Written By Sammy Jacobs (@Hoosier_Huddle)
The Hoosiers close out September with a trip to Piscataway, NJ to face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The Hoosiers have won the last two against Rutgers, including a 41-0 blow out last November. Overall, the Hoosiers are 2-2 against the Scarlet Knights and 2018 marks their third trip to Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the conference in 2014. This is an important swing game for both programs, a win here would go a long way for the bowl hopes of both teams.
Week Five: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Date & Time: Saturday September 29, 2018, TBD
Venue: High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, NJ
Scarlet Knights at a Glance
Head Coach: Chris Ash
Entering his 3rd Season Overall and 3rd at Rutgers
Overall Record: 6-18
At RU: 6-18
Scarlet Knights Last Season: 4-8 (3-6)
Scarlet Knights Returning Leaders
Passing: Giovanni Rescigno (47.0 pct. 517 yards 2 TDs 1 INT)
Rushing: Raheem Blackshear (39 att. 238 yards 6.1 YPC 5 Total TDs)
Receiving: Jerome Washington (28 rec. 282 yards 10.1 YPR 1 TD)
Tackles: LB Trevor Morris (118 tackles 3 TFL, .5 sack, 1 Passes Defensed)
Athlon’s: 7th in Big Ten East
Lindy’s: 7th in Big Ten East
Street & Smith’s: 6th in Big Ten East
Phil Steele: 7th in Big Ten East
Impact Newcomers for the Scarlet knights
1. Artur Sitkowski, QB- Sitkowski is probably the freshman that is most likely to have a major impact on the Rutgers season. Chris Ash will have a choice to make early in the season. Does the third-year coach start a senior in Giovanni Rescigno or embrace the youth movement and go with the true freshman?
Sitkowski enrolled early, giving him a chance to catch up with Rescigno. Sitkowski is a big QB at six-foot-five and 215 pounds, size that NFL scouts love. He is a traditional pocket passer with a big arm and can make a lot of the throws needed to be a really good college quarterback.
2. Eddie Lewis, WR- Rutgers has a few veteran wide outs that will probably start ahead of Lewis, but the Middletown, New Jersey native will compete for snaps during the season. Prior to taking a prep season Lewis played for former Hoosier coach Dino Mangiero at Mater Dei. He’s an electric player with the ball in his hand and should force the offensive coaches to get the ball to him in space.
3. Malik Dixon, LB- Rutgers needs help on defense and they reached into the JUCO ranks for safety-turned linebacker Malik Dixon. Dixon played the 2017 season at Eastern Arizona Community College where he a First Team All-Arizona Community College Athletic Conference selection. He was a playmaker at the JUCO level making 41 tackles, picking off six passes and even returned a punt for a touchdown. Listed at 215 pounds, Dixon will have to put on a little bulk to make the transition to linebacker in the Big Ten, but he is definitely athletic enough to be a very solid player.
4. Jon Hilliman, RB- Rutgers was thin at the running back position so they went the grad transfer route again and brought in former Boston College runner Jon Hilliman. He’s a brusing back at 6’ 220 pounds. He has run for 26 touchdowns and 2,040 yards in four seasons at BC. However he lacks explosiveness as the only time he managed over a four yard per carry average was way back in 2014.
In 2017 Rutgers’ offense was as one-dimensional as it can get, if the Scarlet Knights couldn’t run the ball they were not going to do much of anything as Rutgers finished 129th (out of 130) in total offense at 262.7 yards per game, 125th in passing offense and 87th in rushing offense. Needless to say there isn’t anywhere to go but up. How far they rise is the big question and with the loss of running backs Gus Edwards and Robert Martin and a potential true freshman at quarterback, that rise may not be significant enough to reach a bowl game.
Let’s start under center for Rutgers where a quarterback battle is likely to drag out through fall camp and probably into the first week of the season. Giovanni Rescigno is back for his senior season after a season he spent bouncing between the bench and the starting role while true freshman Artur Sitkowski was in for spring practice and looked solid.
Rescigno played in nine games in 2017 and completed a woeful 47 percent of his passes and only tossed two touchdowns. He can manage this offense OK as he helped Rutgers win three Big Ten games but doesn’t instill a lot of fear in defensive coordinators.
Sitkowski will make this an interesting decision for head man Chris Ash. With a fairly tame front end of the schedule (vs. Texas State, at Kansas, vs. IU) does Ash go with the senior or use it as a chance to get his true freshman some meaningful snaps before the meat of their season. Sitkowski has the size (6’5”) and arm strength to be a nice Big Ten QB.
The other quarterback on the roster is Jonathan Lewis, a 6’3” 240-pound sophomore who played in seven games as a freshman, usually in relief or down by the goal-line. Lewis scored four rushing touchdowns and threw for two more, but he did not impress with a completion percentage of 37 and throwing four interceptions. It remains to be seen how Rutgers will use him this season.
Whoever is playing quarterback will have to break in a young set of receivers as well. The Scarlet Knights leading returning receiver is senior tight end Jerome Washington who made 28 catches for 282 yards, but just one touchdown. Outside of him, Rutgers is looking at starting two freshmen and a sophomore at the receiver position.
Sophomore Bo Melton played in all 12 games (three starts) as a true freshman. He has big play ability as he averaged over 20 yards per catch but had just four catches all year and stands at just 5’11”. Redshirt freshman Shameen Jones brings some much-needed size to the Rutgers receiving corps at 6’1”, he earned first-team All-New York City honors playing in high school. The other wideout spot should go to Eddie Lewis, a true freshman who enrolled early. Lewis is 6’ and played a prep season at Milford Academy where he caught 41 passes for 1,072 yards and 15 touchdowns. Prior to his prep season, Lewis helped lead Mater Dei to a New Jersey State title with a touchdown on a hook-and-lateral as time expired. He should bring speed to the Rutgers offense.
The Scarlet Knights were most successful when they ran the ball effectively in 2017. The bad news for Rutgers is that 2017’s two leading rushers, Gus Edwards and Robert Martin, are no longer wearing scarlet and white. Rutgers was so desperate at running back they had to bring in a grad transfer from Boston College, Jon Hilliman. Hilliman is a brusing back who has rushed for over 2,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in his career. He should help stabilize that position for 2018. Behind Hilliman is sophomore Raheem Blackshear, who showed promise as a true freshman rushing 39 times for 238 yards and three touchdowns. Trey Sneed will be the reserve back.
Rutgers’ offensive line is anchored by Tariq Cole, a Phil Steele fourth-team All-Big Ten tackle. The imposing redshirt senior stands at 6’5” and tips the scales at 320 pounds. He has started 23 of the last 24 games for the Scarlet Knights and his efforts have earned him back-to-back All-Big Ten Honorable Mentions.
Cole is surrounded by two juniors (center Jonah Jackson and right tackle Kamal Seymour) and two sophomores (guards Micah Clark and Mike Lonsdorf). Jackson is a 6’4” 299-pound lineman who can player the interior positions. He’s played in 18 career games but was limited to just six in 2017. Seymour is another big tackle at 6’6” and 312 pounds. Seymour started all 12 games in 2017 and played in 10 more games in 2016 as a freshman. Clark is a bit of an undersized guard at 289 pounds but is just a sophomore and should break the 300-mark soon enough. He played in nine games as a true freshman. Longsdorf gives Rutgers another 300-pound lineman. He played in just four games a season ago and was named an Academic All-Big Ten honoree.
The line has the size of a Big Ten squad but is young in spots. If they stay healthy, the Rutgers offense should be better than they were a season ago.
The Scarlet Knights’ strength this season will come on the defensive side of the ball as they return five of their top six tacklers from a season ago. They will also get the services of Saquon Hampton and Blessaun Austin back in the defensive backfield after they both missed significant time last season.
The secondary will headline this side of the ball as Rutgers returns three very good seniors in Hampton, Austin and Isaiah Wharton.
Hampton has played in 27 career games and has racked up 112 total tackles with two interceptions and eight passes defensed. When healthy, Hampton is a game changer at free safety.
Austin was lost for the season just four games into the 2017 season but has played in 26 career games. He is Rutgers best cover corner and has defensed 22 passes, including three interceptions.
Wharton will have to fight off sophomore Tre Avery who transferred in from Toledo (originally an Ohio State commit) in 2017. Wharton has the experience factor going for him having played in every game throughout his first three years at Rutgers. He has two career interceptions to go along with 26 passes defensed and 143 total tackles.
At the linebacker position, Rutgers brings back Trevor Morris (Will backer) and Deonte Roberts (Mike backer) who combined for 222 tackles and eight tackles for a loss. They will be joined by JUCO transfer Malik Dixon who will man the Sam backer spot.
Rutgers will have to replace their three best defensive linemen in 2018. Seniors Kevin Wilkens (DE) and Jon Batkey bring back experienced production as they combined for 80 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, but just 1.5 sacks. Getting pressure on the quarterback could be an issue again this year as the group may have less overall talent than an underperforming unit a year ago. Junior Manny Taylor will be at the nose tackle and Elorm Lumor will man the other defensive end position.
Special Teams Preview
Rutgers special teams used to be great. They had an All-World returner in Janarion Grant, solid kicking and punting and have led the nation in blocked kicks with 49 since the start of the 2009 season. They’ll be breaking in a new punter in Adam Korsak, a big legged punter from Australia who had an impressive spring practice.
Justin Davidovicz will take over the field goal duties after being the kickoff specialist as a freshman in 2017. He knocked 14-of-41 kickoffs for touchbacks and earn Freshman All- Big Ten Honorable Mention.
The top three kick returners have graduated or moved on from the program. Sophomore running back Trey Sneed is the only other player on the roster who has returned a kickoff, returning four for 49 yards in 2017, so that position is wide open. Expect one of the young wide receivers to take over.
In order for Rutgers to return to their usual good self on special teams, all these new pieces will have to work in unison.