Rutgers hosts Northwestern on homecoming weekend

The Rutgers football team could not be playing against a more different offense this week than the one it played last week against Maryland. That’s the test the Scarlet Knights (1-6, 0-4) face this Saturday when they come back home and go up against Northwestern.

Whereas the Terrapins ground and pound their opponents, running all over the field, the Wildcats (3-3, 3-1) go with the aerial attack. Quarterback Clayton Thorson has already thrown for 1,755 passing yards to go along with 9 touchdowns in just six games this season.

“When you defend a team like this, you got to do a great job of mixing up your coverages, you gotta do a good job of trying to get after the quarterback and get him off rhythm a little bit and take him off the spot a little bit,” said head coach Chris Ash. “(Thorson’s) a good player, they execute their offense exceptionally well and we’re gonna have to go tackle and space well too.”

The Rutgers defense, in particular its secondary, is going to have to have to find a way to get stops and limit the explosive plays — something the entire team has struggled with this season.

On the bright side, along with his 9 touchdowns, Thorson has also thrown for seven interceptions — something that comes along with throwing the ball as much as he does. 

The Knights have four interceptions on the season, two of which belong to junior defensive back Damon Hayes. Hayes and the rest of the defense will need to be alert all game to try and take advantage of any Northwestern misstep to be able and give the ball to the offense.

Unfortunately for Rutgers, that offense hasn’t been showing up lately.

“In college football if you can’t score points, it’s really hard to win,” Ash said on the offensive struggles his team has endured so far this season. 

True freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski will try and bounce back from his last time out in which he threw for a measly 8 yards and added four interceptions. 

That help has to start with the running game. 

After rushing for more than 60 yards in 4 of his first 5 games this season and adding 2 touchdowns, sophomore running back Raheem Blackshear has gone quiet in his last two games, averaging just 24 yards per game with 0 touchdowns. 

With Blackshear struggling, true freshman running back Isaih Pacheco was given an opportunity and ran with it. Against Maryland, Pacheco ran 22 times for 107 yards and scored the Knights' only points of the day — something Ash and the rest of the team took notice of.

“Isaih will play,” Ash said. “Obviously (Isaih) took advantage of the opportunities that he had last week, did a great job and he's earned the opportunity for more reps.”

On top of his strong performance last week, Pacheco could get even more reps this week with graduate student running back Jonathan Hilliman listed as questionable for the game, Ash said.

But at the end of the day, it starts and ends with the quarterback. 

“(Sitkowski’s) a very resilient kid and he learns from his mistakes, which he needs to right now,” Ash said. “We’ve talked about how important this year is to do that and we’ll find out on Saturday, but practice preparation has been great, the extra time and effort that he’s put in has been great.”

Sitkowski has shown flashes this season, dating back to the season opener against Texas State. Before his game against Maryland, Sitkowski was coming off a 267 passing-yard performance where he threw for a touchdown in the final game of a three-game homestand in which he looked better and better each week.

And then Maryland happened — a game that is indicative of Rutgers' entire season.

“That’s right now the next step that a lot of these young players have to take, is to be able to take what they do on the practice field and apply it to the game field and be able to adjust and adapt based on what the opponent does,” Ash said.

But perhaps coming home will foster better results. Fans certainly hope so as Saturday’s game marks the team’s homecoming game.

“(The) message has been come out and have fun,” Ash said. “Practice and play the game that you love with the guys that you love doing it with, and they’ve done that.”

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