Preview No. 6: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

This is the sixth in a series of articles previewing Ohio State’s 12 opponents for the 2014 season.

Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood. (USA Today Photo)

Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood. (USA Today Photo)

Ohio State’s first Big Ten home game is Oct. 18 as the Buckeyes host Rutgers. Kickoff at Ohio Stadium is scheduled for 3:30 p.m ET, and it will be televised on one of the Disney-owned outlets (ABC/ESPN/ESPN2).

Last Season:

Rutgers went 6-7 last season and finished tied for sixth in the American Athletic Conference at 3-5. After losing to Fresno State 52-51 in overtime in the season-opener, the Scarlet Knights rattled off four-straight wins over Norfolk State (38-0), Eastern Michigan (28-10), Arkansas (28-24), and SMU (55-52, 3 OT). From there, though, Rutgers won just two times in the next eight games and lost to Notre Dame, 29-16 in the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl.

History & Coaches:

The history of Rutgers University football dates back to the beginning of college football in the United States. On Nov. 6, 1869, on a plot of land where the College Avenue Gymnasium now stands in New Brunswick, N.J., 50 combatants and about 100 spectators gathered on a field that afternoon as Rutgers defeated Princeton University, 6-4.

Granted, that game played in 1869 wouldn’t resemble its modern-day counterpart. That first game was played with two teams of 25 men each under rugby-like rules. Each score counted as a period and 10 periods completed the contest. Following each score, the teams changed direction. The ball could be advanced only by kicking or batting it with the feet, hands, heads or sides.

Rutgers’ 1869 schedule consisted of three games, all against Princeton, who won the second game on their campus 20 miles from New Brunswick. The third game, though, never was played as the faculties from both institutions protested on the grounds that the games were interfering with student studies.

More than two decades later, Rutgers built a new home as Neilson Field was completed in 1892. The wooden & steel structure, which was also home to the Rutgers baseball team, sat about 10,000 fans as was used until 1937. For the next season, Rutgers Stadium was built on a plot of land across the Raritan River that was once the home of New Brunswick Country Club in 1938.

While Rutgers football dates back to the beginning of the sport, the school really didn’t play major college football for decades.

In 1973, Frank Burns took the reins and became the most successful Rutgers coach ever by notching 78 victories over an 11-year span that included a undefeated 11-0 season in 1976 and the school’s first-ever bowl appearance in 1978.

But even with an unblemished record in 1976, there has to be an asterisk. Those 11 wins came against Navy, Bucknell, Princeton, Cornell, Connecticut, Lehigh, Columbia, Massachusetts, Louisville, Tulane and Colgate.

Not exactly powerhouse football teams, then or now.

A few years later, Sonny Werblin, a former owner of the New York Jets, chairman of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, and a wealthy Rutgers alum became bored with his alma mater’s football games. At that time, Rutgers played against the likes of Princeton, Colgate, and Lafayette in a small, 30,000-seat stadium. Thanks in part to Werblin’s deep pockets, Rutgers built a new, 41,500-seat football stadium and moved to the Big East Conference.

In 1990, Doug Graber took over as head coach at Rutgers after spending three seasons as the defensive coordinator for the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His first season, the Scarlet Knights went just 3-8 with wins over Kentucky, Colgate and Akron. Then the next two seasons, Rutgers went 6-5 in 1992 and 7-4 in 1993. While things looked promising, the Scarlet Knights won just 13 games over the next three seasons and Graber was fired.

Terry Shea was hired as the next head coach at Rutgers after spending three seasons as offensive coordinator at Stanford from 1992-94 and one season as the quarterback coach for the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League in 1995. Shea didn’t have any success in New Jersey and was just 11-44 in five years before he was let go after the 2000 campaign.

On December 1, 2000, Director of Athletics Bob Mulcahy introduced Greg Schiano, who had spent the two seasons prior to his arrival as the defensive coordinator at the University of Miami under Butch Davis. In four seasons leading the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers was just 14-34.

But Schiano was able to turn things around for the Scarlet Knight program. In 2005, Rutgers went 7-5 and finished third in the Big East, which led to a bid to the Insight Bowl, their first postseason appearance since the 1978 Garden State Bowl.

Building on that first winning season since 1992, Rutgers began the 2006 campaign undefeated at 9-0 with wins over North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Howard, South Florida, Navy, Pitt, Connecticut and No. 3/4 Louisville. The Scarlet Knights catapulted to No. 7 in the AP Poll and No. 8 in the Coaches’ Poll before losing two out the next three to conclude the regular season, one of which was a 41-39 loss to No. 15 West Virginia in triple overtime. At 10-2, Rutgers was invited to the Texas Bowl where the Knights defeated Kansas State, 37-10.

For the next five years under Schiano, Rutgers went on to have four winning seasons with four bowl appearances and a combined record of 38-26.

During his tenure at Rutgers, rumors about him coaching at places like Michigan and Miami-Fla. never came to fruition as both schools went on to hire others. But on January 26, 2012, Schiano left to become the head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Just one day before National Signing Day, Rutgers removed the interim tag and named Kyle Flood as its next head coach. Flood had spent seven seasons as the offensive line coach under Schiano, and was given the added title of assistant head coach in 2008.

In two seasons under Flood, Rutgers is 15-11 with two bowl appearances.

Offense:

Rutgers returns nine starters on offensive, including the entire offensive line. One key addition is not a player, but rather a coach. After offensive coordinator Ron Prince left Rutgers to become an assistant for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, Flood hired former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen to replace him. During his career, Friedgen has coordinated the offense for both a collegiate national champion (Georgia Tech in 1990) and a Super Bowl team (San Diego in 1994).

Friedgen inherits an experienced signal-caller with senior Gary Nova, who made 10-straight starts last season before he was benched at the end of last season in favor of Chas Dodd, who was a senior last season.

Nova had to beat out junior Mike Bimonte and redshirt freshman Chris Laviano in fall camp to earn the job.

In 2013, Nova completed 54.5 percent (165-303) of his passes for 2,159 yards with 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Nova ranks third on RU’s all-time list in career touchdown passes (51), fifth in career passing yards (6,407) and fifth in career completions (502).

The Scarlet Knights’ top returning ground-gainers are also back with junior running back Paul James and sophomore RB Justin Goodwin.

Despite missing four games due to injury, James, a First-Team All-AAC performer rushed for 881 yards on 156 carries and nine TDs. James led the league with 97.9 rushing yards per game. Goodwin started two games last season as a true freshman and finishing second on the team with 521 rushing yards on 111 attempts and five scores.

Rutgers returns their top pass-catcher from a year ago with junior tight end Tyler Kroft, who looks to build on his breakout 2013 season after leading the Knights with 573 yards receiving on 43 receptions and four touchdowns. But Rutgers lost two of their best wideouts, Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt to graduation. Junior Leonte Carroo leads the group of receivers after hauling in 28 catches for 478 yards and a team-high nine TDs. Behind Carroo, the Scarlet Knights are young as sophomore Ruhann Peele had 28 receptions for 281 yards and a score while also spending time on defense as a cornerback.

The offensive line is a strong point for the Rutgers offense returning all five starters with junior LT Keith Lumpkin, senior LG Kaleb Johnson, senior C Betim Bujari, sophomore RG Chris Muller and senior RT Taj Alexander, who have combined for 99 starts over their careers and 123 total games played. Johnson is the most experienced of the group, starting in all 37 career games he has played in. Lumpkin also started all 13 games for the squad last season, and Bujari earned Second Team All-AAC honors in 2013.

Defense:

The Rutgers defense welcomes back seven starters in 2014. Last season, the Scarlet Knights held opponents to just 100.8 rushing yards per game, the fourth-best mark nationally.

Using a 4-3 base, the new-look unit will be under the direction of first-year defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, who directed one of the nation’s top special teams units over his first two seasons for the Knights.

Sophomore Steve Longa and senior Kevin Snyder anchor RU’s group of linebackers. The two have switched positions, with Longa now playing weakside linebacker and Snyder taking over at middle linebacker. Last season, Longa was named a Sporting News Freshman All-American and led the squad with 123 tackles. He finished 27th nationally with 9.5 tackles per game. RU will also rely on experience from junior Quentin Gause and sophomore L.J. Liston.

The defensive line brings back plenty of experience. Junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton returns after posting a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Djwany Mera started all 13 games at defensive end a year ago.

The secondary welcomes back five players who had starting experience in 2013 with junior strong safety Lorenzo Waters, who has started in 24 games in the last two seasons, and senior free safety Johnathan Aiken who made three starts last season. At the corneback slots, sophomore corner Nadir Barnwell made four, sophomore corner Anthony Cioffi made five and senior corner Gareef Glashen made six as both starting jobs are up for grabs during fall camp.