With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
Northwestern and Rutgers haven’t played each other since Rutgers joined the Big Ten. This is the moment Tristan Jung has been waiting for:
I solemnly swear to make this a serious preview of the 2018 Rutgers/Northwestern game.
I repeat, I solemnly swear to make this a serious preview of the 2018 Rutgers/Northwestern game. But first, let’s look at this glorious image.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Longtime readers of the site will know that I am the foremost Rutgers expert in Inside NU staff history. That mostly consists of philosophical ramblings complaining that Rutgers is even in the conference. To adequately preview Northwestern football’s first Big Ten game against Rutgers, there must be some modicum of surrealism or suspension of normalcy. I mean, a Rutgers-Northwestern conference game? I’m never, ever going to get used to that.
I can’t even make fun of Rutgers basketball anymore. Rutgers beat Northwestern, in case anyone has forgotten, which does demean the Chris Collins era by about 5 percent for me, especially after I once wrote 2,000 words calling Rutgers an existential black hole and not worthy of sanity.
But there’s always football. There will always be football.
Northwestern last played Rutgers in 1991, a close loss in Piscataway. The Wildcats were then coached by Francis Peay, who went 13-51-2 in his tenure at Northwestern and also lost to the Scarlet Knights in Evanston during the 1989 season. These were dark times for both programs. Northwestern would not reach any sense of legitimacy until Gary Barnett was hired in 1992. That 1991 win came in Rutgers’ first year in the Big East, but they would be mediocre until Greg Schiano was hired in 2001. Greg Schiano has been in the news lately due to Vols-related shenanigans, but let’s not forget his mindbogglingly successful run at Rutgers that allowed this complete abomination of a “Big Ten conference game” to occur this fall. In the end, Schiano finished 67-66 at Rutgers and established enough credibility for the Big Ten, in theory.
That being said, I probably shouldn’t be this confident. Northwestern is only a 7-point favorite on the road by preseason S&P+, which isn’t insurmountable. Let’s see what Chris Ash and Rutgers have to offer, shall we?
Returning production: 71 percent (60 percent on offense, 81 percent on defense)
2017 record: 4-8 (3-6 B1G)
Head coach: Chris Ash (6-18, 3rd season)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2017 S&P+ Overall: 110th
2017 S&P+ Offense: 126th
2017 S&P+ Defense: 53rd
2018 S&P+ Projection: 84th
Rutgers had a decent season last year. Sure, the offense was unwatchable and it suffered three blowouts by 29 or more points, but the Scarlet Knights grabbed wins over Illinois, Purdue (!) and Maryland last season. They also lost to Eastern Michigan. Oh well.
There was really no sustaining narrative to this Rutgers season. They were inconsistent, moribund, and it their own way, beautiful. They played well against playoff contender Washington. Eastern Michigan dealt them a catastrophic loss. They lost 56-0 to Ohio State before giving Northwestern fans Magnitude 10 schadenfreude with a 35-24 win over Illinois in Champaign, which was also Ash’s first Big Ten win as head coach. Then Rutgers beat Purdue, a good football team! Rutgers also beat Maryland, a thoroughly bad football team.
Then, after a 3-1 stretch, Rutgers went back to 2016 Rutger mode and lost 35-6, 41-0 and 40-7.
This should be you:
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No, seriously, get out of here. You’re better off looking at this map detailing the global effects of climate change than trying to remember facts about Rutgers’ offense.
Still here? Fine. Rutgers’ supposed starting quarterback for 2017 is Giovanni Rescigno, who features a 51 percent completion rate over his career and a 7:6 TD-to-INT ratio. This is where I must admit that, unlike you, I actually watched five Rutgers games in 2017. FIVE. Giovanni Rescigno never completed more than 10 passes in any of them. In fact, he never completed more than 10 passes in any of his games in 2017. There’s a good chance that true freshman Artur Sitkowski could have his job by opening week anyway. I’m hoping he does, for entertainment purposes.
The running back Northwestern will worry about is Boston College grad transfer Jon Hilliman, who did rush for 638 yards in 2017 and can also do some things as a receiver. Rutgers will need his experience because the receiving corps is staffed by sophomores with little experience.
I must admit, Chris Ash has built a competent Big Ten defense at Rutgers. The only way Northwestern loses this game is if Rutgers’ defense goes full Illinois State and catches Northwestern napping. Believe it or not, Rutgers has the personnel to make this happen. Rutgers’ two senior linebackers, Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts, know what they’re doing. They should also benefit from the return of talented linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams.
Rutgers also has a talented secondary that could give Northwestern problems. Rutgers finished top-50 in passing downs S&P and limited supposedly decent Big Ten quarterbacks like Elijah Sindelar and Tanner Lee in 2017. All of the key parts from that secondary are returning for another season, along with cornerback Blessuan Austin returning from injury. The biggest issue will be Rutgers’ pass rush, which was nonexistent last season (105th in adjusted sack rate). Kemoko Turay, the team leader in sacks, has graduated. Can the likes of Willington Previlon, Jon Bateky and Elorm Lumor develop a pass rush? We shall see.
Three players to watch
CB Blessuan Austin
Austin was one of Rutgers’ best players in 2016, making the All-Big Ten Honorable Mentions list and notching 14 pass breakups. Austin missed the last eight games of of 2017 with a torn ACL, but all signs are looking good for 2018. Austin has the potential to be a game-changing player at cornerback and will be a difficult matchup if healthy in October.
DE Elorm Lumor
Lumor was the highest-rated recruit on this defensive line. After playing in all 12 games last year, he ended the season with 12 tackles and one sack, which wasn’t great. However, he will have an opportunity to expand his role in 2018 with Turay graduated and the defensive end spot open for him.
QB Artur Sitkowski
If the true freshman Sitkowski does start this season, what should we expect? Well, I have no idea, but Sitkowski, who went to IMG via Old Bridge, New Jersey, is probably the most talented quarterback on the roster right now. Things generally aren’t good when starting a true freshman quarterback, but maybe Rutgers can make it work. If Sitkowski can give Rutgers replacement-level stuff at quarterback, the Scarlet Knights will have a better offense than 2017. I guarantee it.