BadgerNation: What has been more distracting for the Rutgers program – the player arrests or the Kyle Flood suspension?
Sam Hellman: Definitely the player arrests. The Flood suspension didn't change much outside of in-game clock management. He wasn't a play caller and remained in charge the other six days of the week. When you look at the legal issues, you're talking about the temporary loss of your best player and team captain (Leonte Carroo) and four potential starters in the secondary erased from the program (Delon Stephenson, Dre Boggs, Nadir Barnwell and Ruhann Peele).
BN: Rutgers’ defense has given up at least 30 points in three straight games, including at least 49 in the last two. What have been the big problem areas for the Scarlet Knights?
SH: It's a few things but it comes down to depth, quality of opponent and coaching. Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State are all powerful offenses, and Rutgers has never been a solid team against the up-tempo spread attacks. Rutgers has no choice but to play heavily in its base defense because of the aforementioned departures. And when you look at JT Barrett, Connor Cook and Nate Sudfeld, it's not like Rutgers is the only team with struggles against such strong players.
BN: The Scarlet Knights have the worst pass defense efficiency in the conference. Why?
SH: I look at it this way. Rutgers played Ohio State, the defending national champions, without the top four cornerbacks from spring practice available for the game. The secondary features two freshman cornerbacks with a combined eight starts and the two cornerback backups have almost zero football experience. At safety, both strong safeties are nowhere near 100 percent with injuries and the backup free safety is a former walk-on running back. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is doing what he can with few options, and the final Michigan State score is misleading because Rutgers called a great game. When you risk blitzes with no experience in the secondary, you're in trouble. When you play it safe against a quarterback like Connor Cook, you're in trouble.
BN: What has Leonte Carroo’s return meant for Rutgers offense?
SH: Carroo is a difference maker. Rutgers is a different team with him, and needs him to be healthy to make an impact against Wisconsin. Carroo is the best receiver in school history and it isn't even close. He stretches the field. He's a touchdown machine. He's a team captain. His backup, Carlton Agudosi, is an impressive local kid but is not on the same athletic level. Rutgers will be OK with Agudosi if Carroo cannot play but it could be the difference between a win and loss.
BN: How has Chris Laviano handled the starting job in his first season? What have been his biggest strengths and weaknesses?
SH: He's handled it fine. He has strong leadership in the huddle, his teammates support him and that's all you can ask from a first-year starter. He doesn't have the public presence yet that a starting quarterback needs and the fact that so many fans want to see the other quarterback can't be easy on him. Laviano's biggest strength is his fit into the Rutgers offense. He isn't a running quarterback but he also isn't a statue. He doesn't have the arm strength to make all of the throws consistently, and there are still plenty of mistakes that can be expected from a new starter. Clock management is an issue, but that falls as much on the coaching staff as it does on the quarterback.
BN: What has been the hardest adjustment for Rutgers in landing in the Big Ten East Division?
SH: The toughest adjustment comes in finances. In everything from recruiting to coaching, Rutgers is nowhere near the financial powerhouse of the rest of the division and Big Ten money is still a few years away. The money and the fan support will eventually be there, but until it comes, Rutgers faces an uphill battle. Rutgers is middle of the road in the Big Ten in overall recruiting and has been when you look at every year under Kyle Flood. But when you compare it to the Big Ten East Division, Rutgers is fifth at best.
BN: In your opinion, does Flood return next season?
SH: I'd be surprised if Flood is not back for next season unless Rutgers completely collapses. Yes, it's been a rough two months in the headlines, but you have to keep a few other things in mind. Rutgers is not a financial powerhouse, and Flood's overall resume since he took over in 2012. Flood has a winning record, something that few coaches in 150 years of Rutgers football can say. Flood took Rutgers to a bowl game in every season, something no other coach in Rutgers history can say. If Flood was going to lose his job based on the email controversy, it would have happened already.
BN: Who is the x-factor for Rutgers Saturday?
SH: It's middle linebacker Kaiwan Lewis. Both of Rutgers' outside linebackers are on hot streaks, and Lewis is best against the offensive style of Wisconsin. Rutgers has to find a way to both get after Wisconsin in the back field and slow down that hulking offensive line. Rutgers will make some plays offensively, but any upset comes compliments of the defense.
BN: What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Rutgers trouble? Where do you think the Scarlet Knights have the edge over the Badgers?
SH: The easy answer is all of it after last year's game. I understand that Wisconsin is banged up at clearly important positions, but it has a major home-field advantage. More than anything, Rutgers has to find a way to win its share of snaps in the trenches. Rutgers is at a clear size disadvantage and cannot go power vs power.
BN: What is your prediction for Saturday?
SH: I'll take Wisconsin but not the total blowout we saw at High Point Solutions Stadium. I see a handful of big running plays against the Badger defense and Rutgers is a better turnover team defensively.