Now sitting at 2-3 and still winless in Big Ten play, Northwestern comes out of its bye week and into the homecoming atmosphere of Ryan Field on Saturday morning. The ‘Cats will face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, B1G foes who are also winless in conference play but who have had a markedly different vibe to their season given the trajectory of their program and the circumstances/schedule that have led to their current record.
We checked in with Aaron Breitman, managing editor at fellow SB Nation community On the Banks to get the latest on RU in preparation for this weekend’s duel in this week’s edition of Interviewing the Enemy:
Inside NU: Northwestern last took on Rutgers in 2018. A lot has happened in Piscataway since. Break down the changes in the Scarlet Knights’ program between then and now.
Breitman: How much time do you have? That game between the two schools in 2018 was actually one of the better games of the horrific Chris Ash era, which gives you an idea of how bad it was that a close loss was a highlight. The program hit rock bottom with Ash, and whoever took over had a tall task in front of them, as Rutgers was clearly the worst Power Five team in college football.
Greg Schiano inherited a 21-game Big Ten losing streak and promptly ended it the first chance he had in a tone-setting upset win at Michigan State last season. Three Big Ten wins in 2020 tied a program best since joining the conference in 2014. Bringing back Schiano a second time to rebuild the program once again was the best option on the table. He brought instant credibility on the recruiting trail, not just in New Jersey — where his ties run deep — but in new areas as well after being named national recruiter of the year at Ohio State.
The talent and depth is not where it needs to be for Rutgers to make a legitimate jump up the Big Ten standings, but the two deep is as good as it’s been in a long time. Joyless football is a thing of the past and hope is alive and well.
Inside NU: It certainly seemed like RU had improved in its first three games of the season, but through a trio of games against Big Ten foes ranked in the AP Top 10, the Scarlet Knights are winless in conference play. Is the 0-3 in-conference record simply an indication of tough competition, and, if so, where do you think this team will end up record-wise at the end of the season?
Breitman: Making a bowl game was the hope entering the season but certainly was not an expectation. Despite Rutgers returning the most production from last year in the Big Ten (92%) and 20 starters overall, how much they benefitted last fall from it being a Covid year was the great unknown. They did a great job of staying healthy and were just one of two Big Ten teams to play all nine scheduled games last fall. Of course, this season, injuries are really piling up.
The best playmaker on offense, receiver Bo Melton, missed last week with a shoulder injury and is questionable for Saturday. So is the second best playmaker, Aron Cruickshank, as he exited last weekend’s game with a shoulder injury as well. Starting guard Reggie Sutton is out for the year with injury and starting left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal missed last week too. In addition, starting cornerback Max Melton is suspended along with backup corner Chris Long. Starting QB Noah Vedral and starting safety Christian Izien left last weekend’s game in the second half with injuries, but Schiano said on Monday they’re fine. Regardless, this team is beat up after playing three top ten teams.
That being said, the Scarlet Knights’ path to a bowl game is there, but will quickly shrink if they lose to Northwestern. Rutgers has a real chance to be in good shape entering November if it can win Saturday, use the bye week to its advantage and then win at Illinois on Halloween weekend. If RU splits, it will still have a chance, but upsetting Wisconsin at home or Indiana on the road is probably a requirement to get to six wins.
I predicted a 4-8 finish before the season while most picked 5-7. Injuries will have a big impact on how this team ultimately finishes, and I’ll be optimistic to a degree and project a 5-7 finish. That would be enough to mark progress in year two of Schiano 2.0 but also prove there is a long way to go.
Inside NU: While RU may be just as good as your run-of-the-mill Big Ten team, most Northwestern fans probably wouldn’t be able to give you the Scarlet Knights’ best players by name. Who are the key guys to watch, and what do they provide that makes them so essential to the team’s success?
Breitman: Due to Northwestern’s trouble stopping the run, starting running Isaih Pacheco will be a major key in this game for Rutgers. He is a bit of an enigma, as his only 100 yards rushing performance came against Michigan. The talent is there, but Pacheco has struggled in his career in being consistent week-to-week. The offensive line and lack of a vertical passing game hasn’t helped him but, he certainly has the potential to have a big game on Saturday.
There are other backs who could have an impact this week, including Aaron Young and Kyle Monangai. Rutgers has been set up really well for big plays on short passes out of the backfield, but have dropped a few. The blocking downfield has been there, so I think this could be the week one of the three backs takes a screen pass and picks up big yardage.
Noah Vedral has been the starter at quarterback since transferring from Nebraska before last season. He is a good game manager and dangerous on designed run plays, but he has struggled on throwing the ball downfield. Which Vedral shows up in this game could be the difference.
If Melton and Cruickshank can’t play due to injuries, the receiver who needs to step up is Shameen Jones. He had a very good season last fall and had been mostly quiet before recording a season high 8 receptions for over 100 yards in his teammates’ absence.
On defense, Olakunle Fatukasi (O3) led the Big Ten in tackles last season and is an absolute monster at linebacker. He is everywhere, and his only real weakness is having to defend a faster player in the passing game. O3 has 8.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles so far this season.
Julius Turner has been the best defensive lineman and can wreck havoc. He is second on the team with 2.5 sacks and gives Rutgers the ability to create pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz.
Christian Izien has been tremendous in the back of the defense and just makes plays. He had two tackles for a loss on back-to-back plays on the first drive of the game against Michigan State that kept Rutgers in it early on.
Lastly, Adam Korsak just won his third Ray Guy Punter of the Week award this week and leads the nation in net punt average at 47.2 yards. He hasn’t yielded a touchback in 15 straight games. The Aussie is a sight to see, even if we prefer not to have him out there.
Inside NU: What’s the general attitude in Jersey on Greg Schiano’s performance right now? Two years into his current tenure, is the team about where fans expected it to be, better, or worse?
Breitman: While patience is needed and a bowl was not expected this season, if the Scarlet Knights are able to win six games, the rebuild will be ahead of schedule. Anything other than a complete collapse keeps them on schedule. Schiano has major juice in New Jersey, and the team has completely changed for the better from a culture standpoint and with how competitive they’ve become. The players are fully bought in and play extremely hard. Schiano said this week he is good friends with Pat Fitzgerald, which makes sense because they seem very similar in how they run their programs.
The future outlook for Rutgers is positive, and while I never believed Schiano was the only coach who could right the ship, I always believed he was the best option for the situation he inherited. He has hit the ground running, and how they finish this season will be important. They have a top 20 recruiting class in 2022 so far and need to finish strong. If they do make a bowl game, it would really benefit them not only on the recruiting trail, but in appealing to higher-caliber of players in the transfer portal this coming offseason.
Inside NU: The Scarlet Knights have a remarkably balanced offense, running nearly an equal number of run and pass plays thus far this season. Do you expect that trend of balance to continue against NU, and, if not, will the run or the pass be more prominent?
Breitman: I think, based on Northwestern struggling to stop the run and the possibility that Rutgers could be without its two best receivers, offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson will try to establish the run game as much as possible. One player I didn’t mention above was Johnny Langan, who is technically the fourth-string quarterback, but now plays tight end as well. They have a package for him to come into games at QB in short yardage situations where he typically runs it up the gut. Last week, he actually threw a 4 yard touchdown out of that package.
Rutgers hasn’t been as successful with it this season or leaned on it as much, but Langan completely shifted the dynamics of last season’s game at Purdue in the second half. They couldn’t stop him even though everyone knew it was coming. I would not be shocked if he played a prominent role in Saturday’s game.
In addition, the short passing game in the flat and across the middle will be key for Rutgers to get receivers into the open field to gain yards after the catch. Brandon Sanders and Isaiah Washigton are two receivers who could have success coming out of the slot.
Inside NU: What is your prediction for this game?
Breitman: I think it’s going to be an ugly game that will keep both fan bases tense and unsettled the entire way. It’s really a must win for both teams, and I expect a very tight game. With both teams lacking explosive offenses, obviously taking care of the football and winning the time of possession battle with sustained drives is so important. Special teams could be the X factor and the Scarlet Knights are strong in this area. Rutgers is going to take chances and be aggressive in its play calling, so they have to hit on them more than not. I think it’s going to be one of those low scoring, strange games that come down to the final minutes of the game. Ultimately, I think Rutgers has the better defense, and that’s the difference. Rutgers 19, Northwestern 15