Chugging along with our opponent preview series, we have come to the first of two new additions to the conference, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who we feel will be the sixth-easiest . Previously, we previewed, in order from easiest to not-so-easiest, Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota, Utah, and Indiana.
||at Washington State
||at Ohio State
||at Michigan State
Remember 2006 when Michigan was unbeaten heading into Columbus for the game of the century? You know, the last time Michigan was really good? Well, Rutgers is also trying to get back to those days. Since going 11-2 that season and finishing ranked 12th nationally, the Scarlet Knights have gone 8-5, 8-5, 9-4, 4-8, 9-4, 9-4, and 6-7. Now, as they move into the Big Ten with considerable experience returning, they were done no favors by their new conference.
Rutgers doesn’t get to dodge any of the Big Ten elite teams this fall, traveling to Ohio State, Nebraska, and Michigan State, and hosting Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. I guess they can be happy that they avoid Iowa, but when one considers that Wisconsin misses out on Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Penn State this fall, it’s not a very warm welcome for the Scarlet Knights.
Head coach Kyle Flood enters his third season as a head coach and his third straight season in a different conference. The former offensive line coach and assistant head coach under Greg Schiano took over in 2012 when his predesessor left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In his first season, Rutgers tied for first in the Big East, but the caveat would be that four of the eight teams in the conference shared the title, all with 5-2 records. Rutgers had a chance to win it outright by beating Louisville in the final week, but the Cardinals won 20-17 and ultimately earned the conference’s BCS berth. Rutgers then lost to Virginia Tech 13-10 in the Citrus Bowl. Flood shared Big East Coach of the Year honors with then-Louisville head coach Charlie Strong.
Flood lost both of his coordinators following the 2012 season and brought in former Kansas State head coach Ron Prince to run the offense. After a 52-51 overtime loss at Fresno State to open the season, Rutgers won four straight, including a four-point win over Arkansas and a 55-52 triple-overtime thriller over SMU. But then the wheels fell off. They went 2-6 the rest of the way with a 29-16 loss to Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl to end the season.
Prince’s time in Piscataway would be short-lived as he jumped to the Detroit Lions following the season, and Flood replaced him with former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen. Flood also fired defensive coordinator Dave Cohen, who had been promoted from linebackers coach prior to the 2013 season, and promoted special teams coach Joe Rossi. Needless to say, Flood has faced plenty of turnover in his short tenure thus far and hopes the move to the Big Ten will provide more stability. But how will Flood be able to navigate such a challenging schedule in 2014? Let’s take a look.
||165-303 for 2,159 yds, 18 TD, 14 INT
||881 yds (5.6 avg), 9 TD
||61 yds (6.8 avg), 19 rec for 149 yds, 2 TD
||28 rec. for 478 yds, 9 TD
||3 rec. for 49 yds, 1 TD
||43 rec. for 573 yds, 4 TD
||13 starts (13 career starts)
||13 starts (37 career starts)
||7 starts (23 career starts)
||12 starts (12 career starts)
||10 starts (14 career starts)
Nine starters return on an offensive unit that ranked 77th nationally in scoring (26.5 points per game), 96th in total offense (365.2 yards per game), 101st in rushing (129.5 yards per game), and 64th in passing (235.6 yards per game). However, last season’s performance doesn’t mean much with a new offensive coordinator in place. The 66-year-old Friedgen is known as a great offensive mind and has coached offense since 1977.
Tyler Kroft may be the best tight end Michigan faces all season (Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)
The first order of business for Friedgen will be developing a quarterback. Gary Nova has three years of experience under his belt, but last year was less than inspiring to be sure. He completed just 54.5 percent of his passes for 2,159 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. After his season-opening performance against Fresno State (26-of-41 for 348 yards, five touchdowns, one interception), it was all downhill. In a two-game stretch mid-season against Louisville and Houston, Nova went 26-of-51 for 340 yards, one touchdown, and seven interceptions. He was replaced by then-senior Chas Dodd for the final three games, but Friedgen insists he’s the best option this fall. In Rutgers’ 2014 media guide, Nova was listed as the co-starter along with junior Mike Bimonte and redshirt freshman Chris Laviano. Neither Bimonte or Laviano has thrown a pass.
He does have a pretty good running back coming back in junior Paul James, who rushed for 881 yards and nine touchdowns on 5.6 yards per carry despite missing four games with a leg injury. He missed part of spring practice with a shoulder injury, but should be ready to go this season. He opened 2013 with three straight 100-yard games and averaged 143.3 yards per game –and 7.3 per carry — in the first four prior to the injury. When he returned, those numbers dropped to 61.6 and 3.9 over the final five games. The main question will be whether he can stay healthy all season and return to his early season form.
Sophomore Justin Goodwin was impressive in James’ absence, averaging 102 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry in those four games. He finished the season with 521 yards and five touchdowns and should be a solid second option. Fullback Michael Burton only carried the ball nine times, but caught 19 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns.
While the backfield is set, two of the top three receivers from last season are gone. Brandon Coleman (34 receptions for 538 yards and four touchdowns) and Quron Pratt (32 receptions for 516 yards) leave some openings to fill, but tight end Tyler Kroft and receiver Leonte Carroo are good pieces to start with. Kroft actually led the team in receiving in 2013 with 43 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns. Drew ranked Kroft the top tight end in the Big Ten this season. Carroo caught 28 passes for 478 yards and led the team with nine touchdowns despite missing the final three games with a head injury. He was held out of contact during spring practice, but will be ready to go for fall camp. Sophomore Ruhann Peele who caught 28 passes for 281 yards and one touchdown last season, was slated to start opposite Carroo, but needed foot surgery. In his place on the depth chart is sophomore Andre Patton, who had three catches for 49 yards and one touchdown a year ago.
The line returns all five starters, most notably senior center Betim Bujari, who was second team All-American Athletic Conference in 2013. He has 23 career starts. Left tackle Keith Lumpkin started all 13 games last season — the only starts of his career — and left guard Kaleb Johnson, who has 37 consecutive starts, will form the left side. Right tackle Chris Muller (12 starts) and right tackle Taj Alexander (14 starts) round out the line.
||34 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 2 FR
||7 tackles, 0.5 TFL
||48 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR
||34 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR
||123 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR
||96 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks
||53 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FR
||41 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 4 PD
||31 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 sack, 4 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR
||9 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD
||62 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR
While Friedgen has a lot of pieces to work with on offense, Rossi has more work to do on defense with only five starters returning. Last year, the unit ranked 81st nationally in scoring defense (29.8 points per game), 74th in total defense (412.8 yards per game), fourth in rush defense (100.8 yards per game), and 122nd in pass defense (312 yards per game). Yes, you read that right. Rutgers had the fourth-best rush defense and the fourth-worst pass defense in the country. Of the three rush defenses that were better — Louisville, Michigan State, and Stanford — two had very good overall defenses. Louisville’s pass defense ranked fifth and Michigan State’s ranked third. Stanford had a somewhat similar gap as Rutgers with a pass defense that ranked 98th, but it still allowed 60 fewer passing yards per game than Rutgers did.
Steve Longa ranked 18th nationally with 123 tackles last season (Ben Solomon)
The line lost one of last year’s starting ends, Marcus Thompson, who recorded 51 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and 5.5 sacks. The sacks led the team and the tackles for loss ranked third. In his place will be fifth-year senior Dave Milewski, who will join redshirt junior Djwany Mera in the starting lineup. Milewski got one start last season and recorded 34 tackles, 1.5 for loss, one sack, and two fumble recoveries. Mera started all 13 games and tallied 34 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks. On the inside, senior nose guard Kenneth Kirksey is back from injury. He recorded seven tackles and half of a tackle for loss in the first three games last season before missing the final 10 with a triceps injury. Tackle Darius Hamilton returns to the starting lineup to join him, and we ranked him the ninth-best defensive lineman in the conference. The 6’4″, 255-pound junior led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss to go along with 48 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
The linebacker corps went through a shuffle similar to Michigan this spring, although unlike Michigan, the best linebacker was moved from the middle to the weak-side. That would be redshirt sophomore Steve Longa, who led the team with 123 tackles, ranked third with 7.5 tackles for loss, and third with three sacks. Drew ranked him as the fourth-best linebacker in the Big Ten this fall and Sporting News named him a first team freshman All-America last season. Senior Kevin Snyder, who ranked second with 96 tackles and also had 7.5 for loss and a pair of sacks, will move to the middle. Redshirt junior Quentin Gause will join the starting lineup to replace Jamal Merrell. Gause started against Arkansas, but played a reserve role all season. He finished fourth on the team with 55 tackles, second with 8.5 tackles for loss, and added one sack. He had his best game of the season against Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl, notching nine tackles, one for loss, and a fumble recovery.
The secondary is where things get interesting. Remember, this is the group that ranked 122nd nationally against the pass a year ago. Aside from free safety Jeremy Deering, pretty much everybody is back, and that could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on which way you look at it. Several true freshmen played considerable time, which contributed to how bad the unit was, but bodes well for depth this fall. The only safe bet to start is strong safety Lorenzo Waters, who started 11 games in 2013 and ranked third on the team with 62 tackles. Eight players are listed on the depth chart in the Rugers media guide as co-starters at corner. Fifth-year senior Gareef Glashen started six game last season and tallied 41 tackles, 4.5 for loss, two sacks, and an interception, so he’s a good bet to start on one side. Sophomore Delon Stephenson ran with the corners in the spring, but is likely to wind up at free safety. If so, the other corner spot will be a battle to watch in fall camp between several others, most likely Anthony Cioffi, who started five games last season, and Nadir Barwell, who started four. Another to watch is true freshman Dre Boggs, a three-star prospect who had offers from Penn State and Wisconsin, and could push for playing time.
||12-of-18, Long 48
||21 ret, 24.6 avg., 1 TD
||17 ret, 9.2 avg., 1 TD
Junior kicker Kyle Federico made 12-of-18 field goal attempts last season with a long of 48 and will assume the duties once again. Punter Nick Marsh, who averaged 40.6 yards per punt, is gone and will be replaced by redshirt junior Joseph Roth, who transferred from College of the Canyons and redshirted last fall. Sophomore Janarion Grant is the danger man in the return game. He averaged 9.2 yards per punt return with one touchdown and 24.6 yards per kick return with one touchdown as a true freshman, earning second team All-AAC honors.
Rutgers could eventually succeed in the Big Ten, but is stuck in the East Division with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State. Regardless, it won’t happen this fall as this team is still way too young to even think about competing for the division title. Washington State, Howard, and Tulane are extremely winnable non-conference games, but Navy will be tough. If Rutgers starts Big Ten play 3-1, it will have a hard time finding three more wins to become bowl eligible. Penn State, Indiana, and Maryland are most likely, and the Scarlet Knights will hope to capitalize on a “black out” against Michigan. Turning this schedule into a winning season would be a major achievement for Flood, but a 5-7 campaign is more likely.
What it means for Michigan
The first meetings with both Rutgers and Maryland this season will feel like non-conference games since Michigan hasn’t played either in years. Neither team will really know that much about the other aside from a few early season game tapes. That and the fact that Michigan has struggled on the road under Brady Hoke are the reasons Rutgers isn’t ranked behind Indiana in terms of toughness on Michigan’s schedule. You can bet Rutgers will be pumped up for the primetime matchup under the lights at High Points Solutions Stadium, just their second ever Big Ten game. But make no mistake; Michigan is the better team, and as long as the Wolverines can handle the environment, should have no problem winning the first ever meeting between the two historic programs.
If Michigan performs like it did in a similar environment at UConn last season, it could be in trouble, but unless Rossi can shore up the shaky Rutgers secondary, Devin Gardner and the Michigan passing game will have a field day. Sure, it loses Jeremy Gallon, but Gardner will have five games to gel with Devin Funchess and the rest of the group prior to the trip to New Jersey. Four opponents threw for more than 400 yards and five more topped 300 against Rutgers in 2013. Gardner threw for 503 and 451 against similarly ranked pass defenses, Indiana and Ohio State. He’ll have a big day and lead Michigan to the win.