Piscataway, New Jersey, is billed as the “Birthplace of College Football”. However, as the 2018 Rutgers Scarlet Knights proved, just because you created something, doesn’t mean you excel at it. Their 1-11 record was the worst for the program since 2002. It’s a far cry from their 9 bowl game appearances in a 10 year stretch from 2005.
2018 started out promisingly. In the season opener, Rutgers welcomed Texas State in to the Highpoint.com stadium. They sent them back home with a 35-7 defeat. Freshman quarterback, Artur Sitkowski, went 20/30 for 205 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, he also contributed 3 interceptions which would come to define the 2018 season.
Interceptions and poor offensive play dominated Rutgers football in 2018. Sitkowski contributed 18 interceptions as the offence failed to break 20 points in a game again in the season. They would rank stone last in average points per game.
The defence didn’t help either. The Scarlet Knights managed a meager 16 sacks all season. In addition to struggles in getting to the opposition quarterback, they couldn’t stop the ground game either. Their inability to stop the run cost them a potential win in the last game of the year. Michigan State’s Cody White rushed through for a 22 yard touchdown, making it 14-10 with just 3:57 left. It was the second crushing 4th quarter defeat of the year after losing 18-15 to eventual BIG 10 East winners, Northwestern.
In 2019, Rutgers need to close out those close games.
Amazingly for a team that ranked last in offence last year, the key to success may lay with consistency. Despite losing left tackle Tariq Cole, the offensive line returns 4 starters from 2018. The whole offence returns 8 players. Those returning players can use the bitter experience of last year to bond, and get better. Importantly for Rutgers, they return offensive co-ordinator John McNulty. The program has been like a rotating door at that position and McNulty will provide stability as they look to improve on a dismal year. His previous work as a quarterback coach in the NFL should help Sitkowski grow, in a vital sophomore season.
Despite adding Johnny Langan from Boston College, Sitkowski looks set to start under center. However, the offensive revival will be driven by the running back room. Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco will be the spearhead of the offence. After a standout spring game, expect Charles Snorweah to add significant production too.
The defence, and the secondary in particular, is without some key pieces for 2019.
Saquon Hampton was selected in the 6th round of the NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. Blessuan Austin was picked up by the New York Jets in the same round. Cornerback Isaiah Wharton found a home in Minnesota after impressing at rookie mini camp. In order to replace the production at cornerback, head coach Chris Ash has moved senior safety Damon Hayes in to that position. After a successful spring practice for Hayes, it looks to be a smart move.
There will be significant changes at linebacker. Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts have been the standout defensive players for Rutgers, but are now gone. The Scarlet Knights have strengthened their linebacker core with a BIG Ten transfer. Drew Singleton arrives from Michigan and will be a starter at outside linebacker. Tyreek Maddox-Williams will line up at the opposite linebacker spot, and the unit will be led by middle linebacker Tyshon Fogg. Their task this year will be to help stop the run, and in turn, help finish off those close games.
Three key players to watch…
#8 Tyshon Fogg – Linebacker
A New Jersey native, Fogg returned home from Baltimore to play his college football for Rutgers. The former 4* recruit was a major grab for the Scarlet Knights. He played in all 12 games in 2018, his sophomore season, contributing 48 tackles (3 for loss). In his freshman season in 2017, he also contributed an interception for the team. For this season, he switches from outside linebacker to the middle.
At 6’1 and 240lbs, Fogg will bring an imposing force to the middle of the linebacker unit. More than that, he will bring a leadership quality both on and off the field. During spring practices, he has already spoken about “building a bond” and that mentality will help bring results.
His performance on the field will also bring results. Fogg is exceptional at reading the game. He is very good at getting low and is not afraid to use his size to bring down opposition players. This was particularly well demonstrated against Michigan State. Look for him to be a key factor in an improved run defence.
#2 Avery Young – Cornerback
There may be change in the secondary for this year, but one key cog remains. Avery Young looks set to be a star in the BIG Ten this year after establishing himself in his freshman year. Young played in all 12 games for the Scarlet Knights in 2018, and led the secondary in tackles (66). Although he failed to snag an interception last year, he did achieve 10 pass break ups.
As a two way player at Coatesville High School, Young snagged 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, so he clearly has an eye for the ball and good catch ability. You can expect to see him add more interceptions to his game in 2019.
At 6’0, he has the size that teams covet in a cornerback and he adds speed to the position too. He isn’t afraid of contact, and even in high school was a physical threat in press coverage. The wide receivers of the BIG Ten need to watch out for Avery Young.
#2 Raheem Blackshear – Running Back
The former 3* running back out of Archbishop Wood Catholic burst on to the Rutgers football scene in 2017 and has been a focal point ever since. In 2017 he was given an Honourable BIG Ten Freshman nod after averaging 6.1 yards per carry in his first season. Last season, he led the Scarlet Knights in both rushing and receiving yards. In doing so, he became the first Rutgers player to do so since 1985.
His performance in 2019 will be pivotal to the success of the Rutgers program. You can fully expect him to the spearhead of the offence. There is no reason why he can’t lead the team in both categories again. After securing 5 total touchdowns in the last two years, he will need to contribute more in the end zone this year.
What makes Raheem Blackshear so good? Obviously his ability to be a dual threat out of the backfield can’t be understated. However, it’s the speed and strength that he brings to the game that sets him apart. He is incredibly difficult to bring down and has a mean stiff arm, which he put to good use against Buffalo last year. Because of his strength, he isn’t afraid of contact either, and lowers his shoulder well to initiate contact with a defender.
FBS Independents could hold key to an improved 2019…
Aside from Texas State, last year’s schedule held no real easy games for Rutgers. Although this year’s isn’t exactly laden with “cupcake” games, there is reason for hope of an improved record in 2019.
The Scarlet Knights open up the campaign by welcoming the Massachusetts Minutemen to New Jersey. Despite having Andy Isabella lead the nation in receiving yards in 2018, UMass struggled to a 4-8 record. They ranked near last in defence, and Rutgers will look to capitalise on that. It’s a win that’s there for the taking, and I expect to see the 11 game losing streak come to an end.
No one will expect Rutgers to go in to Iowa and Michigan in game 2 and 4 respectively and get a result, and neither do I.
Sandwiched in between the Iowa and Michigan games, Boston College visit the Highpoint.com stadium.
It’s not the easiest out of conference clash that they could have asked for. However, the game will be an early test of whether the run defence has improved over the off-season. If they can shut down A.J. Dillon, they have a chance of a surprise result. Likewise, in game 9, if the run defence steps up and stops Illinois’ star running back, Reggie Corbin, there could be a victory for the taking.
That game at Illinois comes off the back of a game that offers up another big opportunity for victory. The second FBS Independent team on the schedule is Liberty and although they finished 6-6 last year, they were defeated in a close game by UMass. This one is a must win game for the Scarlet Knights.
They close out 2019 with a tough three game stretch against Ohio State, Michigan State and the finale at Penn State.
150 years have passed since College Football was born in New Jersey. The Scarlet Knights might not be on course for the National Championship that they claim from that 1869 “season”, and they’re a long way from the 1976 11-0 perfect season. However, they’re all set for 2019 to be better than 2018.
Feature Photo Credit: www.scarletknights.com