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Behind enemy lines: Q&A with On the Banks ahead of Maryland-Rutgers

Get to know the struggling Scarlet Knights a little better.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Rutgers Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football hosts Rutgers at noon ET on Homecoming Saturday. The two newest members of the Big Ten have split their four meetings in the new conference, but the Terps are heavy favorites in this one.

Rutgers went from 2-10 in Chris Ash’s first season to 4-8 last year, which is some sort of progress. But this year’s Scarlet Knights are 1-5 and hardly look like an FBS-caliber team. To help break everything down, we brought in Aaron Breitman of SB Nation’s On the Banks. You can follow him (@aaron_breitman) or the site (@OTB_SBNation) on Twitter if you’re so inclined. Our corresponding Q&A should be on their site later today.

Testudo Times: Rutgers is 1-5 and has been blown out in four of its five losses. What’s been the difference after last year’s team won three Big Ten games (including beating Maryland)?

On the Banks: The defense was solid last season and the strength of the team. This year it is awful and the biggest weakness, which is saying something for a team with an offense that’s one of the least productive in college football. The troubling part of it is the majority of the starters from last season’s team are still on the roster, even with two players gone and now in the NFL. There have been some injuries, including to cornerback Blessuan Austin, who is the best player on the team. The secondary has been hit the hardest with multiple players having missed time or playing with some ailment.

Another issue is that eight players were removed from the roster and suspended before the season due to being involved in a credit card fraud investigation. While only one of them was projected to start, all of them were defensive players and a good amount of them were projected on the two deep this season. Still, it doesn’t fully explain why a defense with 7 starters from last season in the same roles again this year are performing so much worse. The fact that head coach Chris Ash was a defensive coordinator at schools like Ohio State and Wisconsin and his unit is killing this team is the most frustrating part of the season for Rutgers fans.

TT: How are Scarlet Knights fans feeling about Chris Ash in his third season? Is there still hope he has the long-term answers?

OTB: Ash said before the season that making a bowl game was a reasonable expectation for this team and that the program was on track entering his third campaign in charge. The fact that Rutgers has been such a disaster, patience for the rebuild is mostly gone and there isn’t a lot of hope or belief in Ash right now. This is an extremely young team, as 73% of the roster are redshirt sophomores or younger. Even so, losing to Kansas, Buffalo, and Illinois by a combined score of 135-44 is unacceptable.

There is enough talent on this team to at least be competitive against those programs. With such poor performances against thise programs that Rutgers expects to be better than has been the biggest red flag that something is seriously wrong with the direction of the program under Ash. With a 9.8 million buyout that would be owed to him after the season if Rutgers made a change, it seems unlikely that that they will. Ash inherited a difficult situation and I’ve always said he needs five years to turn things around, but he has tested that sentiment this season for sure.

TT: The numbers suggest true freshman QB Artur Sitkowski has been overwhelmed to start his career. What positive and negative things have you seen from him so far?

OTB: We expected ups and downs with a true freshman quarterback and unfortunately there have been more downs so far. However, he has looked much better the past two games and appears to be more comfortable than he was at the start of the season. He has struggled with locking in on one receiver and failing to properly work through his progressions in the pass game. That has led to 11 interceptions. He has also taken a beating this season, as the Rutgers offensive line has struggled with pass protection. It’s resulted in him rushing some throws at times or has thrown behind receivers, even on short passes, on attempts that he should be completing.

Another factor that hasn’t helped him is the fact that Rutgers continually falls so far behind in the first half, the offense has to give up on the run game. This puts more pressure on Sitkowski and forces him into situations that are more difficult, making it even more challenging for the true freshman.

The positives are the kid is tough as nails and has earned a lot of respect for continuing to stay in the pocket, step into his throws under pressure, and to keep getting up when he gets knocked down. Sitkowski has the build, the arm and the ability to develop into a very good quarterback. He talks like a pro and has held himself 100% accountable for the issues that he has had. Despite throwing 3 interceptions last week in the loss to Illinois, he completed 63% of his 46 passing attempts and at one point had 12 consecutive completions. Sitkowski is starting to work through his progressions more so and also forcing less passes into dangerous situations. The key is for him to make steady progress in his development this season, which would give Rutgers fans something positive to takeaway from an otherwise nightmare 2018 campaign.

TT: Name one player on offense and defense that Terps fans should be watching out for.

OTB: On offense, Raheem Blackshear has been the most productive player and is the most versatile. He is a small, speedy running back who is getting about 20 touches a game. He has the ability to break off a big run and is also a threat in the short passing game. If he can get to the outside and find open space to run, Blackshear has the potential to make big plays. His numbers have been solid, but not spectacular and part of that is Sitkowski has missed several short throws that would have probably resulted in significant gains. Also, the offense has had to air it out in the second half when they are multiple scores behind in the game.

On defense, its a harder question as so many have been a disappointment. I would say the most consistent player has been senior Kevin Wilkins, who can play multiple positions along the defensive line. Rutgers has been awful in generating a push at the line of scrimmage, struggled mightily in stopping the run game and has failed to get much pressure on the opposing quarterback, but Wilkins has been solid, he just needs help. He also gets credit for mentioning redshirt freshman Mike Tverdov, who has shown flashes of developing into a good player and has produced a sack in each of his last two games.

TT: What would a win mean for Rutgers’ season?

OTB: It would be a big surprise and certainly help Ash considerably in pushing the narrative that his young team is making progress. That would help on the recruiting trail and with the fan base that has lost faith in him for the most part. It would also ensure this team won’t go 1-11 and winless in Big Ten play. It would also be nice to beat Maryland two years in a row and lead the series 3-2 since both schools joined the Big Ten. With all that being said, I can’t see Rutgers winning on Saturday or even keeping it close based on the way the first six games have gone.

TT: The Scarlet Knights are heavy underdogs in this contest. What will have to happen for Rutgers to pull this one out?

OTB: The biggest mismatch is the Maryland run game versus the Rutgers rush defense. It’s the reason I don’t expect the game to be close. Surrendering big plays in the run game has been a major issue all season and I don’t see any reason why that will stop against a team with multiple options like Maryland has.

Sorry for the rant and to answer your question, Rutgers would need to control the time of possesion with a balanced offense spurred by the run game, sprinkle in a few big plays in the pass game, prevent big plays on the defensive end, win the turnover differential and limit penalties, something they haven’t been able to avoid all season. Good luck to Maryland fans but I don’t think you’ll need it in this one.