Rutgers remains optimistic as team nears season opener against Washington
However much head coach Chris Ash would like to deflect sentimentality from the proceedings Friday, there is no question that the season opener for any college football team holds its own weight independent from context.
Ash's first ever game at the helm of the Rutgers football team took place almost 3,000 miles away in Seattle. The Scarlet Knights marched into Husky Stadium in battle with then-No. 14 Washington in front of 58,640 spectators, and many more at home watched as they returned with a stain the size of a 48-13 defeat.
Ash's second season opener leading Rutgers onto the field has a different setting: Piscataway, NJ. The Scarlet Knights will play host to the Washington Huskies at High Point Solutions Stadium on Friday, September 1.
To Ash and company, it is far from wishful thinking to think this game a year removed — almost to the day — from their last encounter with the Huskies will go smoother. Much of that comes with the fact that the game will be played on the Banks as opposed to the West Coast. As defensive coordinator Jay Niemann attests, people would not talk about home field advantage if it did not hold at least some influence over the outcome.
Of course, a lot of that has to do with the number of seats filled come Friday.
“I think (the fans) can have an impact for sure," Niemann said. "We’ve gotta have something to do with that too, we’ve gotta give them something to cheer about and be excited about. We realize we have a huge role in that.”
The fans' expectations for the team are largely rooted in last year's performances across the board, in which the Knights mustered up two wins of a possible 12.
Most of the units on both offense and defense have seen considerable turnover in areas least expected at the time of the Washington matchup last season, like quarterback, in which the team has seen two starters upended since.
But a core that remains relatively unchanged is the secondary, a group Ash commended following last year's performance in this fixture, despite Washington throwing for 289 yards.
In returning juniors Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin at cornerback, and junior cornerback Saquan Hampton, film from last season's game has been the singular point of emphasis for the group in preparation this week. Ash holds that through this the team has improved on its performance from last season in many aspects.
“I think our secondary played pretty good last year. I expect us to play even better because we got the majority of them back. I really like that group back there. They’re playing fast, they communicate well, they get their hands on the ball.”
But experience cannot be relied in most other areas on the field, like the defensive line, where the fresh unit will have to adjust for the team's lack of pressure on quarterback Jake Browning last season.
On the offensive side of the ball, fifth-year senior Kyle Bolin will line up under center in his first ever game as a Knight, and he'll find wildly different options for the ball than Chris Laviano did last year, as graduate transfer Gus Edwards slots in at running back.
And with sophomore Jawuan Harris suspended for one game for violating team rules, fifth-year senior Damon Mitchell and freshman Bo Melton head the receiving core alongside stalwart Janarion Grant, making his return from injury.
With all of the pageantry coming into the fold with Rutgers gearing up to kick off another season in the Big Ten, Ash maintains that the Knights' performance on Friday will be the sole thing that matters in its game versus the Huskies. The inherent sentimentality of the first kick of a new season will end at that first kick. From there on out, the team has 60 game minutes to prove its worth to its fans.
“When the foot hits the ball, it’s about executing, it’s about playing hard, it’s about playing for each other and doing it for four quarters," Ash said.