Believe it or not, Rutgers still has something to play for in November.
The Scarlet Knights (4-5, 3-3 Big Ten) are two wins away from bowl eligibility. They’d need to win two of their next three: at Penn State, at Indiana and vs. Michigan State.
We caught up with Josh Newman, Rutgers beat writer for the Asbury Park Press, to discuss that and more.
Q: Rutgers has won three Big Ten games in the last four weeks. How big of a surprise, if at all, has this team been recently?
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A: I think it’s been a pretty big surprise. Look, they lost to Ohio State on Sept. 30, 56-0, which kind of echoed what happened last year when they got drilled by Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State. They got shut out in all of them. You kind of felt like this season was going in the same direction. They go into their bye week at 1-4 off the Ohio State loss, and you think, ‘All right, maybe they’ll beat Illinois and you finish 2-10.’ They made the change at quarterback from Kyle Bolin to Gio Rescigno. ...The run game’s been good. The offensive line’s been very good, and all of a sudden you win at Illinois, squeak one out against Purdue, beat Maryland and lose to Michigan by three touchdowns — but losing by three touchdowns is better than losing 78-0 like they did last year. So am I surprised? Yes, I am a little surprised based on how the season started, going 1-4.
Q: You mentioned Bolin and Rescigno. Can you break down the situation at quarterback? Because now that true freshman Johnathan Lewis is healthy again, it’s even more interesting than it already was.
A: Rescigno started the final five games of last season, but no one really thought that he would be the answer coming into this season. Spring ball and summer starts, Kyle Bolin transfers in from Louisville, and the assumption was that he’d win the starting job. He’s named a captain, and the writing’s on the wall. Boom, three days later, he’s the starter. Fine. ... As the season’s going on, he’s struggling. Johnathan Lewis had this monster game against Morgan State; runs for four touchdowns and throws for another. At that point, you figure, at some point, Johnathan Lewis will start a game. Once the season is lost, they’ll want to see what they have in Lewis, and he’ll start. ... Over the bye they open up the quarterback position, and some of us thought Lewis would get the nod. He didn’t, and with Rescigno, they’re not asking him to do a ton. He’s been solid, steady and he’s not going to lose a game for you. Lewis has missed the last three games to a high ankle sprain. He should be back Saturday, but now you’re in a situation where bowl eligibility is on the table. It doesn’t feel like there’s a role for Lewis now with Rescigno kind of entrenched in the position and the run game playing pretty well. ... The quarterback situation is Rescigno’s. It would take an injury to unseat him at this point.
Q: Who would you say is an unsung hero of this team so far? Maybe someone or a unit that Penn State fans aren’t too familiar with.
A: I would say the secondary just because there have been so many injuries. Blessuan Austin was lost for the season at Nebraska. They’ve had to shuffle with younger guys playing. Kiy Hester, who leads the team in picks, was hurt for a while. At one point, they moved Jawuan Harris, who was their leading receiver last year, into the secondary. He played pretty well. I don’t know. They’re making it happen with a patchwork unit in the secondary. Michigan picked them apart, but that’s Michigan. Against teams you can beat like Illinois, Purdue and Maryland, the secondary played pretty well. There were times — specifically where Purdue was driving for the win, Maryland was driving for the tie late — and that defensive backfield bent but didn’t break. They’ve really come through.
Q: Bowl eligibility is still on the table. In your mind, what’s a percentage chance that it happens? That they get to six wins?
A: It’s tough because the elite teams in the division — the Ohio States, Penn States, Michigan, Michigan States — are just more talented. They have more talent across the board, and that’s showing in games. I’d say 15 percent. Let’s assume they beat Indiana. If you’re going to beat Penn State or Michigan State, you’re going to have to have some things go your way. This week, Penn State’s lost two games in a row, and they’re angry. They’re going to want to take out some frustration. You’re facing Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley; you’re going to have to catch some breaks. Maybe a special teams touchdown by Janarion Grant, who’s been banged up. You’re going to need creative things to happen. But I will say, in Year 2 (under Chris Ash), if you told the average rational Rutgers fan that you’d be 4-5 in mid-November and that bowl eligibility was even a topic, I think they’d sign on for that back in August.