Ryan Dunleavy, who covers Rutgers football and basketball for nj.com, discusses the Scarlet Knights' season.
After reading comments following the Penn State game about how the Scarlet Knights seniors feel about first-year coach Chris Ash, do you think they'll play with the same emotion come Saturday in College Park?
I don't think that Rutgers will mail it in against Maryland. Not with opportunities to spoil Maryland's bowl hopes and for a prideful senior class led by defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to end an eight-game losing streak and send the rebuilding program into the offseason on a high note. Rutgers has been noncompetitive on the scoreboard at times, but there are dozens of fourth-quarter hustle plays in blowouts that suggest the players -- even the older ones -- haven't stopped competing to the whistle. Blowing a 21-point lead to Maryland last season still sits with the seniors.
Similar to Maryland, Rutgers seemed a lot more competitive earlier this year than it has of late. Some of those results, especially the narrow defeat at Minnesota, seemed to indicate that the Scarlet Knights were on the verge of a breakthrough. What happened?
It's not so much about early and late in the season for Rutgers as it is about the opponent's talent and depth. Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan are four of the annual top recruiting teams in the Big Ten -- and have beaten Rutgers by a combined score of 224-0. Throw in a 48-13 season-opening loss to Washington. That's four of the top eight teams in the nation. Against teams with seemingly comparable talent like Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois -- and, I imagine, Maryland -- Rutgers has had a chance to win the games in the fourth quarter. The biggest difference between early and late is that Rutgers has been without star Janarion Grant since Week 4. It's possible no team in the Big Ten was more reliant on one player than Rutgers was on Grant, a wide receiver/returner/wildcat quarterback.
There was some talk from New Jersey about establishing a trophy for this game, similar to what other Big Ten schools do for their annual game. There seems to be little interest on Maryland's part. Given the state of the two programs, what do you think a representative trophy should look like?
I think it's short-sighted not to warm up to this matchup as a full-fledged rivalry with a trophy. Rutgers and Maryland came into the Big Ten together as part of Big Ten expansion. They both hired new coaches to start rebuilds at the same time. This is the third straight year that they are meeting in the regular-season finale. Next year's game will be played at Yankee Stadium as part of a doubleheader with a wrestling match -- fully complying with commissioner Jim Delany's desire to be creative in scheduling. I'll submit a trophy shaped as I-95 or some roadway. If I'm being snarky, how about one shaped like a television set to signify the New York and Washington, D.C., markets brought to the table for Big Ten Network?
Given the fact that Rutgers ranks near or at the bottom of most categories as a team on both sides of the ball, does the best individual performance of the season belong to kicker David Bonagura, who has made 10 of 13 field goals; sophomore cornerback Blessaun Austin, who ranks second in the Big Ten with 14 pass breakups; or sophomore linebacker Trevor Morris, whose 94 tackles rank seventh in the league? Or is there someone else who has been the unsung hero of this team?
Of the three you name, Austin has played the best this season. He is one of four sophomores playing a significant number of snaps in the secondary, cause for hope that years of porous pass defense are coming to an end under Chris Ash. Bonagura's three missed field goals (plus his missed PAT) all have come at inopportune times. The next unsung star would be Jawuan Harris, who leads the team in receptions and yards after seeing his role expanded in Grant's absence. Harris also led the Big Ten in stolen bases as a true freshman last baseball season.
Considering how exciting – and a bit meaningless – the last two meetings have been between these two teams, are you expecting the same: wild game with one team erasing a huge deficit to win? What do think is going to happen on Saturday? Does the fact that Maryland has to win to become bowl-eligible override everything else?
I've come to expect the unexpected when these teams meet, which is fun for fans who stick with their team until the end. Maryland's bowl eligibility should be the overriding motivation in the game, but we've seen many teams lay an egg in that spot, too. As for the last two years, neither was forgettable in Piscataway. In 2014, when both teams already were bowl-bound, up-and-down senior quarterback Gary Nova completed a redemption tour senior year with the school-record 25-point comeback win against the Terps. In 2015, blowing a 21-point lead and losing to the Terps was the final game of the Kyle Flood era and a fitting end to an embarrassing year on and off the field for the program. Even with fewer wins this season, it's no comparison.