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Rutgers football has major opportunity at home this season



Oct 16, 2021; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats defensive back Rod Heard II (24) breaks up a pass to Rutgers Scarlet Knights running back Aaron Young (4) in the first half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The weather warming coincides with spring practice beginning next week for Rutgers football. This is obviously a critical part of the offseason for the program. With an almost completely new offensive staff, it’s a crucial development period. In addition, there are many younger players throughout the roster that have an opportunity to earn bigger roles entering the 2023 season.

While there are plenty of questions regarding this team, I wanted to focus on one big picture item ahead of spring practice beginning.

If Rutgers is going to take a step forward next season and become bowl eligible with six wins, they must hit the ground running in September. It’s directly relayed with another key, winning home games. The schedule provides a tremendous opportunity and one that needs to be taken advantage of to have a realistic shot of going bowling in Greg Schiano’s fourth season.

The Scarlet Knights will play five games in September with four of them at SHI Stadium. RU opens the season with a Big Ten matchup against Northwestern at home. They then host Temple followed by Virginia Tech. In previous years, survival might have been the more realistic goal versus winning. However, all three teams are in transition and won no more than three games last season.

Yes, Rutgers only won four games last fall. They won’t be overwhelming favorites in these games, at least entering the season. However, the chance to establish themselves and set up the rest of the season with a strong start is there for the taking.

The 21 game Big Ten home losing streak ended with a victory over Indiana last season. That being said, Rutgers has to consistently win home games to take the next step as a program. Two of the most frustrating losses last season came against Iowa and Nebraska. They were deflating losses in front of great home crowds. Those missed opportunities changed the trajectory of last season. You don’t have to understand calculus to realize wins in those games would have sent Rutgers to a bowl game. The entire narrative for the current state of the program would be vastly different right now.

While no power five opponent is an easy matchup, Rutgers should not be overwhelmed by any great talent discrepancy in its season opening homestand. Even if Northwestern, Temple and Virginia Tech are improved, they aren’t known for high powered offenses or for having elite athleticism on that side of the ball.

Granted, Rutgers had the worst offense of all four teams last season by ranking No. 127 in total offense. However, Temple was No. 99, Northwestern was No 107 and Virginia Tech was No. 120. Even if they are all improved, the RU defense has a chance to build on a solid season last fall.

The hope is things can improve quickly for Rutgers under new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Of course, there could be some growing pains early on. That’s what makes spring practice so critical in that the offense has to learn and develop the new system as quickly as possible. Part of winning these September home games is the work that be put in over the next month as well as the rest of the offseason.

While Northwestern is well established under head coach Pat Fitzgerald and not far removed from winning Big Ten West titles, they were just 1-11 last season. Temple and Virginia Tech are entering year two with coaches Stan Drayton and Brent Fry, respectively. Both had debut seasons with just three wins apiece.

September concludes with the first road game against Big Ten defending champion Michigan, followed by Wagner visiting Piscataway for a second year in a row.

Rutgers doesn’t have to go 4-1 in September to have a successful season. However, it would certainly give this program a major boost if they were able to achieve that start. The other issue is how the rest of the schedule shapes up. October begins with a road trip to Wisconsin, followed by the two winnable Big Ten East games on paper. Michigan State visits on October followed by a road trip to face Indiana. RU’s biggest missed opportunity on the road last season came against MSU while they’ve beaten the Hoosiers two years in a row.

In regard to offenses from a year ago, the Spartans were just No. 97 while Indiana was No. 110. Just like the September foes on the schedule, Rutgers will not be facing offensive juggernauts in October. Heck, even Wisconsin was just No. 91 last season although they could be much better this season under new head coach Luke Fickell.

Is it possible that Rutgers could be bowl eligible by the time it reaches a much needed bye week a few days before Halloween. I will give an optimistic yes. However, the potential of October just emphasizes how important the September start is to the season. Confidence and momentum are powerful things. Winning two division games in October would be huge regardless of the start to the season, but it would surely be more realistic if RU was playing well entering the month.

November is brutal once again with Ohio State at home, consecutive road games at Iowa and Penn State, followed by Senior Day against Maryland.

The schedule is set up similarly to last season. The outlook for Rutgers to become bowl eligible was heavily based on the first two months of the season. Getting to November in need of wins would make it very difficult challenge. Last season, the Scarlet Knights started the season 4-3 but those missed opportunities in losses to Iowa and Nebraska loomed large. RU lost its last five games of the season.

RU has Big Ten home games against Northwestern, Michigan State and Maryland, in addition to mighty Ohio State. That’s a favorable conference home slate for sure. Not easy, nothing is in the Big Ten. But opportunity will be knocking against every league foe that visits Piscataway other than the Buckeyes.

Teams rarely win every winnable game on paper. It’s fair to say that there are six of such contests on the schedule in September and October. Winning them all is unfair to expect. However, not winning most of them would likely mean the season would end without a bowl game. Schiano said last season in September that the team would be playing its best in November. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

This season, while Rutgers might not be able to play to its full potential right away, they need to play well enough to win. The good news is the opportunities based on its opponents will be there to do just that.

To be clear, there is a ton of work to do. There are many questions to be answered before the season begins on Labor Day weekend. They have a long way to go before becoming a good team. Player development, learning the new offensive system, minimizing mistakes and better coaching are all important factors in having a more successful season in 2023. A lot has to come together this offseason in order to maximize this team’s potential. One thing is apparent. If Rutgers wants to be making bowl plans after Thanksgiving weekend, it will likely do so because of its strong start in September and protecting its home field throughout the season.

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  1. FlaRef

    March 24, 2023 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks for the overview of Spring camp. Looking forward to more coverage as the camp progresses and players are starting to settle in starting roles. As you stated, the defense should be big again this year and if the offense can find a way to put some points on the board it should provide some interest in December.

  2. thevinman

    March 24, 2023 at 3:54 pm

    The Temple game will be the barometer for this team just like it was last year. The fact that we struggled to beat them last year showed we were in big, big trouble. If we can’t dominate them this year then it is likely going to be a very long and frustrating season.

  3. BataliBoli98

    March 25, 2023 at 1:57 pm

    Great article. One thing about the offensive numbers for Temple and Va. Tech that were referenced is that their offenses play against far inferior defenses. The ACC is not exactly known for having defensive juggernauts and the same is true for Temple in the AAC. Looking forward to the next article that hopefully tells us that Sam Brown V looks better than ever and that Wimsatt’s passes are hitting WRs and not CBs. Go RU!

  4. thevinman

    March 25, 2023 at 4:23 pm

    We need better play at QB, WR and the OL. In other words, we need an offense. Unless we show significant improvement in offense, we aren’t going to shock anyone.

  5. pj43

    March 31, 2023 at 8:18 pm

    It just seems scary to me that with a new OC, an unproven QB and lots of youth, we need a strong Sept or the season may look glum before Halloween. No pressure on the OC and the HC, eh?

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