Rutgers hosts Texas State for season opener
It is finally here. The 2018 season will kick off tomorrow for the Rutgers football team, as it enters one of the biggest years in recent memory — not just for the team, but for the school itself as well.
The Scarlet Knights are heading into their third season under head coach Chris Ash’s vision, who has previously stated that he has a four-year plan in mind for where he wants the team to be.
Rutgers will face Texas State for the first time ever at the newly-named HighPoint.com Stadium, with kickoff set at noon to begin the 149th season of competition for the Knights.
“Well, season's finally here,” Ash said at a news conference. “We're excited for game week. Brings a new level of energy and enthusiasm to the building every time you get to this point in the season.”
Rutgers is coming off an up-and-down season, where the team went 4-8 overall and 3-6 in the Big Ten —improvements from its 2-10, 0-9 record last season, but still not what the team expects from itself.
This third year in Ash’s plan took an interesting turn at the end of last week, when he shockingly, yet deservedly named true freshman Artur Sitkowski as the starting quarterback, beating out pre-camp favorite fifth-year senior Giovanni Rescigno and sophomore Johnathan Lewis for the top job.
“Our quarterback position, the unit itself, has really been elevated through summer and training camp,” Ash said. “I think, overall, the unit is probably as strong as it's been, by far, since I've been here, and really excited to see how it continues to go.”
Once he takes his first snap come Saturday’s game, Sitkowski will become the first true freshman quarterback to start the season opener for the Knights since Ryan Cubit back in 2001.
Although Sitkowski has some weapons in the backfield to help the offense, possibly the biggest question mark of the entire roster is the receiving corps. The highlight of the receivers last season was senior tight end Jerome Washington, who led the team in receptions last season with 28.
But, overall, the receiving group combined for just 7 touchdowns, compared to 19 on the ground. Look for sophomore receiver Bo Melton to be a big time pass-catcher from Sitkowski early on.
The running back group for Rutgers is much more promising. Sophomore Raheem Blackshear and graduate student Jonathan Hilliman look to take the bulk of the workload early out the gates.
Blackshear was impressive in his first year in scarlet and white, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, finishing in the end zone for 5 touchdowns and producing 705 all-purpose yards — good for second highest on the team.
On the other side of the ball, the Knights come into the 2018 season with a very improved defense in their eyes, and it showed last year.
The secondary is stacked from top to bottom, with fifth-year senior cornerback Isaiah Wharton looking to capitalize on a solid 2017 campaign, and senior cornerback Blessuan Austin looking to prove the injury that ended his season early is behind him.
Seniors Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton will lead the safety room for Rutgers this season, with Hester coming off a season where he had three interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns.
The team is also in good position with its linebacker group, which brings back senior Trevor Morris, who was the Big Ten’s highest returning tackler from last year, when he posted 118 tackles over a 9.8-tackle-per-game average.
Newly-named captain senior Deonte Roberts also produced nicely for the Knights last season, bringing in 104 tackles on the season.
Taking a look at the other sideline, the Bobcats finished the 2017 season 2-10 and 1-7 in the Sun Belt conference. The team is bringing back 19 starters from last season and is looking to improve heavily from what was a disappointing season.
“It's a very good football team in my opinion. Their record, you know, wasn't great last year but they are building their program similar to what we are … They run an up-tempo offense. They want to run the ball. Going to use tempo to try to wear you out on defense,” Ash said.
This game, dubbed the “War Before the Shore,” will be a good way for Rutgers to warm up for its first Big Ten game of the season next weekend.
The Knights will travel to No. 5 Ohio State and try to show their improved play to their conference rival, who have flat out crushed Rutgers in the teams' past two meetings by a combined score of 114-0.
“… In my opinion, we have improved in all areas of our football team here throughout training camp,” Ash said.