Northwestern hasn’t faced Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014. But despite a historically awful beginning to their conference tenure, Head Coach Chris Ash and Rutgers have shown marked improvement over the past couple of seasons.
The Wildcats will have to travel to Piscataway and face a legitimately tough defense near the end of a very difficult six-week stretch. That all spells trap game, even if the Scarlet Knights’ offense may not be up to the challenge.
Rutgers Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
Rutgers’ passing offense was dreadfully anemic behind Giovanni Rescigno in 2017, so much so that the young quarterback failed to complete 10 passes in any of his outings. This year, true freshman Artur Sitkowski joins the fray, and though he slots in as only a three-star QB, Sitkowski may win the job just by virtue of being a fresh face.
The run game wasn’t much better––the Scarlet Knights finished bottom five in the Big Ten in rushing offense (147.1 yards per game)––and Chris Ash has made it no secret that Rutgers will be taking a running-back-by-committee approach in 2018. Included in that committee is Boston College graduate transfer Jon Hilliman, who racked up 638 yards and five touchdowns for the Eagles last season. The offensive line has shown themselves to be thoroughly mediocre in both pass protection and the run game, so I expect Northwestern’s experienced front seven should tear them apart.
Bottom line, this offense, with a completely unproven passing game, is a perfect matchup for a Wildcat defense whose biggest question marks reside in the secondary. Northwestern should be able to limit this Rutgers offense to minimal production, although you never know what will go down in New Jersey.
Northwestern Offense vs. Rutgers Defense
This matchup is a completely different story. The Scarlet Knights defense will follow up a successful 2017 by returning just about every major contributor. A veteran linebacker corps led by Trevor Morris, Deonte Roberts and Tyreek Maddox-Williams provides a steady anchor in both rushing and passing situations. There’s also the Scarlet Knights’ talented secondary, which, led by returning cornerback Blessuan Austin, locked down Nebraska and Purdue despite suffering significant injury losses last season.
The pass rush for the Scarlet Knights is much more questionable, however. Their biggest weakness last season, the front four is riddled with question marks, and they will probably need either Elorm Lumor or Willington Previlon to step up significantly. (By the way, in case you haven’t already noticed, Rutgers definitely has the best names of any Big Ten team.)
Northwestern will likely gameplan around Jeremy Larkin in this one, throwing in some short, easy completions along the way. There aren’t a lot of weaknesses in the Rutgers defense, but a Northwestern team without a ton of next level weapons will probably favor a more grind-it-out, conservative style, especially with their own distinct defensive advantage.
Though many see Rutgers and think automatic win, the recent progress the Scarlet Knights have made makes them a tough out for any Big Ten team, especially on the road. As I mentioned earlier, this is a potential trap game for Northwestern, who will need to be firing on all cylinders to come away with a victory. All signs point to a classic, low-scoring B1G slugfest, regardless of who gets the upper hand.