Know Your Foe - Rutgers

For the second straight week, Wisconsin faces a new Big Ten opponent, traveling out to New Jersey to take on Rutgers. Badger Nation gets the inside scoop on this week's opponent from Scarlet Report publisher Sam Hellman.

1, Quarterback Gary Nova has been having a solid year, but his knee injury has him question. How much does he mean to the offense and how good is backup Chris Laviano?

Hellman: It could be a tough go of things Saturday without Gary Nova. Writing this Sunday morning, I don’t expect Nova to be available but he has not yet been ruled out. Rutgers will not change its scheme with Laviano, but look for offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen to draw up a game plan that protects Laviano. He is a redshirt freshman that had no real experience until the second half against Nebraska. Laviano has a good arm, and can run if he has to, but is a pro-style pocket passer. He can make all the throws, but what will the nerves be like in his first career start? My biggest concern is his knowledge of pre-snap adjustments because there just is not a lot of experience there.

2, Speaking of injuries, how much did tailback Paul James’ knee injury change the approach of the offense and its dedication to the running game?

Hellman: The approach is the same, the result is not. Rutgers has a slew of solid backups, highlighted by sophomore sparkplug Desmon Peoples, but nobody brings what Corey Clement’s old high school buddy does. Rutgers will still run to open up the pass, even more so with a young quarterback under center. Keep an eye on freshman Robert Martin, who scored his first career touchdown last week.

3, How has receiver Leonte Caroo developed over the last few seasons for Rutgers and who are some of the other threats in the passing game?

Hellman: The problem is that no one other than Carroo can get consistently open or separation in coverage. Carroo has always been a freak athlete, but he stepped up this year with his consistency. The trick has always been staying healthy, but he proved early that he belongs among the top receivers in the Big Ten. Outside of Carroo, Rutgers has Kansas transfer Andrew Turzilli as a deep-play thread and a speedy slot option in Janarion Grant. Tight end Tyler Kroft was an All-Conference player last year, but does not have the same role since Rutgers changed offensive coordinators in the offseason.

4, Rutgers has been known to have a stout run defense, but the Knights are now 82nd in the country in run defense (178.3) after giving up 225 yards to Ameer Abdullah. Why has the unit faltered this year?

Hellman: There are problems at all three levels. You can make up for an undersized defensive line against some good teams, but not against a hulking offensive line like Nebraska that executes consistently. Rutgers flipflopped linebackers Kevin Snyder and Steve Longa in the offseason, and both have had a tough time when it comes to closing, wrapping and tackling. The same goes for senior safety Lorenzo Waters, who was a step too slow all afternoon against Abdullah. That’s not to say Rutgers is a bad team against the run. Penn State got nowhere on the ground, and the Scarlet Knights were better than anybody when it comes to stopping Navy’s triple option. It is asking a lot in six days, however, to shut down a rushing attack like Wisconsin.

5, Rutgers has only forced four turnovers this season. What has been missing for the Scarlet Knights that they’ve struggled in that area?

Hellman: Two of those turnovers are on botched offensive snaps too. When you have a struggling secondary, you can’t afford to get aggressive with strips and big blitzes. The Rutgers defense was a turnover machine in Flood’s first year, but it also had five NFL draft picks as starters in 2011 (Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Khaseem Greene, Steve Beauharnais, Marcus Cooper).

6, What was the biggest takeaway from the Nebraska game for Rutgers?

Hellman: Rutgers is not going to quit on this season. Nebraska and Ohio State, the toughest two-game stint on the schedule, both put things out of reach early. But the players never quit on the game, and actually made some plays that looked impressive. Rutgers is not in the top tier of the conference when it comes to talent, but the leadership on the roster means that the effort will always be there. Rutgers is one win from a bowl game in its first Big Ten year. Nobody outside of New Jersey expected that to happen.

7, Rutgers leads the country with 41 blocked kicks since 2009. What’s the secret to their success?

Hellman: It’s about coaching and recruiting. Rutgers spends a massive amount of weekly practice time on its special teams, and this is something that goes back to the early years under Greg Schiano. A spot on special teams is considered an honor at Rutgers, and it’s something every player wants to join. Rutgers is 100 percent willing to sacrifice a punt return to go all out for the block. It’s no secret anymore, but defensive end Kemoko Turay is an athletic freak, and teams have had no answer for him in field goal protect.

8, It’s still early, but how do you think Rutgers is adapting to the Big Ten? What have been some of the biggest challenges?

Hellman: Rutgers is doing fine. Only the unrealistic thought this would happen overnight. I’d say any team that beats Michigan in its first year in the conference is doing something right, no matter how much the Wolverines are struggling. Rutgers fits the Big Ten style in many ways, but it is going to take some patience from the fan base and the extra TV money doesn’t hurt. The biggest challenge comes in recruiting. Teams killed Rutgers with conference affiliation issues over the last few years while programs like Ohio State and Michigan hauled in top class after top class. Flood has a contract extension and a very strong start to his 2016 class. To be blunt, Rutgers has to recruit Big Ten caliber guys to take the next step, and that is what they are doing so far.

9, Where do you think the Scarlet Knights have the edge over the Badgers? Where do you think Wisconsin has the edge?

Hellman: The Wisconsin edge is obvious – Melvin Gordon. After what Abdullah did last week, Rutgers has to make some major changes or history repeats itself there. For Rutgers, the edge may be in the unknown. Wisconsin knows very little about Laviano as a quarterback and the seven throws he made against Nebraska will not be enough to get an accurate read on what he can do. I’m not necessarily betting on it, but Laviano and Friedgen could have some surprises for the Badger defense.

10, What is the one thing Rutgers needs to do well in order to win Saturday? Prediction?

Hellman: Rutgers needs to make 1-on-1 tackles. When you’re an underdog against a good running game, you have to close fast and make the tackle. Otherwise, Abdullah goes for 341 total yards last week or J.T. Barrett has a career game the week before. I really can’t make a prediction this early in the week, especially with the quarterback situation, but if I had to make one right now it would be a victory for Wisconsin.


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