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UMass opponent previews: Rutgers football looks for improvement after rough 2018

Staff Writer
Published: 7/2/2019 8:07:10 PM

By the time UMass puts on its pads at Highpoint.com Stadium on Aug. 30, it will have been 363 days since Rutgers last won a football game.

That is the type of season it was for the Scarlet Knights last year, struggling to a 1-11 campaign that featured few bright spots after the opening day victory. Yet the hope in New Jersey is that 2018 was simply an anomaly for Rutgers under fourth year coach Chris Ash.

There is significant pressure on Ash to get the program back to the standard set by Greg Schiano when he started a streak of nine bowl games in 10 seasons that was continued by Kyle Flood. Yet Ash has won just nine games in his first three seasons in charge, trying to restart the culture of the program after Flood was fired amidst controversy at the school.

Similar to last year’s opener against Texas State, this might be the only game in which Rutgers is favored the entire season. The Scarlet Knights are favored to win against UMass in Walt Bell’s coaching debut, but it’ll be a bigger test to see just how much progress Ash has made after a long offseason.

OFFENSE: It’s hard not to describe the Scarlet Knights’ offense as anything but a disaster last season. They finished 127th out of 129 teams in total offense (266.3 yards per game), 128th in first downs (182) and last in scoring (13.5 points per game).

The main culprit is quarterback Artur Sitkowski, whose freshman season was as rough as it gets for a football player. Sitkowski threw for just 1,158 yards and four touchdowns in 11 starts while completing just 49.1 percent of his passes. But his biggest issue was the turnovers, tossing a nation-worst 18 interceptions.

What will help Sitkowski this season is a strong group of running backs led by Raheem Blackshear, a dual-threat junior out of the backfield. A year ago, Blackshear became the first player in 33 years to lead the Scarlet Knights in both receiving and rushing yards. He did so without assuming on a large workload — just 15.6 touches per game — and is equipped to carry a larger percentage of the offense.

Blackshear will be helped in the backfield by Isaih Pacheco, who burst onto the scene as a freshman to rush for 5.0 yards per carry. Pacheco is a bit bigger than Blackshear and someone who Rutgers is hoping will help create a dynamic 1-2 punch for the Scarlet Knights.

Where Rutgers needs the biggest boost is from its wide receivers, who didn’t help their quarterback too much. Bo Melton was the second-leading receiver last year at just 245 yards on 28 catches in 12 games. He’ll lead a group of young receivers who all should have been able to build a rapport with Sitkowski after more than a year of playing with each other.

The whole unit is being paved by an offensive line that is as experienced as it comes with the Scarlet Knights. Both center Michael Maietti and right tackle Kamaal Seymour started all 12 games last season. Four different guards started at least twice last year, giving the unit depth inside, but Mike Lonsdorf might also switch to left tackle, where he started one game last season in addition to his three starts at left guard.

DEFENSE: The Scarlet Knights’ defense was surprisingly stout in several games last season to give the offense a chance to win the game. Rutgers held Big Ten West champion Northwestern to just 18 points and Penn State scored just 20 against the Scarlet Knights.

Although six of those starters graduated, there is reason to believe the Scarlet Knights can once again be decent on defense. It starts as it normally does with a pass rushing duo of Elorm Lumor and Mike Tverdov, who led the team with four sacks each last season. Lumor had a team-best seven tackles-for-loss as a starter while Tverdov made 31 tackles as the main backup at both end spots.

Rutgers fans seem to be the most excited about the team’s linebackers led by Tyreek Maddox-Williams and Tyshon Fogg. Both players had 48 tackles last season and seem to be poised for a brekout season as partners at outside linebacker with Rashawn Battle likely starting between them.

However, the big concern is the secondary where the Scarlet Knights don’t have many experienced players. Senior safety Damon Hayes and sophomore corner Avery Young are the only two returning defensive back credited with a pass defended last season.

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.


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