And in that corner… The Rutgers Scarlet Knights

21 Comments

The Fighting Irish boarded a Delta 747 for New York on Monday afternoon, set to spend Christmas in the Big Apple before playing Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday. The mood was jovial (if Twitter and Instagram are an indication) as the team took to the skies, a rare game where the Irish are playing for themselves.

While there was griping among fans about a northern destination, New York was an oasis this weekend, with temperatures reaching the 70s. It won’t last until the weekend, but Saturday’s high temperature should be in the low 40s, perfectly fine weather for football.

Now onto the game. Rutgers salvaged a postseason bid with a win in their season finale against USF, bringing Kyle Flood’s squad up the Jersey Turnpike for their highest profile game of the season. To get us a better idea of what awaits the Irish, The Star-Ledger’s Tom Luicci was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

Tom’s been covering college football for as long as I’ve been alive, with 34 years of experience, including 21 seasons as a national college football writer. That means he’s spent a lot of time covering the Irish, attending roughly 60 Notre Dame games between 1979 and 2000. He is New Jersey’s state chairman for the Heisman, a Harris Poll voter, and an instructor of elite Naval Aviators in Miramar (maybe one of these is a fib).

At a really busy time of year, I’m thankful Tom could spare some of his expertise to get us ready for the bowl game. Hope you enjoy.

***

On paper, it’s not hard to see why Rutgers finished the season 6-6. They struggled with turnovers, gave up a ton of big plays, and just didn’t compete against above average teams in the conference. A year after winning nine games, what went wrong?

The short answer is this: The NFL Draft and key injuries. Rutgers had seven players drafted last year — which was more than any Big Ten team. And Rutgers isn’t a program like Ohio State that simply re-loads. It takes a little time to rebuild. Three of those players drafted were from the secondary, two were starting LBs (one was the two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year) and the defense had to be overhauled.

Rutgers was the only team in the country to start two true freshmen corners in the same game this year. Teams took advantage of that, spreading out Rutgers’ defense and schooling the young secondary. Offensively, Paul James was the nation’s No. 2 rusher after four games when he broke his fibula and missed eight weeks and QB Gary Nova never elevated his play, which is why he was benched the final two games. In the secondary, one of the new starting CBs (Ian Thomas) abruptly quit the team and another (Lew Toler) suffered a season-ending broken arm. So the secondary was a mess all year.

What’s the latest with the Scarlet Knights’ QB situation. Will the Irish see senior Chas Dodd or Gary Nova? Where does Rutgers go moving forward at the position?

Dodd will start for the third straight game — after not starting a game before this year since the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State. Nova’s decision-making, turnovers and inability to jumpstart the offense are why he got benched after 23 straight starts. A spark or some change was needed. Going forward there will be a QB competition in the spring. Chris Laviano, a true freshman who is redshirting this year, is expected to give Nova a run for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Blake Ranking could as well.

Rutgers is bowl eligible, but it seems that Kyle Flood struggled to hold onto his job. He fired three coaches on his staff the day after the Pinstripe Bowl announced their selection of the Scarlet Knights. Looking past the bowl game, how does this program look as it enters the Big Ten?

With fewer spread teams in the Big Ten (and a new defensive coordinator to be named) Rutgers should be competitive. I know that sounds strange given how they were beaten up by spread teams this year but this defense is built more for the Big Ten style of play. Offensively, Rutgers returns everyone except WR Brandon Coleman. But Nova may or may not be the starting QB. The offensive line returns intact. TE Tyler Kroft is coming off a breakout year. And WR Leonte Carroo, if he can stay healthy, is an NFL-caliber player. Defensively, Rutgers loses four starters — but the reality is not one had a good year. And there is some promising young defensive talent on the roster. So on paper, this can be a competitive, Iowa-type team.

Flood fired his defensive coordinator Dave Cohen. The unit seems to have given up a ton of points, but they are ranked 4th in the country against the run, though have struggled mightily against the pass. How bad are things on that side of the ball? Or was Cohen fired for the off the field accusations of bullying players?

Cohen was fired because this was the worst pass defense in school history statistically — by a wide margin. And if Notre Dame gains 401 yards it will have allowed more yards than any defense in school history. This defense is good against the run, but the reality is that teams pass on this defense because they can. The secondary is the biggest issue. It’s painfully young. Even the one senior there — free safety Jeremy Deering — played offense his first three years. The front four has not done a good job helping out the secondary by getting enough pressure, either.

What can the Irish expect from the Rutgers offense? One-time Irish running back target Savon Huggins looks buried on the depth chart. Will the Scarlet Knight attack feature a heavy dose of Paul James?

With James healthy, as well as promising true freshman Justin Goodwin, Rutgers will have a run-first offense. Notre Dame appears vulnerable there — at least statistically — and ball control is the best way to keep a wobbly defense off the field. Rutgers is trying to expand its offense with some zone read wrinkles, so we may see more of that. Chas Dodd isn’t a high percentage passer but he does have a knack for making plays and he is a senior. Running the ball, throwing to the tight end, a controlled passing game with a few deep shots. That’s how Rutgers generally tries to approach games — unless (or until) they get out of hand.

The Irish are a pretty resounding favorite heading into the Bronx next week. Do you expect Rutgers to put up a fight and keep things close? Do you think Scarlet Knight fans will try to stake a claim to Yankee Stadium and New York City, or is that just the Yankees marketing department’s dream?

Rutgers is 2-0 in the new Yankee Stadium and I think there’s a general feeling that a good showing — not even a win necessarily — will provide some momentum into the off-season. If Notre Dame gets up by double digits quickly, this could just be another ugly Rutgers loss. But I think there’s far more motivation on Rutgers’ part to be playing Notre Dame than the other way around. But emotion only can carry a team so far. They have to play and play well. And Rutgers will have solid crowd support for the game.

***

For more from Tom, check out his work at the Star-Ledger and give him a follow on Twitter @TomLuicci.