Wojo, Chengelis, Charboneau break down the MSU-Ohio State and UM-Rutgers games this weekend. The Detroit News
Michigan at Rutgers
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, HighPoint.com Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Records: Michigan 8-1, 6-0 Big Ten; Rutgers 1-8, 0-6
Line: Michigan by 39
View from the other side
James Kratch is a reporter for NJ Advance Media and covers Rutgers athletics. He breaks down the Scarlet Knights for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Rutgers game at HighPoint.com Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesKratch.
►Question: Listened to your podcast and will ask you what your headline was — should Rutgers be worried about Michigan scoring 70?
►Kratch: Do I think Michigan will score 70 on Saturday? The odds are certainly against it. My research indicates there have only been 16 games in the last 10 years where a Power 5 school has scored 70-plus on another Power 5 school, and many of those games were in the Big 12. But 78-0 was such a scarring experience in 2016 that Rutgers has to have its guard up every time it plays Michigan.
If Rutgers' defense continues to play like it has the past two games, it should be able to keep things relatively manageable — if you can call 40-plus or 50-plus points that. But if the Scarlet Knights turn the ball over a bunch, the points could pile up.
►Question: This has been a tough season. Did you think the Scarlet Knights would struggle this much and lose games to Kansas and Buffalo?
►Kratch: I did not. The team was pretty vocal about a bowl game being its goal prior to the season, and while I thought it would need to thread a needle to get to six wins, I did think four or five was very realistic.
If you had told me Rutgers would lose to Buffalo or Kansas during the summer, I would have believed you — Kansas was always going to be a tricky road game and Buffalo has NFL talent on offense — but losing to both by a combined 70 points? No one saw that coming, and that two-week stretch ruined the season. The loss to Illinois was bad as well, and that's why Rutgers is 1-8 and seemingly destined for 1-11.
►Question: Jim Harbaugh mentioned Rutgers’ special teams as a positive. What are some strengths of this team?
►Kratch: The Scarlet Knights are very good on special teams. Justin Davidovicz has hit some long field goals, the kickoff coverage has been strong and Australian punter Adam Korsak has gone from rugby-style curiosity to arguably the most effective player on the team.
Rutgers has three good college running backs — Raheem Blackshear, Jonathan Hilliman and Isaih Pacheco — and they've all had their moments. Just not enough given the struggles on the offensive line and the slew of games where Rutgers was down early and had to start throwing. Defensive ends Elorm Lumor and Mike Tverdov have had solid years and give Rutgers hope it has a pair of young bookend pass rushers to build with.
►Question: How would you evaluate freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski?
►Kratch: I think he has a bright future, and he’s played much better in the last few weeks. Sitkowski has made many head-scratching mistakes this year — his 15 interceptions still lead the nation even though he’s played turnover-free the last two games — but he also has not had much help. The offensive line has been poor all year and the wide receivers and tight ends have disappointed.
Sitkowski was a four-star recruit, but he ran an option-offense at nearby Old Bridge High and then split time with Minnesota’s Zack Annexstad as a senior at IMG Academy. The lack of high school success concerns some, but others see it as he lacks overall playing experience and will only improve. As long as he continues to show progress over the final three games, I think he will turn out to be one of the better quarterbacks that has come to Rutgers. He has all the physical gifts, he’s a workaholic and he checks off all the leadership/face of the program boxes. I covered the New York Giants before moving to the Rutgers beat, and Sitkowski’s press conferences sound like he read the NFL Franchise QB media relations brochure front to back.
He’s also a New Jersey kid who had a bunch of offers but eventually realized he wanted to build something at home (after de-committing from Miami) rather than go elsewhere — the type of homegrown recruit, the hopeful logic goes, that can allow the sleeping giant to wake up from his, uh, 149-year slumber.
►Question: Does Chris Ash, who is 7-26 in his third season, make it to a fourth season at Rutgers?
►Kratch: Yes. In fact, I would be stunned if he isn’t back in 2019. The easy reason is Rutgers doesn’t have the $9.8 million to pay off the remaining four years on Ash’s contract after this year. But it’s really not about the money. Athletics director Patrick Hobbs hired Ash only a few days after he himself took the job, and they inherited a raging dumpster fire from the disastrous Kyle Flood/Julie Hermann regime, including eventual NCAA probation and sanctions. Hobbs remains fully behind Ash and believes he has the program going in the right direction, despite the likely 1-11 finish.
I do think there will likely be significant changes to the coaching staff, and Ash and Hobbs will have to face a lot of uncomfortable questions about the state of the program after the season ends, but I do not expect a head coaching change unless something drastically changes in the next three weeks.
Players to watch
►Raheem Blackshear, RB: The 5-foot-9 sophomore running back had a team-high 162 receiving yards at Wisconsin last week, the most receiving yardage by a Rutgers running back in program history. He had a 5-yard receiving touchdown and a career-high 200 all-purpose yards. Blackshear leads the offense with 100 carries for 437 rushing yards, 35 receptions for 316 receiving yards and 886 all-purpose yards so far this season. Blackshear leads the team and ranks 10th in the Big Ten with 98.44 all-purpose yards per game.
►Saquan Hampton, DB: The fifth-year senior defensive back had 10 tackles against Wisconsin, four passes defended, two interceptions and two pass breakups. The last Scarlet Knight with multiple picks in a game was Brandon Jones against Virginia Tech at the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl. It's also the most interceptions for a Scarlet Knight in a Big Ten game since joining the league in 2014. Hampton has 157 career tackles in 36 games played with 19 passes defended (four interceptions). He leads the team with 11 passes defended on the season (nine pass breakups, two interceptions), ranking fifth in the Big Ten and 27th nationally with 1.2 passes defended per game.
►Artur Sitkowski, QB: The freshman quarterback, who has started all nine games, has not thrown an interception in his last 70 passing attempts. He has completed just under 50 percent of his passes, averages 122.2 yards a game and has thrown four touchdowns against 15 interceptions. Against Wisconsin last week, he had his third game with at least 20 completions and completed passes to seven different receivers for 261 passing yards. Sitkowski had three completions of at least 36 yards, including a season-long 41-yard pass to Blackshear.
Facts and figures
►14th since ’14: Rutgers will play its 14th game against a ranked Big Ten team since the beginning of the 2014 season. It’s the Scarlet Knights’ eighth conference game against a team inside the top 10 during that span. Their next three opponents all appear in the latest AP Poll — No. 4 Michigan, No. 21 Penn State, and No. 24 Michigan State. The only other time Rutgers faced three consecutive ranked opponents was in 2007 — No. 2 USF, No. 6 West Virginia and at No. 16 Connecticut.
►Tough opponent: The Scarlet Knights are hosting a top-five opponent for the 13th time in program history. The first occasion was against No. 1 Alabama in 1980 at Giants Stadium, a 17-13 loss. Overall, the Scarlet Knights have nine wins over AP-ranked opponents, with the last being a 31-0 victory over No. 23 USF in 2009. The highest ranked opponent defeated was No. 2 USF, 30-27, in 2007.
►Taking care: Rutgers has not committed a turnover in its last two games. The last time the Scarlet Knights played three straight turnover-free games was in 2009 (FIU, at Maryland, Texas Southern).