As kickoff to the 2023 Northwestern football season is less than 20 days away, Inside NU will have opponent previews for all 12 teams the Wildcats face off against this season. Starting off with NU’s opening opponent: Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights found themselves in the bottom of the Big Ten once again, finishing 1-8 in conference play, and 4-8 overall. Since joining the Big Ten, Rutgers has a 13- 66 record in conference play. With Greg Schiano at the helm, the Scarlet Knights look to finally prove they belong in an ever-expanding conference, full of perennial powerhouses of college football. Forced to play Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State every season, RU faces an arduous journey to be bowl contenders but has shown it is possible under Schiano in the past. The Scarlet Knights should be one of the more winnable game on the ‘Cats’ schedule, but let’s take a deeper dive into the squad NU will see in under three weeks.
Returning production: 73% (73% offense, 72 % defense)
2022 record: 4-8 (1-8 B1G)
Head Coach: Greg Schiano
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and ESPN. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2023 SP+ Overall: 73rd
2023 SP+ Offense: 95th
2023 SP+ Defense: 50th
The 2022 season started off hot for the Scarlet Knights, winning their first three games of the year. Rutgers kicked off its season with a last-second upset, winning 22-21 at Boston College to pick up its first victory of the season, and followed it up with a 66-7 thrashing of Wagner College. The Scarlet Knights finished off their non-conference schedule with a 16-14 victory at Temple.
Despite flying high after non-conference play, RU came crashing back down to earth at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Despite having 300 passing yards and 20 first downs, two Iowa defensive scores put the game out of reach for the Scarlet Knights. It did not get better for Rutgers, as it was blown out 49-10 by the Ohio State Buckeyes. After losing by a point to Nebraska, RU got back into the winning column with a homecoming victory against Indiana, its only Big Ten win of the season.
The home stretch of the season was abysmal for the Scarlet Knights, with Rutgers being outscored 202-48 in its final five games of 2022. Rutgers’ offensive output, which was the second-worst in the Big Ten (I think you can guess whose was worse), and in the bottom five in the nation, forced Schiano to make a change. Rutgers parted ways with offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson, who later joined Northwestern’s staff as an offensive analyst.
It would be difficult to be worse on offense than Rutgers was in 2022, so expect to see improvement this year. Under new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, Rutgers will try to recreate its success under Ciarrocca from 2009-2010. Ciarrocca has bounced all over the Big Ten, recently serving as the offensive coordinator for both Penn State and Minnesota. Both of those squads rely heavily on the run game to power their offense, so expect the Scarlet Knights to establish the ground game early against the Wildcats.
RU turns to junior Gavin Wimsatt as its signal caller for the season. Wimsatt saw snaps in eight games and started in six. The Kentucky native threw for 757 yards and five touchdowns but had seven interceptions as well. He has shown the ability to use his legs as well, breaking off a 48-yard run against BC. Wimsatt has not proven himself to be a serious threat to opposing defenses and will need to take a big leap forward if the Scarlet Knights want to be anything more than a bottom Big Ten team.
With how poorly its offense played, there was a lot of pressure on Rutgers’ defense to keep it in games; however, it was not great on that side of the ball either. The Scarlet Knights gave up 29.3 points per game, the second-worst in the Big Ten. RU lacked a dominant pass rusher, with no individual player recording four or more sacks. Furthermore, Rutgers struggled to create turnovers. The Scarlet Knights only had 14 takeaways on the entire season, putting them in the bottom 20% of college football.
There is a lot of room for improvement on Joe Harasymiak’s defense in 2023. In the second year of his system, look for the Scarlet Knights to play better defensively, understand the system and communicate with everyone on the field. They already took positive steps forward in 2022, but now they will have to take a major leap to contend with Big Ten offenses.
Three Players to Watch
Edge Rusher Aaron Lewis
Lewis was named Third-Team All-Big Ten last season and has been named to the Bednarik Award — given to the best defensive player in the nation — watchlist for the upcoming season. Standing at 6-foot-5, Lewis’ length gives him an advantage against blockers, with his reach allowing him to create separation and make plays. The rising junior had multiple double-digit tackle games last season and also recorded eight tackles for loss.
While he has been good against the run, the next step in Lewis’ game needs to be getting to the quarterback. For an edge rusher, he only recorded 1.5 sacks in 2022. If he can put it all together, he has a chance to be a premier edge rusher in the Big Ten.
Wide Receiver Naseim Brantley
Schiano dipped into the transfer portal and brought Brantley in after spending his college career at Western Illinois and Sacred Heart. During his lone year at Western Illinois, Brantley had multiple 100-yard games and finished second in yards in the MVFC. At 6-foot-2, Brantley will provide a big target for Wimsatt this season but will have to prove he can compete at the Big Ten level.
Running Back Kyle Monangai
Monangai looks to join the lineage of successful running backs from Rutgers. Starting eleven games last year, the rising junior ran for 445 yards on 105 carries, including 162 yards against Michigan State. He has shown good burst but still needs to develop his game to become an every-down back. The rising junior only had six catches for 31 yards and found the end zone twice in 12 games last season. He will need to demonstrate those skills if he wants to help the offense reach its potential this season.