Believe it or not, Maryland football's season will not be over on Saturday despite having to play Rutgers. After snapping a three-game losing streak with a win over Indiana last week, the Terps will travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, to face the Scarlet Knights, a matchup that finally will not be played on the final week of the season.
We talked to Griffin Whitmer of The Daily Targum for some insight on the second-best football team in New Jersey (sorry Giants). His answers were edited for clarity but not content.
1. In Big Ten commercials, Rutgers is portrayed as being right next to New York City. Is there any particular reason for that? Like, is there a strong contingency of Rutgers fans in the Big Apple?
The New York City media market is why Rutgers received an invitation to the Big Ten. There is no reason to try to pretend it was something else. The Big Ten loves that market and wants to promote it in connection with Rutgers to tap into the Rutgers fans in that area and make it seem like Rutgers is New York City's team. (Some say it is, but before anything, it is Jersey's team.) Rutgers alumni don't dominate the NYC area, but a lot of them work in the City and stay local. However, the New York Metropolitan area is so large that schools like Villanova, Notre Dame, Boston College and Penn State have very strong alumni bases in the area.
2. Do you think moving the venue away from Yankee Stadium will have any effect on the game? What was the reaction like when the move ended up being for naught?
It is definitely an advantage for Rutgers to have this game at High Point Solutions Stadium. Head coach Chris Ash didn't think much of it and had no reaction to the game being moved. Starting defensive tackle Kevin Wilkins found out that the game was moved back to Rutgers when a member of the media asked him what he thought about it. It's pretty clear the team never really talked about it until this week. Fans were ecstatic about the move, as many of them made the conscious decision to not go to Yankee Stadium because they did not support the move and did not like the fact that it took away a home game. More fans will be there than if it was still at Yankee Stadium and it will give an advantage to the players.
3. What were the expectations for Rutgers football this season and how have those expectations held up so far?
Expectations were somewhere between 3-9 and 4-8. Rutgers seems on track for that. Maryland and Indiana represent the two winnable games left on the schedule and the team currently sits at 3-5. Losing to Eastern Michigan was a terrible result, and an embarrassing one too. If the Knights won that game, they would be 4-4 and would have a realistic shot at a bowl game, which obviously would have exceeded expectations. I think that Rutgers will beat either Maryland or Indiana and those three Big Ten wins will have definitely exceeded mine and many people's expectations.
4. Who are the key Scarlet Knights to look out for?
Janarion Grant and Raheem Blackshear. Grant is a fifth-year senior who returns kick, punts, starts at wide receiver and plays wildcat quarterback. He has been injured on and off this year but should be healthy for Saturday. Every time he touches the ball he is a threat to score and his next return touchdown would give him the NCAA record for return touchdowns in a career. Offensive coordinator Jerry Kill will go to great lengths to get the ball in his hands as a much as possible.
Blackshear is a true freshman running back who has slowly come on as an electric smaller back with some pop. Kill said he has the opportunity to be one of the greatest players to ever play at Rutgers, which surprised a lot of people. He showed flashes of eliteness against Illinois and Purdue as both a tough and fast runner and as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He has not been used extensively this year, but should see his touches increase in the final four games of the season.
5. What have been the team's strengths and weaknesses this season?
Up until the Michigan game last week, the offensive line has been really good. They gave up just six sacks in the first seven games and helped pave the way for a really good group of running backs. Rutgers will try to run the ball to set up the passing game on offense, as rushing offense is one of the team's biggest strengths. The real strength of the team is special teams, though. The Knights lead the Big Ten in punting yardage thanks to DIII transfer Ryan Anderson and lead the Big Ten in kickoff coverage thanks to true freshman Justin Davidovicz. The coverage units are much, much better than a year ago and Grant is as good as it gets as a returner.
The biggest weakness on offense has been the wide receivers. They have really struggled to get open and did not register a catch against Ohio State. There is a lot of youth there and the offense runs the ball a lot more than it passes. That is partly in due to the strong running game, but also has something to do with the low level of play from the wide receivers.
6. What about Maryland do you think will give Rutgers the biggest problems?
Easy. Ty Johnson. He has torched Rutgers in the past, and this season, Rutgers has not done a great job stopping the run. The Knights were dominated by the running games of Purdue and Michigan in its last two games and it won't get easier with Maryland. I honestly think the play of Ty Johnson will determine the outcome of the game. I think the Rutgers secondary has been playing well enough to contain DJ Moore, especially with Max Bortenschlager throwing the ball. But if Johnson has a strong game, The Terps should be able to run it at least 40 times and come away with the win.
7. Rutgers currently has the worst passing offense in the Big Ten, while Maryland has the worst pass defense. What is more likely to give way on Saturday?
This is hard for me since I don't know that much about Maryland, but I think Rutgers is due for a big passing game, since it hasn't tried to throw the ball that much as of late. The Knights were able to win with a 2:1 run/pass ratio against Illinois and Purdue, but will need to throw the ball more against the Terps. Saturday will be the first time we will see the combination of a healthy Janarion Grant and healthy Raheem Blackshear on the field together and Rutgers will likely try to hit them with short passes and try to get them in space. I don't think Gio Rescigno can beat Maryland down the field, but he will likely try to string together a bunch of short throws with the hope of getting yards after the catch.
8. What else would need to happen for Rutgers to walk away with a win?
One big play. That's what I think could win the game for Rutgers. The team needs a return touchdown from Grant, a big play on offense or a defensive touchdown to give itself an energy boost. If it happens the other way and Ty Johnson runs for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the game, it will take a lot out of Rutgers mentally. But if the Knights can break a big play early, I like their chances of winning the game when they have that momentum.