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Rutgers-Northwestern: Eight Game Day Storylines to Watch



Photo credit Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers football opens the 2023 season against Northwestern on CBS at noon ET on Sunday. In what many consider a must win, here are eight storylines to watch for.

The play of Gavin Wimsatt

All eyes not only of Rutgers nation, but of college football will be watching how the former top 100 recruit does on Sunday. It’s a big moment for Wimsatt and the program in regard to marking his development to this point. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s impact on his progress as well as how he uses the young signal caller are things to watch for. Wimsatt’s instincts in the RPO set and his ability to make plays with his legs are the x-factor in his game. Accuracy and limiting mistakes are the key.

The battle in the trenches

The Northwestern offensive line is remade and inexperienced. The Rutgers defensive line appears to be as deep as its been in a long time. With multiple threats off the edge and a potential for a true 10 man rotation, Marquise Watson’s group has the potential to make a huge impact on the outcome.

On the flip side, can the offensive line come together and provide competent pass coverage and run blocking? If the offense is going to produce enough points to win, it starts with the offensive line. Northwestern rebuilt their defensive line and it’s an ideal first test. And it’s one they must pass if Rutgers is going to make strides offensively this season.

Jai Patel & Flynn Appleby kicking under pressure

For me, the new place kicker and punter might just be the keys to the game. Patel figures to get several field goal attempts if the offense can move the ball at a decent rate. Appleby hopefully gets less chances, which would be a mark of the offense having a solid game. However, whenever he does line up to punt it away, he just needs to be steady. No shanks, no critical mistakes. Average around 40 yards and avoid too many touchbacks for it to be a solid debut for the Aussie replacing GOAT Adam Korsak.

Play of Special Teams return and coverage units

In a game that could see offense come at a premium, special teams play could be the difference. Aside from the specialists, how the coverage and return units perform could flip momentum in a flash. It hasn’t even been revealed who is returning kicks and punts for Rutgers. Whoever does, the coaching staff believes they can make an impact. On kickoff and punt coverage, RU needs to be consistent in preventing big returns and not committing penalties. It will be interesting to see how many on the two deep will work on special teams. There were issues last season and how the staff has approached personnel will be telling.

How will the new look wide receiver core perform?

Will JaQuae Jackson play well in his first game at the FBS and Big Ten level? Can Chris Long show the progress that many hope he’s made to be an impact receiver this season? Will true freshman Ian Strong build off his strong spring and preseason performances? So many questions and we’ll finally get some initial answers on Sunday.

The play calling of new OC Kirk Ciarrocca

We’ve heard Ciarrocca speak on tailoring the offense to the personnel, the tutelage of Wimsatt, and finding what works best for everybody. He has a solid track record, but this is a big first test in his second tenure as offensive coordinator at Rutgers. His adaptability has been key in previous stops and certainly will be here again. What could be the difference in winning or losing this game is Ciarrocca’s in-game adjustments and shift in exploiting specific matchups that the staff identifies early on.

What will the fan turnout be?

It’s high noon on Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. While it’s cool that Rutgers is the only game being played in this time slot and has the full attention of college football, it’s not a great spot for driving a strong crowd. With expectations relatively low and only 21K season ticket holders, it’s certainly fair to wonder how full SHI Stadium will be. This team needs every edge it can get and if the crowd threatens 40K, that should be considered a positive. If the turnout is low, not only will not help produce much of a homefield advantage, but the perception and critique on social media will be as hot as the temperature on the field.

Rutgers winning a Big Ten game its expected to

This would be a positive step just in coming through in a big spot. A win is crucial for several reasons. Getting a Big Ten win in week 1 certainly raises the floor on the ceiling. It also would come against the team generally considered the worst in the conference. If you lose to them, tag you’re it. The Scarlet Knights also haven’t had a lot of success at home in league play. A win on Sunday would help move the needle in the other direction in a season RU has many winnable home games. And of course, winning a game the entire college football world is watching is an added benefit. At the end of the day, a win in any shape or form means Rutgers did something they were expected to. Too many times, this program hasn’t been able to seize that opportunity. For Greg Schiano to show progress in year four, this is a much needed development.

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