The Golden Gophers notched their first Big Ten win of the season with a 31-10 victory over Maryland on Saturday and will look to claim their second in a Homecoming matchup with Rutgers at TCF Bank Stadium this weekend. I was able to get in touch with Aaron Breitman, managing editor at SB Nation’s Rutgers blog On The Banks, to gain some insight on what we can expect from the Scarlet Knights.
The Daily Gopher: Outside of wins over Howard (52-14) and New Mexico (37-28), Rutgers is averaging 5.4 points per game on offense. Granted, three of their losses have come against teams ranked in the Top 10, but the Scarlet Knights were only able to muster a single score against both Iowa and Illinois. The loss of wide receiver Janarion Grant to a season-ending injury is certainly a contributing factor, but can you break down the Scarlet Knights' issues on offense?
Aaron Breitman: Well, how much time do you have? The offensive line has been terrible in Big Ten play and has been a big problem in not allowing much time for plays to develop. The receivers have struggled gaining separation in the pass game, and starting quarterback Chris Laviano has been pretty awful. He has turned the ball over at crucial times, thrown behind receivers and his inability to run in the power spread offense has been a problem. Aside from that, everything has been great.
Jokes aside, the injury to Grant was catastrophic to the offense, as he was the only elite playmaker on the team and extremely versatile. He is tied for the all-time NCAA record for eight kickoffs/punts returned for a touchdown and he ran for three touchdowns in three plus games this season, despite being a wide receiver. He even has two touchdown passes for his career, including one this season. He is truly irreplaceable and the offense has struggled mightily ever since.
If we are being technical, Rutgers has lost to three teams ranked in the top 5 this season and have been utterly dominated each time. Losing Grant right before playing Ohio State and Michigan was terrible timing, but the truth is the offense would have struggled badly regardless. The fact is Rutgers has run a pro-style offense for years and they currently don't have the right personnel or enough talent to run the power spread offense the way the coaching staff wants to.
The only bright spot on offense right now is running back Robert Martin, who I will get to in a minute. However, even he fumbled in Illinois territory last week in a game [where] Rutgers committed five turnovers. The offense had some success against the Illinois, outgaining them in total offense, winning time of possession, and gaining 23 first downs compared to 10 on the other side. The execution in the red zone was dreadful and the reason Rutgers lost. Let's move on.
TDG: Senior quarterback Chris Laviano has been benched in favor of junior Giovanni Rescigno, who replaced Laviano against Illinois because head coach Chris Ash said the offense "needed a spark." Is this a desperate move or is there reason to believe Rescigno will be more successful leading the offense than Laviano?
AB: It's a necessary move as it's clear Laviano is not the answer at quarterback. I think it was fair to give him through the first half against Illinois, but when you produce zero points against a 1-4 team it's time to go. It was clear months ago that he isn't a fit for the type of offense Rutgers wants to run and it benefits the program to move on. While it's also clear there is no ideal quarterback on the roster for how offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer wants to run things, I'm very confident Gio Rescigno is the best option the rest of this season. He is a good running quarterback who has a decent enough arm and brings energy to the offense.
After a carousel at the position this season, Ash seems committed to handing the reins over to Gio. I think he gives Rutgers the best chance to run the offense the way Mehringer wants to. It's also a way to show recruits a closer version of how Rutgers wants to play with the right personnel. I don't expect Gio to be a savior by any stretch of the imagination, but I think he can move the offense more consistently. There will be a learning curve, as this will be his first career start. He only had one play all season before Illinois, which was a 42 yard touchdown run against Howard. However, I think he has a strong understanding of the playbook and should improve as he gets more comfortable each game.
TDG: Junior running back Robert Martin has been a relative bright spot on offense for Rutgers, with 420 rushing yards and one touchdown on the season. Will the Scarlet Knights rely on him to get the offense going against Minnesota?
AB: Martin is absolutely the key to Rutgers having any chance at controlling the game on Saturday. The junior averages 5.3 yards per carry for his career and needs to get into a rhythm early. As I mentioned, he did have a key fumble last week, but ball security hasn't been a issue previously. Minnesota has a very good defense and I do think Gio will need to establish the intermediate passing game to prevent them from stacking eight players in the box. The offensive line needs to bounce back and create lanes for Martin to run, as there have been instances in the past few games he hasn't even had a chance to get to the line of scrimmage before having multiple defenders in his path.
Martin has speed on the outside, but needs space to run, as he isn't a big, barreling type of back. However, expect fellow junior Josh Hicks to get some carries this week as well. He is much more of a punishing runner and averages 5.5 yards per carry for his career. Hicks didn't get a carry last week after missing practice due to a personal reason and filling in at safety against Michigan, but Ash has indicated they need to get him more involved. Back in their freshman seasons, Martin and Hicks established themselves as a potent 1-2 punch in the backfield. For a number of reasons, it hasn't worked out that way on a consistent basis. I do think there will be a renewed emphasis this week to establish the two of them in tandem. Backup Josh Goodwin should get some looks as well and is the best pass catcher out of the backfield.
TDG: Rutgers ranks 94th nationally in total defense, but S&P+ is a bit more forgiving, ranking their defense at 69th in the country. What are the strengths and weakness of this unit? And how do the Scarlet Knights match up with a Gopher offense that will lean on their rushing attack to move the chains?
AB: The defensive line is definitely the strength of the Rutgers defense, led by senior captains Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Darius Hamilton. JPO leads the team with 4.5 sacks and is the best pass rusher we have. He is also strong in the run game, as he led Rutgers with 12 tackles against the triple option offense of New Mexico. Hamilton plays on the inside and has less gaudy stats, but has been the heart and soul of the defense for years. He missed all of last season except for one game and he has been a bit inconsistent in his return. However, he is a very good player that I expect to play well as his career winds down.
The pass defense has been a disaster the previous three seasons, but the Ash effect on this side of the ball is starting to appear. Rutgers is currently 12th in the country in passing yards allowed this season, trailing only Michigan and Ohio State in the conference. To be fair, the run defense was torched against the two Big Ten powers and the scores were way out of hand, so they limited how much they threw the ball. Regardless, there have been signs of improvement this season on defense.
I expect Minnesota to pound the ball and pound the ball some more with Mitch Leidner out this week. The biggest weakness for the defense this season has been the linebackers. They feature three first-year starters, including true freshman Tyreek Maddox-Williams, who wasn't near the two deep at the start of fall camp. Senior starter Greg Jones saw his career end with a neck injury against Ohio State, who was the best among the position group on the roster.
A major problem this season has been the defense getting worn down due to the inefficiency of the offense. The defense has played fairly well at times, but ultimately can't get a break and constantly has to deal with the other team starting with great field position. That needs to change and if Rutgers can't improve this week against the run game, it will be another long day.
TDG: The hiring of Chris Ash -- a member of the ballyhooed Urban Meyer coaching tree -- was considered a step in the right direction for Rutgers after a disastrous final season marred with controversies under Kyle Flood. Obviously his first season has not gone well. What were the expectations for Ash coming into this season and what are the expectations moving forward? How long before Rutgers can be competitive in the Big Ten?
AB: Ash has made a lot of positive changes and rebuilt the foundation of the program leading up to this season. He made instrumental changes to strength and conditioning, a renewed focus on nutrition and preparation, and he created accountability in every facet of the program. He is recruiting at a much higher level than the previous regime and made it a priority to keep in-state talent home. The long term outlook on Ash is still positive, despite the difficult season so far.
Fans certainly hoped for improvement from last season's 4-8 record, but the reality is years of poor recruiting have really caused a talent void on the roster. There is some top line talent, but depth is a major issue. After losing Grant and Jones, as well as defensive lineman Quanzell Lambert for the season, cracks started to show. It's going to take a couple recruiting cycles for Ash to upgrade the roster with the talent needed to improve the program. However, Ash has created confidence among most of the fan base that this will ultimately happen.
Playing in the Big Ten East will always be a major challenge, but I think Rutgers should have the expectation of fighting for bowl eligibility in year three of the Ash Era. The ideal quarterback for this system is on the way next season in Johnathan Lewis and there is a lot of talented commits who should play right away next season. Once they gain experience and Ash is closer to having the personnel he wants in order to play the way he envisions, progress should be made.
TDG: Minnesota and Rutgers have never played before. Who wins the inaugural matchup? Give us your prediction!
AB: Before I get into the game, I would like to take a moment to address something. There has been some Twitter back and forth this week between fans from both sides, with some Rutgers fans reacting badly to the article from your site this week. Let me say that every fan base has their extremists and I think you will find in the coming years that there are many good Rutgers people out there. As you know, Rutgers is the red headed step child of the conference and we have taken a heavy dose of ridiculing the past couple of seasons, both for football and basketball. There is certainly some heightened sensitivity by some, but fans have a strong sense of pride for our school. That's a good thing and when you are constantly getting hated on by every Big Ten fan base, tensions run a bit high. I think making fun of Rutgers fans for getting upset, after intentionally trying to upset them, is a bit silly. At the same time, the reactions of a few does not represent the many of Rutgers fans who understand it will be a long climb up the Big Ten ladder.
As for this game, I'm optimistic Rutgers will play better this week. I'm interested to see how the offense operates with a different quarterback starting and one who is better suited to run it. If they can control the time of possession and have sustained drives, it will give the defense a much better chance to hold their own against the Minnesota run game. Even so, it's hard to be confident that there will be a complete turnaround this week, which is what it will take for Rutgers to beat a good team on the road. I think it will be a close first half that will see Minnesota pull away in the third quarter, as the Gophers start to dominate the trenches. I'd love to see a close game until the end, but at this point if Rutgers can make a game of it at all, progress will be made. Minnesota 31, Rutgers 14.
Thank you to Aaron for taking the time to answer a few of our questions ahead of Saturday’s matchup between Minnesota and Rutgers! How can Gopher fans not get excited for the program’s first game against the birthplace of college football? To everyone who will be on campus this weekend, have a great Homecoming!
Also be sure to check out our Q&A over at On The Banks.