Know Your Enemy: Rutgers publisher Sam Hellman answers five questions about Rutgers to help preview Saturday's game between two Big Ten cellar dwellers

1. Illinois doesn't have much to brag about when it comes to recent athletic success or avoiding controversy. But Rutgers obviously has had a a lot of struggles in both regards since joining the Big Ten. The national perception is that Rutgers hasn't added much to the Big Ten other than the New York city TV market. How is that perception taken in Piscataway and what does Rutgers athletic department need to do to truly become competitive in the Big Ten?

Sam Hellman: The national perception is a fair one based on the problems at Rutgers over the last three years. What I'll say first is that, since the changes in December, at least the problems are primarily on-the-field issues. Rutgers has a stronger institution and you'll see that eventually. In Piscataway, you have the same perception you'd see with any college fan base. There are some fans, fair or not, that feel Rutgers is being targeted by the national and local media for the wrong reasons. Plenty of fans are frustrated and feel impatient about the idea of a complete rebuild under Chris Ash. What does the athletic department need to do to compete in the Big Ten? A lot of what's being done now is the right thing long term. Rutgers finally has a real fundraiser and the facilities may some day be competitive with the rest of the conference. It will certainly help to get real money from the conference starting in about five years. The New York market comes up a lot, and it's the reason Rutgers is in the Big Ten. But the other thing about the New York market is nothing goes unnoticed. The kinds of things other schools can get away with don't happen at Rutgers. Someone is always watching. Also, things cost about four times more in this area than they do in many other Big Ten markets.

2. Michigan and Ohio State are really, really good. But what does a combined 136-0 loss over the last two weeks tell us about Rutgers in its first year under Chris Ash?

SH: It tells us that Chris Ash cares more about installing a long-term idea and less about quick results. It also tells us how much of a mess he inherited. If you look at Rutgers' starters for that game, you have about five walk-ons and 10 kids that had  no other scholarship options coming out of high school. Still, there is no excuse for how poorly Rutgers played against Michigan.

3. Who are the key players for Illini fans to watch for on this Rutgers offense and defense?

SH: Offensively, keep an eye on receiver Jawuan Harris. Since Rutgers lost star Janarion Grant, Harris has been the only productive receiver. He was the only player to catch a pass against Michigan or Ohio State. They use him in motion and the run game as well. Hardcore Big Ten fans may remember him as the conference's leading base stealer as a freshman outfielder last year. Defensively, cornerbacks Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton look like they belong against real Big Ten competition. They did a pretty good job against OSU and UM and should be able to cause problems against Illinois. 

4. How was the Chris Ash hire perceived with the Rutgers fan base and how has he done in recruiting so far? What do you think is his long-term path to success there?

SH: The quick reaction from fans was probably "Who?" This was not the "name hire" could have been Al Golden or Greg Schiano. But once fans saw Ash speak and heard his ideas, most were all in. He's exactly what Rutgers needed because he is a polar opposite of Kyle Flood. He's also hungry, affordable and comes with great relationships to people like Barry Alvarez and Urban Meyer. Ash has been a great recruiter so far, but it's a long way until Signing Day. He hasn't been perfect, and losing Dele Harding to  Illinois is an example of that. What Ash has done, however, is land commitments from top New Jersey players. He  has the No. 1 tackle in the state, No. 1 center in the state, three of the top four corners, top defensive end, top receiver, top two running backs and No. 2 quarterback. Not bad for a first-year coach whose team was a mess when he inherited it.

5. What are the keys to the game for Rutgers and what is your prediction?

SH: Rutgers has to find a way to score points. It sounds cliche but it's that simple. I want to see Rutgers commit to running the football and use formations that favor a ground and pound. The passing game simply does not work right now. If Rutgers hits a few big plays or establishes real drives, it can win, but I'll take Illinois to win a low-scoring affair.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories