Out-of-town Q&A: Rutgers

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Time to take a look in on Rutgers, with a significant assist from beat writer Keith Sargeant of the Home News Tribune of East Brunswick, N.J.

You can check out his work on his blog, Scarlet Scuttlebutt. Already up is a Q&A with me covering the Maryland end of things heading into Saturday afternoon’s game at Byrd Stadium.

Lots to cover involving the Scarlet Knights, including quarterback Tom Savage, a veteran defense and perhaps a plateauing of a program that just two years ago was surging faster than any other in the nation. Here goes …

1. Rutgers looks like a mystery team at this point – a blowout loss to a well-coached Cincinnati bunch and two home victories they were supposed to collect. Is there a sense this game will really start to reveal more about the Scarlet Knights?

KS: No question this will be Rutgers’ most important test since failing miserably in its season-opening debacle. This is a game Rutgers needs to win to put that 32-point Cincinnati loss further in the rearview mirror. The funny thing is, I look at Maryland and see a lot of similarities with Rutgers’ season so far.

Both were spanked by top 15-caliber foes to start the season and both hosted I-AA and Sun Belt foes the past two weeks. And while Maryland’s results speak for themselves, Rutgers’ victories over Howard and FIU haven’t exactly been awe-inspiring. I know a win is a win, but there have been enough lulls in Rutgers’ play to make one think that another 7-5 record/low-level bowl bid will be in the offering if the team doesn’t settle its issues quickly. Beating an ACC foe on the road would do wonders for Rutgers’ respectability at this point.  

2. Obviously Tom Savage is not Mike Teel, at least not yet. But what are the chances the Scarlet Knights can win eight regular-season games with a true freshman under center – something Teel didn’t do his last two seasons.

KS: The chances are good, if Savage continues performing like he has in his first two starts. I know the statistics (53.1 completion percentage, 543 yards, 3 TDs) aren’t eye-popping but the key number at this point is the zero in Savage’s interception column. Savage is a work in progress at this point – name me a true freshman who isn’t – but he’s beyond his years in both his game-management skills and his temperment.   

Rutgers’ defense certainly has the potential to be dominant and the running game has been effective enough, so it’s not a stretch to believe that if Savage keeps his mistakes to a minimum the Scarlet Knights should win the majority of its games. The one thing Rutgers can’t afford is a performance like Dom Natale turned in against Cincinnati, when his 3 first-half INTs resulted in the team being down 31-7 at halftime. Savage knows this more than anything.

3. Despite the offensive losses, the defense has nine upperclassmen listed as starters. Was it assumed the defense would carry the team for much of the season, and has that bunch lived up to expectations in the first three weeks?

KS: Yes and no. We went into the season thinking the defense would be a strength, but the unit has failed to live up to its billing so far. Yielding 564 yards to Cincinnati at home was an embarrassment, surrendering any points to Howard was inexcusable, and giving up 15 points in the final eight minutes negated the 52 minutes of brilliance against FIU.

While the defense has certainly improved since Week 1, it certainly doesn’t resemble the unit that paved the way for the seven-game winning streak to end last season. And with more experienced depth than ever before in the Schiano era, the fact that Rutgers ranks near the bottom of the Big East in both total and scoring defense through three weeks is unfathomable.

That being said, I think there was enough from the FIU game to build on this week and I wouldn’t be surprised if the defense kicks it into gear at Maryland.

4. How valuable a game is this for Rutgers in terms of recruiting the Baltimore/D.C./Northern Virginia area, and how much does coach Greg Schiano want to mine this area more?

KS: It’s huge for a number of reasons. Schiano’s proclaimed “State of Rutgers” includes any area within a four-hour drive of the Central Jersey campus. By helicopter (Schiano’s vehicle of choice), Maryland is even closer than that.

The Rutgers coach certainly has stepped up his efforts in the Baltimore/D.C./Northern Virginia area the past few years, although it should be noted that Rutgers’ two most noteworthy Maryland products, RB Jourdan Brooks and FS Joe Lefeged, were not offered scholarships by the Ralph Friedgen. The point is, it’s not as if the respective coaching staffs are butting heads on the recruiting trail.

Still, there’s no question Rutgers has targeted the Chesapeake area this year to compensate for what’s widely believed to be a down year for New Jersey recruits. You wouldn’t know it by the early results for the 2010 class, although Schiano was able to beat out several big-name schools, including Maryland, when cornerback Darrell Givens (Fort Washington, Md.) reopened his recruitment and enrolled at Rutgers prior to preseason camp.

5. When Maryland visited Piscataway in 2007, Rutgers was ranked in the top 10 and seemed on the verge of becoming a national power. Since then, the program is 15-11. Is there a sense things are still trending up, or has the mid-decade rise effectively plateaued?

KS: It’s probably more towards the latter, since even the most passionate of Scarlet Nation loyalists would have a tough time saying this is a program on the rise.

In 2007, Rutgers did nothing to build on the momentum of the 11-2 campaign the year before and the 7-game winning streak to close last season still resulted in another low-tier bowl game. And there’s no question that the Cincinnati loss tempered the enthusiasm of a Rutgers fan base fully expecting the Scarlet Knights to contend for the Big East title this season.

They still might, considering it’s only three games in and the Knights still have the bulk of their Big East schedule to play. But certainly there’s no evidence to suggest Rutgers will run the table, either.

Much thanks again to Keith Sargeant for taking the time this week to for lending his expertise on Rutgers football.

Patrick Stevens

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