Notre Dame takes on Rutgers just 20 miles east of the Scarlet Knights campus, but the Irish (8-4) may very well be the hometown favorite.
Daniel Duggan, Rutgers beat writer for NJ.com, sheds some light on the Scarlet Knights’ (6-6) newly minted starting quarterback Chas Dodd, the return of running back Paul James and what went wrong for Rutgers this year.
Question: Rutgers followed a 9-win season by barely qualifying for a bowl this year. What were the expectations this season and went wrong?
Daniel Duggan: “The expectations were high entering the season. With Rutgers playing in the weak American Athletic Conference, there was a belief that the team could land the conference’s BCS bid. That seemed realistic early on, as the Scarlet Knights started 4-1 with only a 52-51 overtime loss to Fresno State in the season opener. They were competitive in a big game at Louisville, losing 24-10, but that started a slide that they never recovered from. There were a number of factors that led them off the rails, but the biggest were inconsistent play by quarterback Gary Nova, an injury to running back Paul James and a porous pass defense that shattered the school record for passing yards allowed.”
Q: After a quarterback quandary, Chas Dodd seems to be Rutgers’ guy for Saturday. What should Notre Dame expect from him and why was he chosen over Gary Nova?
Duggan: “Dodd will start on Saturday. He’s not the most physically imposing quarterback and he’s not going to blow anyone away with his arm strength.
“But he’s a senior with 17 career starts who isn’t going to be rattled by the stage or the opponent. Dodd is steady and makes good decisions, which was not Nova’s strong suit. A case could be made that the coaching staff stuck with Nova too long this season. He has flashes of brilliance, but he can never escape his problem with interceptions. Dodd is a safer option, albeit with less upside.”
Q: How do you peg the Scarlet Knights’ defense? They have one of the top rush defenses in the country, but Rutgers gives up nearly 30 points a game.
Duggan: “It’s hard to pin down just how good the run defense is because teams didn’t bother challenging it much when yards were so easy to come by through the air. That said, the Knights would love it if Notre Dame comes out and tries to run the ball at them all day.
“The pass defense is a major weakness, ranking 120th in the nation in passing yards allowed. There’s been a revolving door in the secondary due to injuries and transfers, leaving a mostly inexperienced group. The schemes were highly questionable, as they got beat week after week by the same type of plays — bubble screens and deep in-cuts. They¹ve been torched by spread offenses all season, and seemingly have failed to make any adjustments. Rutgers fired defensive coordinator Dave Cohen after the regular-season finale, but it’s hard to imagine that fixing all of the problems.”
Q: Who stands out on either side of the ball? Now that running back Paul James is healthy again, is he the best player on the team?
Duggan: “I’d give James the nod as the most important player on the team. He was second in the nation in rushing after four games, but then he injured his leg and missed the next four games. The offense struggled in his absence and it should get a boost now that he’s back and close to 100 percent.
“Wide receiver Brandon Coleman is a beast physically (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and has declared for the NFL Draft, but his production has been underwhelming this season. Rutgers is expected to be without its most dangerous receiver Leonte Carroo, who missed the final two games of the season with an upper body injury.
“Defensively, Steve Longa has been a rock at middle linebacker, leading the team with 111 tackles as a redshirt freshman. Up front, sophomore defensive tackle Darius Hamilton has been getting better every game. He¹s undersized (6-4, 260) so it will be interesting to see him match-up against Notre Dame’s big line, but he’s established himself as a force.”
Q: Notre Dame is a heavy favorite, but a good showing from Rutgers could help boost its bid to become “New York City’s team.” How do you see Saturday playing out?
Duggan: “A win would be particularly big for Rutgers because there has been a black cloud hanging over the program for the last two months. Between the blowout losses, a bullying scandal with the since fired defensive coordinator, and a wave of decommitments from recruits, this is a team desperate for something positive, especially with the impending move to the Big Ten.
“There’s plenty of motivation, but I don’t see that overcoming the disparity between the teams. Rutgers hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record all season and it’s hard to envision that changing, particularly with Brian Kelly having three weeks to come up with a game plan to attack this defense.”