Penn State Rutgers Football

Rutgers wide receiver Bo Melton, center, makes a catch as Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields (5) and safety Nick Scott (4) defend during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS

COACH: Chris Ash, 7-29, fourth season at Rutgers

2018 RECORD: 1-11, 0-9 Big Ten

POSTSEASON: none

» A LOOK BACK

After opening with a victory over Texas State, the Scarlet Knights proceeded to lose their next 11 games and finish Ash’s third season in dismal style. The offense was the worst in the FBS in scoring offense (13.5 points per game), and that didn’t help a defense that ranked 19th in the nation in passing defense. Rutgers held its final two opponents — Penn State and Michigan State — to 20 and 14 points, respectively, but couldn’t spring an upset thanks to scoring a combined 17 points.

Statistics that sum up Rutgers’ offensive woes are quarterback Artur Sitkowski’s 49.1 completion percentage and 18 interceptions. The lack of production through the air mitigated the work Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco were able to do in the running game.

The defense thrived with Trevor Morris at linebacker and Saquan Hampton at free safety. Those two helped anchor a unit that surrendered plenty of points early in the season (50 plus in back-to-back weeks against Ohio State and Kansas — yes, Kansas), but turned the corner by allowing 20 or less in three of the last five games.

» LOOKING AHEAD

Sitkowski’s improvement is paramount to the Scarlet Knight’s success. He is expected to be challenged for the starting job by McLane Carter, a graduate transfer from Texas Tech, and the competition could help shape an offense that returns Blackshear and Pacheco, and two of the top receivers in Bo Melton and Eddie Lewis.

“It starts with Raheem Blackshear. He's the veteran guy of the group. He's also a captain of ours, so he's the leader of our offense. Really excited to see him take another step off his freshman year. He had an impact on our team. Last year he took a step forward because this next year we expect him to be an elite player for us,” Ash said at Big Ten media days. “Isaih burst on the scene last year as a true freshman, had some really big runs, some good plays. We expect him to take another step forward and become more of a complete running back. He was a good runner. He needs to become a better receiver as well as a better pass protector, also. And then we have two other — actually three other — scholarship running backs that we're excited about, Elijah Barnwell is running back in our program, and the two young freshmen in Kay'Ron Adams and Aaron Young that we're excited about. So we think we have a good stable of backs that are going to provide some play making ability for our offense, but it'll be led by those two individuals.”

Defensively, only one starting linebacker (Tyreek Maddox-Williams) returns and Damon Hayes has been moved to cornerback opposite of Avery Young to give the back end a formidable duo. But with a lack of a pass rush, there is only so much Young and Hayes can do.

“Just looking at our defense overall, I think right now we probably going into the season we have the most competition at all three positions,” Ash said. “Starting with our D-line, because our jack position is kind of a hybrid outside linebacker/D-end position. I think we have the most players that we feel confident in playing on our defensive line. It's going to allow us to rotate more players that will keep our players fresh, which will in turn hopefully help increase the production of our pass rush and get more sacks.

“At linebacker right now, I think it's the strongest position in terms of the depth and the ability on our football team, and in the secondary I feel really good about our depth and our strength there with our players and the competition that we've been able to create through player development and recruiting.

“But overall just defensively, I like where we're at from a depth standpoint.”

» WHO’S BACK?

• SKILL PLAYERS

WB Artur Sitkowski (134-273 passing, 1,158 yards, 4 TD, 18 INT)

RB Raheem Blackshear (143 carries, 586 yards, 4.1 average, 3 TD; 44 catches, 367 yards, 8.3 average, 2 TD)

RB Isaih Pacheco (111 carries, 551 yards, 5.0 average, 3 TD)

WR Bo Melton (28 catches, 245 yards, 8.8 average)

WR Eddie Lewis (24 catches, 173 yards, 7.2 average)

• OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

LG Zach Venesky

C Michael Maietti

RT Kamaal Seymour

• DEFENSIVE LEADERS

CB Avery Young (66 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 10 PBU)

CB Damon Hayes (63 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 1 QBH)

LB Tyreek Maddox-Williams (48 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FF)

DE Elorm Lumor (35 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 5 QBH, 1 FR, 1 blocked kick)

• SPECIAL TEAMS

K Justin Davidovicz (9-11 FG, 52 long, 1 blocked; 17-17 PAT)

P Adam Korsak (78 punts, 42.7 average, 79 long, 3 TB, 21 FC, 23 I20, 10 50+, 0 blocked)

» WHO’S GONE?

• SKILL PLAYERS

None

• OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

LT Tariq Cole

RG Jonah Jackson

• DEFENSIVE LEADERS

LB Trevor Morris (109 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 5 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)

LB Deonte Roberts (87 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 blocked kick)

FS Saquan Hampton (65 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3 INT, 13 PBU, 1 FR)

• SPECIAL TEAMS

None

» WHOM TO FOLLOW

Keith Sargeant, The Star-Ledger: @KSargeantNJ

Josh Newman, Asbury Park Press: @Joshua_Newman

Rutgers Football: @RFootball

» SCHEDULE

Aug. 30: Massachusetts, 7:15 p.m.

Sept. 7: at Iowa, noon

Sept. 21: Boston College, TBD

Sept. 28: at Michigan, TBD

Oct. 5: Maryland, TBD

Oct. 12: at Indiana, noon

Oct. 19: Minnesota, 3:30 or 4 p.m.

Oct. 26: Liberty, TBD

Nov. 2: at Illinois, TBD

Nov. 16: Ohio State, TBD

Nov. 23: Michigan State, TBD

Nov. 30: at Penn State, TBD

» THE SERIES (home team in CAPS)

First meeting

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Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550. Follow him on Twitter: @DamienSordelett

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