1. So tell us about Gary Nova. What's his story and what kind of year is he having, and does it appear working with Ralph Friedgen has helped him out?
Nova is the classic "Jekyll and Hyde" quarterback. When he is good, he is an NFL caliber quarterback and that is what we've seen most recently in the win over Michigan. Nova's problem comes when he tries to put a game on his shoulders. Nova sometimes tries too hard, and that means forced passes, interceptions and mental errors. You don't have to look back any further than Penn State and five interceptions to see that. Nova is the all-time touchdown passing leader for Rutgers but could end up taking the interception mark by the end of the year. Friedgen helps in two ways. One, he knows quarterback mechanics and made some fixes in Nova's game. Two, he can draw up a game plan to protect Nova's weaknesses. After Nova's Penn State meltdown, Friedgen asked little of Nova the next two weeks and got two strong games.
2. I was impressed with Paul James, but Rutgers has kept winning without him. How have the Scarlet Knights dealt with his absence?
James is a big loss, and Rutgers is feeling it despite two straight wins. The running game is not the same with sophomores Desmon Peoples and Justin Gooodwin replacing him. Both are solid, but there are clear instances where James would have broken something for a touchdown or a big gain. James was also an elite pass blocker for Rutgers. In dealing with his absence, Rutgers turned more to Nova. Nova rose to the occasion against Penn State and the offensive line opened up big enough holes for anybody to make plays against Tulane the week prior.
3. Rutgers has one of the best pass rushes in the nation; how has that happened and who has stood out there?
I see two reasons for improvement. The first is offseason staff changes. Last year's defensive coordinator, Dave Cohen, did not seem to have a grasp on the traditional Rutgers defense and it was a disaster. Kyle Flood made changes in the offseason by promoting Joe Rossi to defensive coordinator and bringing back Greg Schiano assistants in Phil Galiano and Bob Fraser. Rutgers is running a traditional Rutgers defense, and that is huge. It means unconventional blitzes, and aggression at linebacker. The other reason is Kemoko Turay. Turay is in just his third year of organized football, and he is in the 1 percent of athletes. He is an elite athlete and leads the Big Ten in sacks despite only playing about 20 snaps per game. Turay also leads the country in blocked kicks. Ohio State needs to contain Turay on third downs to be successful.
4. When I talked to Rutgers players at the Big Ten Media Days in July, they pointed to toughness as one of the major defining characteristics of the team. Can you see that watching this year's squad?
I do. It takes a lot of toughness to go through what Rutgers has gone through in the last 12 months and still put up a quality football product. Between multiple ugly headlines drawn by athletic director Julie Hermann in her first year, accusations of bullying against the aforementioned Cohen and questions about Flood's job security, Rutgers has been through the ringer. The result is a mentally tough team, and they need that to have any chance at escaping Columbus with an upset. At Rutgers, the people truly believe in being "Jersey strong." Whatever it is, the improved team leadership this year is a big difference.
5. Rutgers has put together a run of decent seasons the past few years, but what's the general fan feeling about this 5-1 start and the job being done by Kyle Flood and his staff? What did beating a program like Michigan mean to the fans and the program?
The general fan feeling is one of careful optimism. Rutgers fans know that the toughest stretch in Rutgers football history begins this week against Ohio State and carries on to games against Nebraska and Wisconsin to close out October. Rutgers fans are not afraid to call out Flood or criticize him, but the majority of his critics are eating their words for now after a September contract extension and uptick in recruiting. Flood is 5-1 or better for the second time in his three years as a head coach. Do fans expect to run the table or win the Big Ten? Most are a little more down to earth. As far as beating Michigan, it is huge for the fan base. Say what you want about a down year for the Wolverines or that storming the field was unnecessary, but Michigan is still Michigan. Nobody in the general public gave Rutgers a chance in that game entering the season. Most importantly, it put Rutgers one win away from bowl eligibility, and very few (myself included) saw the Scarlet Knights playing December football this season.