Rutgers improves steadily but slowly

Bill Rabinowitz
Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, center, was a previous head coach at Rutgers, where he helped put the Scarlet Knights on the map. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Rutgers can blame — or credit — Greg Schiano for its predicament Saturday.

If not for the Buckeyes defensive coordinator, it’s doubtful the Big Ten would have offered an invitation to the Scarlet Knights five years ago, regardless of the New Jersey/New York media market that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany coveted.

Until Rutgers hired Schiano as its coach in 2000, its program was known for playing in the first college football game in 1869 — and not much else.

“I grew up in New Jersey,” Schiano said. “It was always, ‘Rutgers can’t do it.’ I never understood that. Why could every other state have a program that does it? Why can’t we?”

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Schiano built the program into respectability and then excellence, reaching as high as No. 7 in the Associated Press poll. The Scarlet Knights were in the Big East then, but he always had a vision for Rutgers joining the Big Ten.

“From 2002 on, that was always my goal,” Schiano said. “We gotta get Rutgers in the Big Ten. I believed that's where it belonged, the kind of academic institution it is, land-grant institution, so I'm really proud that Rutgers is in the Big Ten.”

The Scarlet Knights have not made their mark in the Big Ten as they’ve been outclassed in the East division. Former Buckeyes assistant Chris Ash is in his third season as coach, and the Scarlet Knights are hoping to make it to a bowl game this year.

It’s unlikely that their game against the Buckeyes will burnish their resume. Ohio State is a 35-point favorite, and Rutgers cannot point to recent history for encouragement. The Buckeyes have beaten the Scarlet Knights 49-7, 58-0 and 56-0 the last three years.

But there is respect among the Buckeyes as they assess Rutgers, which defeated Texas State 35-7 in its opener.

Defensive tackle Robert Landers said Rutgers looked noticeably better on video this year.

“They’re a lot faster,” he said. “Their style of play hasn’t really changed, but you can tell they’re a lot more comfortable in the system they’re running. They execute it very well. So it should be a good game.”

When Schiano began his climb at Rutgers, he relied on players from Florida. He knew the state well from his time as a University of Miami assistant. Ash went back to Florida — kind of — to get who he hopes will be a program-changing quarterback. Artur Sitkowski is a New Jersey native who played for IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

“I happen to know this young man from my time in New Jersey,” Schiano said. “Really a tough kid — physically tough, mentally tough, a grinder. He’ll be prepared.”

But Sitkowski threw three interceptions in an otherwise encouraging debut last week, and Texas State doesn’t exactly have a Nick Bosa, Chase Young or Dre’Mont Jones as quarterback-seeking missiles.

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“We’re hoping he’ll do just fine, but it is a different animal,” Ash said of facing Ohio State in Columbus. “There’s going to be noise. There’s more speed at the D-line position rushing the passer. So it’s going to be completely different.”

Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. will also be making his second career start. His first one couldn’t have gone much more smoothly as he threw for 313 yards and five touchdowns in a 77-31 victory over Oregon State to earn Big Ten offensive player of the week honors.

“Dwayne has a great spirit about him,” Buckeyes acting head coach Ryan Day said. “He’s very even-keeled. He’s calm but confident in himself.”

The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on Haskins’ first five possessions last week, aided by a 186-yard rushing performance by Mike Weber. With a plethora of other playmakers and a fast-tempo offense designed to wear down opponents, Ohio State probably is too potent for Rutgers to stop.

“We’re just eager to measure our improvement,” Ash said. “I do feel we’re a much, much improved football team. Year 1 was what it was. Year 2, we were a lot better. I feel like we’re a lot better in Year 3.

“(But) Ohio State is still a very talented football team, one of the top football teams in the country. It’s going to take our best effort to have an opportunity to win this football game. Where we’re at, I’ll know after the game is over Saturday.”