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Across the Aisle: Rutgers Edition

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Maryland v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl is tomorrow, it’s actually happening even amidst all the uncertainty college football has been put through. To celebrate I got to sit down with Aaron Breitman over at OnTheBanks.com to give some background on the Big 10 opponent:

BSD: Elephant in the room: based on what Greg Schiano has told us, Rutgers is going to be playing this game after not tackling for a month and on two days of practice, what should we expect from this Rutgers team?

OTB: To be fair, it’s more like four practices. That being said, I’m on the record that this entire situation for Rutgers is a terrible one and they are doomed for failure. Of course, they aren’t going to turn it down and as competitors, they think they can win this game. I honestly don’t see how they can.

They had their team awards banquet over two weeks ago, almost ten players have begun training for the NFL Draft process and another dozen or so are in the portal. We don’t even know how many players have undergone postseason surgeries other than running back Kyle Monangai, but there are definitely others.

Aside from not playing or practicing actual football from a period of two days after Thanksgiving to a day after Christmas, this matchup on paper would be a major mismatch despite the unprecedented circumstances. Rutgers averaged 14.0 points per game against ten power five opponents this season. Even if the defense, which has performed well at times, limits Wake under their season scoring average, I don’t see any way that RU can score enough to even be remotely in the game.

I fully expect Rutgers to play very hard as usual, but they aren’t built to keep up with a high scoring offense or really equipped to come from behind by multiple scores.

BSD: While we don’t know anything in terms of opt-outs for Rutgers, what are some names Wake fans should be on the lookout for?

OTB: Noah Vedral will start at quarterback and is as tough as they come. However, he is severely limited as a passer and while he can run for big gains, the offense lacks big play capability. The highest rated QB in program history is Gavin Wimsatt who showed up in September unexpectedly after giving up his senior season to sign a reported six figure NIL deal. He only played in three games but his debut was just one play that he converted on a fourth and five on the game winning drive against Illinois. Fans hope to see him play extensively in the Gator Bowl but I’d be surprised if he does. However, if Rutgers falls behind by multiple scores, he absolutely should play the rest of the way.

The two best playmakers on offense are wide receiver Bo Melton and running back Isaih Pacheco. Melton was out of eligibility and Pacheco declared for the NFL Draft soon after the regular season ended. Schiano didn’t confirm this week who was playing, particularly those players who were preparing for the NFL Draft. If neither play, Rutgers is in huge trouble offensively. They’re two best playmakers aside from them are Aron Cruickshank and the aforementioned Monagai, both of whom had surgery and in rehab.

One guy who is attempting to go pro that I expect to play is Julius Turner, the best defensive lineman. All-Big Ten linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi (O3) missed the last few games with an injury and his status is unknown.

Johnny Langan is a true football guy who played quarterback, converted to tight end, has an entire short yardage package designed for him and could be a major factor in this game if it is close.

Adam Korsak is the Team MVP and inexplicably was robbed of the Ray Guy Award given to the nation’s top punter. He helped Rutgers set an NCAA record with a net punt average of 45.34 yards this season, had the most punts downed inside the 20 and hasn’t had a touchback since 2019 in over 120 attempts. Those are literally the three main criteria the Ray Guy Award cites and yet they dug the long ball in choosing Matt Araiza. Remember, it’s not the size of your leg that counts, but how you use it.

BSD: It’s easy to just look at a team and go “they’re 5-7, they suck” but what went right and wrong for this Rutgers team this year?

OTB: Rutgers went 5-2 in winnable games against opponents they were either better than or about the same as this season. That’s progress. Beating Syracuse on the road was a key win in the second game of the season and really shut down their run game. They crushed Indiana for the largest margin of victory in a Big Ten game in program history and also beat Illinois in between them beating ranked foes in Penn State and Minnesota.

It’s pretty simple, RU was 5-0 in games they didn’t commit a turnover. They also finished top 20 nationally in fewest penalties committed per game. When they play mistake free football, they have a chance.

They also held Big Ten champion Michigan to its lowest point total (20) in a conference game and forced them into four consecutive three and outs in the second half. It’s actually a game Rutgers should have won if they had an even average offense.

Against all of the other best teams in the Big Ten, they were non-competitive. Ohio State and Wisconsin scored over 50 against them and RU allowed 40 points to Maryland in the final game of the regular season with a bowl bid on the line. Penn State won easily (28-0) with their third string quarterback.

It’s a common theme: the offense can’t sustain drives or produce big plays, which ultimately wears a competent defense down in the second half against Big Ten competition.

BSD: What does Rutgers have to do to win this game and what can’t they do?

OTB: From a game plan perspective, I expect Rutgers to attempt to do what worked best for them this season. Play conservative ball control offense that eats up minutes and keeps the ball out of Wake’s hands. Limit mistakes and try to capitalize on turnovers. It worked to perfection against Indiana, but Wake Forest is obviously a far better team. They also need to win the special teams battle and Korsak truly is a weapon in regard to the field position battle. The only way Rutgers can win is if this game gets weird and they take advantage of it. They’ll also need some huge performances from inexperienced players who get more opportunity due to a compromised roster and the Florida heat.

They can’t turn it over, can’t commit dumb penalties and also can’t fall behind early. If Wake leads 14-0 in the first quarter, it’s bad news bears time for the Scarlet Knights and it could unravel big time. They can’t get burned on too many big plays and the offense has to sustain drives to avoid gassing the defense.

BSD: any predictions?

OTB: I want to believe Rutgers will play such an inspired brand of football that they give Wake Forest all they can handle after they perhaps have a letdown or flat performance against a fill-in for Texas A&M. However, I just think Wake has too much offensive firepower for Rutgers to slow down enough to have a chance. The offense will have to get creative but I don’t know how well they’ll execute with such little prep time. I honestly think this could get ugly and that was my whole point in thinking this opportunity is really a nightmare in waiting. Wake Forest 52 Rutgers 10