2019-08-12 14:10:111 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST
-by Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Rutgers linebacker Tyshon Fogg makes tackle. (Image Source: Rutgers University Athletics)
We continue our Big Ten preview series with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, to close out the East Division:
Origin of Optimism: Defensive progress. When Chris Ash took a more hands-on approach with the defense they showed a lot of improvement during the 2018 campaign. After they allowed 35 points per game (through seven), the Rutgers defense gave up just 25 points per game in the final five, including 18 to Northwestern (three-point loss), 20 to Penn State (13-point loss), and 14 to Michigan State (four-point loss) in three near upsets. They lost some key pieces but have added key transfers like former top-100 recruit linebacker Drew Singleton, formerly of Michigan. The linebacking corps has a lot of promise. In addition to Singleton, the talented Tyreek Maddox-Williams is another year removed from his injury (missed 2017) and junior Tyshon Fogg is another four-star recruit. Add to that two experienced cornerbacks in Avery Young and Damon Hayes to solidify the back seven (which has questions at safety).
Cause for Concern: Their inability to throw the ball down the field last season was astounding. They finished last in the B1G in scoring (13.5 PPG), passing yards per game (132.2), yards per pass (4.5), and passing touchdowns (5), while leading the conference with 22 interceptions. Rutgers was the only team to complete fewer than 50 percent of their passes. Not only were the Knights last in yards per attempt (at 4.5), they were 1.5 yards behind the next lowest team (Illinois averaged 6.0). A lot of it was on true freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski but the quarterback wasn’t the only one to blame. Even if Sitkowski gets better or Texas Tech transfer McLane Carter takes his job, everyone else needs to step up. The longest play by a wide receiver went for a mere 28 yards. With 26 plays of 20-plus yards and four of 40-plus, RU was second to last in all of FBS in those categories. Their inability to push the ball down the field, makes the offense so much easier to defend. RU is expected to go to more spread looks in hopes of opening up the offense this season.
Breakout Player: Among the new starters, aforementioned middle linebacker Tyshon Fogg has proven the most and he might have the highest ceiling of all. As a sophomore in a backup role, Fogg still managed to make 48 stops, including three for a loss. Expect him to crack triple digits in tackles in 2019 as the team captain leads the RU defense from his MIKE position after playing mostly WILL last season. He’s a vocal leader and an athletic playmaker who will cover a lot of ground. So far, the early returns on Fogg in camp are glowing as he’s primed to have a breakout campaign.
X-Factor: With the loses of left tackle Tariq Cole and guard Jonah Jackson (Ohio State grad transfer) the offensive line could take a step back in 2019 but there is potential for improvement. Right tackle Kamaal Seymour had a disappointing junior season, but is considered a legit NFL talent, who can really elevate his level of play this season. He’s very quick and athletic with nimble feet. Left guard Zach Venesky (started final five games in 2018) is also on the radar of scouts, as the former boxer impresses with his toughness. Junior center Mike Maietti is heady, experienced, and provides continuity at a key position. Maietti was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list, while Venesky is a captain. Talented redshirt freshman Raiqwon O’Neal appears to have established himself as the starting left tackle. According to offensive line coach Pete Rossomando, O’Neal is raw but “athletically, he’s as good as there is in the Big Ten.” O’Neal is the x-factor of the O-line. An improved offensive line will allow the running game to fulfill its potential and give the passing game a chance. Fewer turnovers and three-and-outs will in turn help the defense. If they end up being worse, it’s hard to see the offense getting much better.
Schedule: When you’re looking up in the B1G East it’s never easy. Add a road trip to Iowa and that’s five conference games against preseason Top-20 teams. There is a very manageable five-week stretch (Oct. 5-Nov. 2) where they play Maryland, at Indiana, Minnesota, Liberty, and at Illinois. In Maryland, Indiana, and Illinois (combined 27-34 last season), they play three B1G programs with the lowest season win totals (other than RU) in the conference according to Las Vegas. The out-of-conference slate is one of the easiest in the Big Ten with Boston College (6 wins season total per FanDuel), as well as Independents Liberty (5.5) and UMass (2.5) all at home.
It’s a Disappointing Season If: The Knights go winless in conference play for a second-straight season.
It’s a Successful Season If: They reach four wins. Even grading on a curve, I can’t go lower than that and anything higher is almost unrealistic.
Over/Under – 3 Wins (O EV/U -120): They should beat UMass, I think, but that might be the only W you should write in ink for Rutgers. They’ll probably be favored against Liberty but the Flames went 6-6 in their first FBS season and Hugh Freeze is their new head coach. That game isn’t until late October so by then he might have Liberty rolling and ready to pull off the upset. Even if RU takes care of business they will have to pull off an upset of their own in conference play just to push. I just don’t see how Rutgers gets to four wins, so going under is a no brainer.
Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.
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