. And he’s accomplished privately funded facility builds. No easy task in New Jersey.
There’s a reason that Greg Schiano is so beloved at Rutgers. He did the seemingly impossible when he took Rutgers – arguably the worst Division I football program in the country prior to his arrival in 2001 – and built it to where the team was ranked inside the national top 10 at one point and went to six bowl games in seven years (2005-11). Schiano did that without many of the resources that Ash has available to him now, but in a Big East without Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. Ash has more at his disposal than Schiano ever did, but unless Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan leave the Big Ten, he has a steeper challenge to get things turned around.
Q: How much do you think the NCAA investigation of the past two years has played a part in the Scarlet Knights' on-field struggles? Now that the investigation is in the rear-view mirror, will that help Rutgers be more successful on the field?
Dunleavy: I think the on-field struggles are more a result of the events that led to the investigation than the investigation itself.
The 2013-14 recruiting classes were ravaged by transfers and player dismissals, leaving Rutgers without talented underclassmen in 2016-17. Those dismissals were tied up with the disastrous 2015 season of allegations of unpenalized drug-test failures, academic improprieties and seven player arrests. Ash was brought in to clean up all those headaches and run a tight, clean ship. That’s probably his biggest accomplishment thus far. And it’s not a small one. Rutgers was tired of being a scandal punchline.
But the conclusion of the NCAA investigation means Rutgers is finally done with the Kyle Flood-Julie Hermann era. That can only help. Plus, Ash said that recruiting rivals used the specter of NCAA penalties against Rutgers. Now that it’s known there is no scholarship reduction, vacated wins or bowl ban, that should be less effective. And the key to being more successful on the field is keeping more top talent at home.
Q: What kind of environment should Ohio State fans expect in Piscataway? Any activities, restaurants, etc. you recommend for Buckeye fans making the trip?
Dunleavy: High Point Solutions Stadium can be very loud. It was a pretty good environment for the season-opener against No. 8 Washington in primetime, especially after Rutgers took a 7-0 lead. Penn State offensive lineman Andrew Nelson and former linebacker Brandon Bell said that the 2014 game atmosphere in Piscataway was the loudest that they’ve faced on the road in the Big Ten. For this game, it will depend on the breakdown of the crowd. How many Rutgers fans sold tickets for this game to Ohio State fans in order to make back some of the season-ticket investment?
The best restaurant on campus is Stuff Yer Face, but it’s a drive from the football stadium. It’s where famous Iron Chef Mario Batali got his start. Get a Boli! Or get a Fat Sandwich (many varieties) if you can find a Grease Truck parked by the stadium. That’s what Rutgers is famous for.
There’s a statue in front of the football stadium commemorating The First College Football Player. Remember, Rutgers beat Princeton in the first college football game. That game took place in the parking lot behind the College Avenue Gym in New Brunswick. It’s just a blacktop now. Not even a monument. But if you want to stand on hallowed ground, go there before the game. Again, it’s not walkable.
Q: What must Rutgers do well to keep this game competitive, and do you think they will?
Dunleavy: 1. Prevent Ohio State’s defensive line from wrecking the game. Rutgers’ offense is run-oriented with a slew of different backs to keep fresh legs. The idea is to use the run to set up the pass, but the passing attack has been blah so far. Bolin hasn’t taken many deep shots, and when he has they’ve mostly fallen incomplete. If Janarion Grant plays – he missed last game against Nebraska and last year’s matchup with Ohio State – it’s a big boost for Rutgers. The offensive line held up well against Washington, but not against Nebraska. If Bolin is under constant pressure because Rutgers is behind and has to abandon the run, the game plan could implode.
2. Force takeaways. Rutgers finished second-to-last in the Big Ten in this category last season and only had two through the first two games of the season. But Rutgers had four against Morgan State and two against Nebraska, including a pick-six. The secondary is a team strength, but the season-ending ACL injury suffered by top cornerback Blessaun Austin is devastating. He is a NFL prospect. And Rutgers will now have either a true freshman, a walk-on or a seldom-used junior college transfer playing nickel.