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Rutgers looks to right the course against Buffalo at home

Head coach Chris Ash and Buffalo’s head coach Lance Leipold go back a ways. Saturday afternoon, though, will be their first time facing off against each other at the helm of their teams.

“I’ve known Lance for a long time, it goes way back …” Ash said. “I would say it’s a really good relationship, never worked with him but seemed to have crossed paths in various stops.”

One team comes into the matchup red hot, undefeated and looking to keep the good times rolling. The other comes in limping home, deflated and on the heels of one of its worst losses in program history.

Unfortunately for Ash and the home team underdogs, that team is his team. 

The Rutgers football team is hoping to regroup coming off a rock bottom week where it lost to Kansas, college football’s Cleveland Browns.

In order to do that, the Scarlet Knights (1-2, 0-1) must get through the Buffalo Bulls (3-0) and their high powered offense led by quarterback Tyree Jackson.

“Good offense, good team,” Ash said. “A lot of guys have been playing for probably nearly three years now together. They’re balanced, quarterback’s playing well, three-year starter, he’s playing his best football.”

On the bright side, it seems like Rutgers has forgotten all about last week’s debacle and focused all of its energy on Buffalo in practice this week. 

The problem, as it’s been all year, is translating that same energy and preparation in practice onto the field come game day. 

“(We had a) great week of practice, a lot of energy, a lot of spirit,” Ash said. “We had probably the best Thursday we’ve had all year.”

In control for the Knights will be true freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski who has looked like anything but the four-star recruit and college ready starter so far in the early part of the season.

Sitkowski comes off a game against the Jayhawks in which he threw three interceptions — now at a total of seven on the season — and was benched midway through the third quarter. 

“I thought there was a little bit of a press to kind of just ‘I gotta do something’ ...” said Offensive Coordinator John McNulty about Sitkowski’s performance on Saturday. “... He doesn’t have to go win the games for us, but he can’t lose them and that’s kind of what ends up happening when you hand the ball to the other team.”

Rutgers hopes Sitkowski can do more than simply not lose the game for them, but to lessen the load on its freshman quarterback, their running game needs to continue to play at a high level.

Running backs sophomore Raheem Blackshear and graduate student Jonathan Hilliman have been held in check for the most part, although the running game was one of the few facets of the game, aside from two fumbles, that seemed to show up in Lawrence.

“The run game was really what bailed us out in the game,” McNulty said. 

Someone who could potentially see more time in that running game is freshman running back Isaih Pacheco. 

In fact, McNulty even said Pacheco should’ve gotten in the game against Kansas more often and that he envisions Pacheco getting a stronger role in the backfield, noting he doesn’t think Blackshear and Hilliman will make it through the grind of an entire season as the exclusive runners.

“Isaih’s done a great job so far for us …” Ash said. “Isaih’s great, we absolutely love the kid, we think he’s gonna be a really good player.”

The Knights also received a tough break this week as defensive back Blessuan Austin will undergo surgery on his knee today. The projected NFL Draft pick injured the same knee that kept him out for most of last season in the team’s first game of the season.

That’s especially disheartening considering the Knights depth chart at the safety position is already paper thin. Freshman cornerback Avery Young has started in place of Austin since his injury, while sophomore Tre Avery has also been sidelined to start the season with an injury.

“We’re hoping to get Tre Avery back really soon,” Ash said. “Tre Avery, we feel, has the chance to be an outstanding football player, he is probably the fastest kid on our football team … We think he can be a dynamic football player and we really need him back.”

Whoever is playing downfield on Saturday will have to contend with the weapons Jackson has at his disposal. The Bulls already have four players with 2 or more receiving touchdowns including K.J. Osborn and his 5. 

Jackson can clearly air the ball out, so the Knights’ pass rushers might have their work cut out for them because he loves to throw the ball and gets rid of the ball quick. 

“They’re good players, they’re gonna get their plays, but (what) we have to do is limit their explosive plays and that usually determines a game, depending on how many explosive plays you get offensively and how many you give up on defense,” Ash said. 

If Rutgers can control the passing game and salvage a win in front of its home crowd, the fire alarms can, at least temporarily, be turned off. If not, the house may just burn up in flames. 

“(It’s a) new week, new opportunity,” Ash said.

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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