Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano held his game week presser for Northwestern on Tuesday entering his fourth season. While his tone has been different this preseason with the rebuild at a critical juncture, he was clearly excited that his team was just a few days away from game day.
“It’s been good,” Schiano said in reference to opening the season with a conference gane. “I think it gets everybody lit up and attentive and not that you’re not going to be attentive for anybody you open with, but I think when you put a Big Ten in front of it, it gives you a little extra juice for sure.”
It’s no secret the Rutgers offense enters the season with many questions. Whether it’s the need for quarterback Gavin Wimsatt to have more command and improve his accuracy, the offensive line progress as a unit or the wide receivers producing despite being unproven, it’s hard to know what to expect on Sunday in the season opener.
It’s the Rutgers defense that is the more proven entity entering the matchup against Northwestern. The unit took a clear step forward the first half of last season, but showed wear and tear that led to a disappointing performance on the backend of the schedule. Obviously, the lack of offense was certainly a factor in keeping the defense on the field for too many snaps.
While several key players need to be replaced, there is real hope that the Rutgers defense will have improved depth this season. For the Scarlet Knights to win on Sunday, they need their defense to step up and lead the way while the offense finds its way.
Schiano was asked about his hopes for the defense against Northwestern based on so many key contributors returning.
“Well, they are grown. They developed,” Schiano explained. “At times we played good football last year. Good defense. And other times we gave up plays, so we’re deeper. We have more players that can play, which helps. It’s going to be a very warm day from all accounts on the weather forecast. So the more able bodies that you have that can go out and play and play well, the more it’s going to help. Going to be a lot of emotion, first game. You’re really going to have to work hard to make sure we can keep everybody out there playing.”
Northwestern was just 1-11 last season and are in the middle of a crisis following the fallout of the hazing scandal that led to the dismissal of head coach Pat Fitzgerald. They’ve added some new players through the transfer portal on offense. David Braun was brought in as the new defensive coordinator, but is now serving as the interim head coach. This makes playing Northwestern in week 1 more difficult because of how unpredictable they’ll be.
“I think schematically, they do a very good job,” Schiano said. “Offensively, I know Mike Bajakian, he’s a good football coach, really, really good football coach. He’s been at every level.”
Bajakian returns but the offense is full of new personnel. How they will be utilized will be something that the Rutgers defensive staff will need to identify and adjust to as soon as possible.
“I think on offense, there’s several transfers at wide receiver that are going to help. I think (AJ) Henning and what is it, (Cam) Johnson, those two guys, they are good players,” stated Schiano. “We watched them on Michigan tape and at quarterback, they have not announced who the starter is. They are different. (Ben) Bryant and (Brendan) Sullivan are different, so it will be interesting to see who you prepare football; one is more mobile than the other guy and one is more of a pocket-type guy.”
Both Henning and Johnson had nine catches apiece at other power five schools last season. Henning is from Michigan and Johnson from Arizona State.
As for quarterback, Bryant is an established signal caller and it would be surprising if he was not under center on Sunday.
“I think Cam Porter, their running back, is a special player,” Schiano said. “I think that unfortunately he had an injury that set him back but from all accounts he’s back to who he is. He’s a 220-pound Big Ten running back that if we are not buckled up, it’s going to be a tough day.”
Porter has rushed for just 619 yards on 3.7 yards per carry over two abbreviated seasons. That being said, if he stays healthy Porter could produce a strong season for the Wildcats.
The key for the defense is in the trenches. The Rutgers defensive line has a chance to control the game and dictate the pace. If they can create pressure for Bryant, limit big runs from Porter and help create turnovers, it would go a long way towards the Scarlet Knights opening the season with a victory.
At the end of the day, the best players on the Rutgers defense need to step up. Obviously, the offense needs to protect the football, produce sustained drives and ultimately score enough to win. The special teams needs to be competent and take advantage of opportunities. However, it’s the defense that needs to lead the team in big plays. Creating short fields for the offense would be huge for an offense needing to find its wings. The veterans on the defense need to be ready and make plays for defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak.
“There’s several of them and it’s nice. I’ve talked to you guy about this, that I look at it as a pipeline,” said Schiano. “They are not all the way to the end of the pipeline but they are getting close.”
He continued, “We have some guys that came in here, a guy like Aaron Lewis, came in here at 6-5, 212 pounds and now he’s 6-5, 262 pounds. That’s a pretty big jump, right. You play that out over a bunch of guys: Powell, Jennings, you just go down, Robert Longerbeam, Max Melton. Now they are all starting to become grown ups. Are they at that full development stage in not yet but it’s getting closer and closer. It’s been my experience when you get the guys on the back end of that pipeline if they are really working the way these guys are, that they are going to play well, so I expect them to play well and we need them to play well to win.”
Schiano has said continuously during his second tenure that Rutgers needs to play complementary football to win. It’s true but the version that’s always worked the best for Schiano teams on the banks is the defense taking the lead role. For Rutgers to challenge for six wins and a bowl game this season, its the defense that will need to reach its full potential. Its first opportunity comes Sunday on the national stage against a new look offense.
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