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Rutgers vs. New Mexico preview: Can the Lobos get an upset?

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Howard v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

New Mexico travels to the East Coast to take on Rutgers in a rare Mountain West vs. Big Teh matchup. To get to know who the Scarlet Knights are we chat with for some more insight.

1. This is an odd matchup not only is it two programs meeting for the first time but also a rare Mountain West vs. Big Ten matchup. What is the reaction to playing this Lobos team.

Most Rutgers fans look at New Mexico as solid opponent coming off last season’s bowl appearance. It is a bit random, but I think Bob Davie has enough name recognition that he adds credibility to the little we know about New Mexico. As for the conference, Rutgers did have a home and home series against Fresno State a few years ago, so have a little bit of familiarity with the Mountain West.

After an up and down start to the season under new head coach Chris Ash, the fan base is mostly focused on what our team will ultimately become this season. There is no doubt Ash has made major improvements with the program overall in a short period of time, but the product on the field has been mixed at best. That is certainly to be expected, as Ash has implemented new systems on both sides of the ball and doesn’t have the right match of personnel to maximize the potential of what he envisions long term. This game is a big test and one Rutgers must win, with Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan looming next.

2. The two opponents Rutgers have played have a wide margin by playing a ranked Washington team and then an FCS school. Each had a blowout loss and win, so what are the expectations of this team?

There is certainly strong opinions on both ends of the spectrum, but I would sum up the feeling of the fan base as cautiously optimistic. There is definitely some bracing for a rough season after getting obliterated by Washington in the first game, but they also might be playoff worthy and an excellent football team. Rutgers I still learning and adjusting to the new staff and how they want them to play. Opening up in Seattle against a talented team on the rise was a difficult start for sure. It was positive how the team rebounded some after the first quarter and never quit.

As for Howard, you have never a seen a more frustrating 52-14 win in your life. That’s because Rutgers came out flat as a pancake and fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter against one of the worst FCS teams in Howard. They did come out and dominate the second half, but it was disconcerting how bad they tackled and inefficient they were on offense in the first half. We basically don’t have this team figured out at all and are hoping that we get some positive answers this weekend against New Mexico.

Playing in the Big Ten East will always be difficult and the first half of our schedule is absolutely brutal, likely playing four teams in the top 13 teams in the country.

However, the hope is Rutgers survives the three game gauntlet I mentioned above to open conference play and show improvement in the second half of the schedule. There is hope we can beat teams like Illinois, Indiana, and Maryland, as the fan base believes we could be above all of those programs long term. Our last home game is against Penn State and you could say Rutgers fans are very much looking forward to that one, as we let a win against them slip away at home in our first ever Big Ten game two years ago.

Overall, 6-6 and a bowl berth would be the mark of a very successful first season for coach Ash, but 3-4 wins would not be a shocker. This game against New Mexico is really a must win for Rutgers at having any shot at 6 wins, so it’s being viewed as a very big game from our side.

3. Who are the key players that New Mexico should be looking out for?

Our best player by far is Janarion Grant, who just won Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for the fourth time of his career. He ran back a 84 yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Howard when Rutgers was down 14-0, sparking the comeback. Although he is a receiver, he is being used much more in the run game this season, and rushed for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 6 carries last week.

He will lineup in the wildcat formation and take direct snaps on running plays, so look for that. Grant actually threw 1 touchdown pass last season, so I expect him to throw it at some point soon to give opposing defenses something else to worry about. He will also be featured in bubble screens in the pass game, looking for open lanes to run through. He is explosive and very dangerous every time the ball is in his hands.

Rutgers features two solid running backs in Robert Martin and Josh Hicks. Both are juniors and each averaged well over 5 yards per carry last season. Martin led the Big Ten last season with yards after contact and should be the first back we see tomorrow. Hicks has more of a punishing style of attack and together they have the ability to wear defenses down late in the game. The key is getting the run game going early tomorrow, as to take pressure off quarterback Chris Laviano.

You could say Laviano is one of the most disliked players in Rutgers history and personally I think it is unfair. He can certainly be underwhelming on the field and has started the season with three turnovers, something the staff has been clear will cost him his job if it continues.

Last season, he played terribly against better competition, but there were a lot of factors that contributed to that. It’s clear he does not fit the preferred spread offense that Ash and coordinator Drew Mehringer have implemented, and Laviano is viewed more of a game manager. He doesn’t have the running ability that is preferred and he lacks arm strength. It’s essential he gets into some type of rhythm early in this game, or it could be a long day for him, possibly on the bench.

The defensive line is our strength on the other side of the ball, as that unit is very experienced and has talent. The concern is they have just been okay so far, actually looking better against Washington than they did against Howard.

Darius Hamilton is our three-time captain who returned from missing almost the entire season last year with a knee injury. He is healthy and hopes to play close to 75% of the snaps tomorrow. Hamilton can be a dominant force in the trenches and brings much more value than the stat sheet indicates.

His good friend and fellow captain, defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick had two sacks last week and needs to be a consistent force on the edge this season. Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann prefers to only use a four man rush, so it’s imperative the line generate pressure on the quarterback for Rutgers to play in the manner they prefer.

The linebacking core had a combined 1 start total before the season started. The secondary is a work in progress, but senior safety Anthony Cioffi is the leader and known ballhawk, having seven interceptions for his career. He has three pass break ups and one interception already this season.

4. The Lobos will want to run, run, run and then run the ball some more, so how stout is the rush defense?

The rush defense was solid against Washington and abysmal against Howard in the first half. They were dominant in the second half, but their poor tackling in the first half was very concerning. Tackling was a major issue the past three years and with Ash’s pedigree, particularly in improving Ohio State’s defense the previous two seasons. He teaches a rugby style of tackling and we all hoped Rutgers would be vastly improved in this area. Let’s say the jury is still out, but I expect them to perform better tomorrow, although New Mexico will probably have some big runs, despite Gipson being out.

Rutgers has played Navy and Army almost every season for the past decade, so there is familiarity against the triple option. I know that New Mexico runs it’s a bit different than those schools do with the pistol, but it won’t be a complete shock to our defense. Our inability to cover speed in the pass game is the defense’s biggest weakness, so I prefer facing this type of offense. It will be a big test for the linebackers, who are still adjusting.

5. New Mexico's defense is skeptical and average at best; what is the type of offense that Rutgers runs?

It’s a power spread offense predicated on the run game. However, Rutgers ran a pro-style offense for years and years, so the personnel doesn’t fit this new system very well. There are a few speed guys, like Grant and Jawuan Harris, who is making his first start tomorrow. A major issue has been our receivers not being able to gain separation at the line and that has been a problem. I expect Rutgers to get things going with Martin and Hicks in the run game, with Grant being used early and often in a variety of ways.

If Laviano struggles, expect to see backup quarterbacks Gio Rescigno, who ran for a 42 yard touchdown in the first carry of his career last week, as well as true freshman Tylin Oden, who also ran very well in his collegiate debut against Howard. The coaching staff isn’t confident in both of their abilities in the pass game at the moment, so if you see them in expect run packages mostly. With all due respect, if Rutgers struggles on offense against the Lobos without their best player in Dakota Cox, it will be a scary proposition facing the elite defenses in the Big Ten starting the following week.

6. What is your game prediction?

I will be honest, this game scares the hell out of me. With New Mexico missing their best offensive and defensive players, Rutgers has a golden opportunity to dominate this game and get a comfortable win ahead of the Big Ten season starting next week. However, this is exactly the type of game that Rutgers has blown over the years, with the Washington State loss from last season still leaving a bitter taste.

If this team wants to be competitive at all in their next three games against Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan, they need to make a statement against New Mexico. They need a balanced, complete effort for the entire game and win in convincing fashion. I do think the defense will perform better this week and I’m excited to see Jawaun Harris get more looks on offense.

I do think Rutgers will focus on a ground and pound attack led by Robert Martin, Josh Hicks and Janarion Grant, including a package for Gio and Oden to run. I also think we will see the best performance from Chris Laviano so far this season. Ultimately, they wear down the Lobos and it leads to a relatively comfortable win, aside from a tense first half. Rutgers 42 New Mexico 24