NCF Nation: Kyle Flood
But the Scarlet Knights aren't just welcoming the challenge of facing Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. They swear they prefer it.
"I wouldn't want it any other way," fullback Michael Burton said Monday afternoon. "I want to play the best of the best, and this conference offers that. That's why it's a blessing."
Of course, that's easy to say at Big Ten media days. What player is going to publicly say he wants the easy path to a bowl game? But defensive lineman Darius Hamilton took it one step further and reinforced the sincerity of the statement.
He was offered a hypothetical: What if RU would finish 5-7 with the hard schedule but would finish 7-5 with the easy schedule? Wouldn't he then prefer the easy path? The 265-pound lineman just shook his head.
"I'll pick the hard anytime," he said. "When your back's against the wall and you're pushed to the limits, that's when you find out what kind of men you have on your team. I'd rather take a hard loss than an easy win any day of the week."
A bowl berth would go a long way toward helping Rutgers gain respect in the Big Ten. But that obviously won't come easily in 2014. Rutgers plays three elite teams on the road -- the Buckeyes, Spartans and Cornhuskers -- and the second-strongest schedule in the B1G is ranked six spots behind the Scarlet Knights' slate.
But that's all just fine with head coach Kyle Flood.
"I think it's great," he said. "[Our players] are competitors. They want to go against the best. And if people are saying this is the best, then good."
Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
- Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
- Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
- The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. And for good measure, Central Florida won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
- Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
- Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
- James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league -- not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall -- Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
- The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
- Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hot-shot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
- Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
- The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal-callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.
More than a year ago, as he sat behind his desk mired in day-to-day football operations, his phone buzzed while flashing the number of athletic director Kevin Anderson. “If we have the opportunity to go to the Big Ten,” Anderson asked him, “what would you think about that?”
Edsall was well aware of the Terrapins’ history as a 1953 charter member of the ACC. Having guided UConn from the FCS to the FBS, he knew all too well the difficulty of such a transition. And in that brief pause, while Anderson waited for an answer, Edsall still wasn’t quite certain about fans’ potential reaction. But he didn’t hesitate.
“I told him if we had the opportunity, we should jump at it,” Edsall told ESPN.com, before letting out a laugh. “And if we don’t -- then I told him they ought to fire him.”
Nearly 200 miles away, in Piscataway, New Jersey, Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood felt similarly. There was no need to weigh the pros and cons of moving up to the Big Ten. The answer was simple: If they invite us, accept the invitation.
“With all the movement that was going on in the world of college football, it was kind of like musical chairs -- and you knew there weren’t enough chairs for everyone,” Flood said. “We were excited because the Big Ten was our first choice; it was our destination conference.”
Neither head coach was particularly forthcoming about when that first call came in, but they both said there was no hesitation on their part. The Big Ten offered more national exposure, increased finances and more prestige. It was a no-brainer.
So on Tuesday, 19 months after officially accepting their invitations, Edsall and Flood have seen those phone calls come full circle. Rutgers and Maryland are now officially members of the Big Ten. And both coaches are hoping to carry this change -- and the accompanying excitement -- and parlay it into a renaissance for their respective programs.
Maryland already watched its ticket sales climb 35 percent. Rutgers sold nearly 1,900 more season tickets by May, and it’s already planning to set up an auxiliary press box for its conference opener against Penn State. Neither team has played a conference game -- they technically haven’t even been members for 12 hours -- but both coaches have already experienced a positive recruiting impact.
Even the schools’ most recent recruiting classes admitted as much, days before reporting to their respective programs.
“I don’t want to say it sold me on Maryland, but it was something that was critical to have in the back of my mind during the decision-making process,” Maryland freshman defensive end Jesse Aniebonam said. “It definitely motivated me to be more excited and more pumped to be joining Maryland’s team.”
Added Rutgers tailback Rob Martin: “Most definitely, being in the Big Ten helped a lot.”
That’s not to say the moves are without risks. Sure, there are plenty of positives -- but there is no guarantee of success. Will Rutgers become the whipping boy of the East? Can Maryland hold its own in a division with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State?
Edsall and Flood know those questions are out there. They know this season will set the tone for the futures of their programs, that they are transitioning to a conference with a reputation for physical teams and hard-nosed running games. They know they will have to prove they belong.
“We’re the new kid on the block, and you got to go out and earn your stripes,” Edsall said. “We do know that. And we’ve been working very, very hard to make sure we put forth our best effort when we line up this fall.”
In the meantime, before that first game, both football staffs will spend an inordinate number of hours in the film room and with cut-ups downloaded to their laptops. Edsall said his staff is doing everything they can to prepare for 10 new opponents on this season’s schedule. Flood said his staff took laptops on the road in May, a month before they usually break down opponents, so they could get a jump-start.
But, to both coaches, the thought of spending twice as much time on preparation this season -- after all, those schedules are entirely different -- is worth the work.
“What this [conference move] does is it gives you a pathway to the national championship,” Flood said. “It’s hard to foresee an undefeated or one-loss Big Ten champion not in the final four. So now you’re in one of the five power conferences and you have the opportunity, in the right kind of season, to play for it all.
“Everyone wants that kind of opportunity.”
But what could quickly change the reaction is a new rivalry being created by the two expansion members. On that front, there is some promising potential.
good look earlier today at the Maryland-Penn State rivalry, such as it is. The on-field history says, "nothing to see here, move along," as Penn State has gone 35-1-1 all time versus the Terrapins. But first-year Nittany Lions coach James Franklin seems to have a way of getting under opponents' skin, which opens up a realm of possibilities for this feud going forward.
Franklin spoke openly about "dominating the region" in recruiting upon taking the Penn State job. During a speech last month to boosters in Baltimore -- right in the Terps' backyard, Franklin said he viewed Maryland and New Jersey an in-state recruiting territory for his team. As far as other schools in the area? "They might as well shut them down, because they don't have a chance," he told the boosters.
Franklin would later say his words were taken out of context, but the implication was pretty clear nonetheless.
Well, Maryland coach Randy Edsall was in Pennsylvania for a golf outing earlier this week and fired back at Franklin's comments.
"Talk is cheap,” Edsall told the York (Pa.) Dispatch. "We're not gonna boast and brag. We're more about substance at Maryland. We're gonna find guys that fit the profile we're looking for. We're gonna worry about ourselves and not worry about anything else.”
I love it. Sure, coaches often spout off in the summertime, especially when rabble-rousing for their own boosters. Remember Brady Hoke's comments about Notre Dame "chickening out" of the Michigan series last year around this time? It's not so much a war of words as it is something to talk about.
But there's no doubt that these types of things add to the rivalry. Michigan did, after all, play the "Chicken Dance" song after beating the Irish at home last September. Wolverines fans ate it up.
The Maryland-Penn State series already has a little bit of juice, thanks both to the geography and the fact that Franklin used to be the Terrapins' head-coach-in-waiting. There is little doubt the two schools will butt heads on the recruiting trail, as Penn State already has four players from Maryland and the Washington D.C. area committed for the 2015 class.
"Maryland has not had a lot of success against Penn State," Edsall told the Dispatch. "I think it's something that can be a good rivalry. We have to do something about that on our end."
Then there's Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have been just as futile over the years against the Nittany Lions as Maryland, going 2-22 all time. Still, the two schools aren't that far apart and share some commonality as northeastern state flagship institutions. Penn State has had lots of success recruiting New Jersey over the years, and Franklin's former boss -- ex-Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen -- is now the offensive coordinator at Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights will host the Nittany Lions on Sept. 13 in their first conference game as a Big Ten member; the game was scheduled before the league invited the Rutgers to join.
Rutgers fans have been looking forward to that game for many months and would love nothing more than to score the upset.
"There is a buzz from the fans,” coach Kyle Flood told reporters last month. “College football is at its best when its regional. They are our neighbor to the west, and they are the Big Ten school in Pennsylvania. Our fans are excited about it. I think they should be excited about it. We’ve got a lot of work to do for the season before that. We’ve got some really challenging games before that, but it’s probably fitting that that’s the Big Ten opener.”
Franklin likely won't be a popular figure in either Piscataway or College Park in the foreseeable future. And that's a good thing, because what the league needs with these two new East Coast additions are some buzz-worthy rivalries.
Nelson faces first- and third-degree assault charges for allegedly kicking a man in the head early Sunday morning outside a Mankato, Minn., bar. Nelson was released from jail Monday night. Isaac Kolstad, a former Minnesota State football player, remained in critical condition with serious head injuries as of Monday afternoon.
"The Rutgers football family's thoughts and prayers are with Isaac Kolstad and his family," Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said in a prepared statement.
The decision comes as no surprise. Nelson, who started 16 games for Minnesota the past two seasons, transferred to Rutgers in January. If convicted, he could face up to 25 years in prison.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: TBA
What to watch
- Getting defensive: The Hoosiers have had no trouble scoring since Kevin Wilson took over the program, but opponents have made it look even easier. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr might have his hands full turning around the Big Ten’s worst unit, but Indiana could be dangerous if he can.
- Quarterback derby: The offense operated just fine with Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld taking turns leading the attack, so Wilson might not even need to settle on just one quarterback. Typically it does help to have a pecking order behind center, though, and the Hoosiers will be watching these guys closely to see if one can gain some separation.
- Next in line: There is a ready-made candidate to take over as the team’s most productive receiver, but Shane Wynn is going to need some help. For all his speed and elusiveness, Wynn is still undersized and doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional receiver, which will make it necessary for somebody like Nick Stoner to step up to help replace Cody Latimer.
Spring start: March 1
Spring game: April 11
What to watch
- Get healthy: The Terrapins have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in the country when they’re completely healthy, but that was an issue last season with both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs -- just for starters. Neither of those game-breakers is expected to be on the field this spring, but their respective rehabs are critical moving forward.
- Give and take: An emphasis on protecting the football on offense and creating more turnovers defensively is nothing new in spring practice, but Randy Edsall might just double down on that message this year. The Terrapins finished last in the ACC in turnover margin last season and were ranked No. 102 in the nation with seven more giveaways than takeaways, which isn’t a recipe for success in any league.
- Coaching chemistry: The deck wasn’t completely reshuffled, but the Terrapins will have three new assistants in charge and could use a seamless transition as they prepare to move to a new league. Keenan McCardell (wide receivers), Chad Wilt (defensive line) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line) will help deliver Edsall’s message moving forward, and it’s as crucial for a coaching staff to jell and find common ground as it is for players on the field.
Spring start: Feb. 25
Spring game: April 5
What to watch
- Go pro: If it was the coordinator keeping Brady Hoke from putting the offense he wanted on the field, that won’t be an issue anymore with Al Borges out of the picture. Snapping up Doug Nussmeier from Alabama should put the Wolverines on the path for a more traditional pro-style attack, and establishing that playbook starts on the practice field in spring.
- Quarterback quandary: The competition to lead the new-look offense is open between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and how that battle shakes out will obviously have a lasting impact and shape the season for the Wolverines. Gardner has the edge in experience and turned in a gritty, wildly productive outing against Ohio State while injured to end the season, but he certainly has lacked consistency. Morris filled in during the postseason with mixed results, but one of those guys will need to emerge.
- On the line: The Wolverines were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks, and only Purdue was worse in the league at protecting the quarterback. Both sides of the line have plenty of room to develop, and those daily battles against each other this spring will need to sharpen both the pass-rushers and the blockers if Michigan is going to be able to win games up front.
Spring start: March 25
Spring game: April 26
What to watch
- Something cooking: The finishing flourish in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl showed how far Connor Cook had come from the start of the season to the end, but there’s still more room to grow. His numbers are slightly skewed thanks to the way Michigan State handled the job early in the season, but overall he averaged fewer than 200 yards per game passing. With such a great defense, that was enough -- but boosting that total would be better for the Spartans.
- Reload defensively: The seemingly impenetrable defense might have been more than sum of its parts, but the individual pieces Michigan State had on hand weren’t too shabby, either. With Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen all gone, the Spartans will need to identify some replacements for the stars of that elite unit from a year ago.
- Plug some holes: Both starting offensive guards have to be replaced, and given the perhaps overlooked significance of the work the line did for the Spartans last season, that shouldn’t be dismissed as a meaningful item on the checklist. Cook has to be protected in the pocket, for starters, but with the way the Spartans traditionally pound the football on the ground, they’ll need some road-pavers to step up during spring practice to keep the offense on the upswing.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch
- Backs to the wall: There weren’t many deficiencies to be found on a team that again went through the regular season unbeaten, but Ohio State’s glaring weakness caught up with it late in the year. The Buckeyes looked helpless at times against the pass, and new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to make sure that unit is dramatically improved.
- Hold the line: The Buckeyes held on to Braxton Miller for another year, but they lost four seniors who had protected the quarterback for the past couple of seasons. That might be a worthwhile trade, but finding replacements up front will be imperative for a team that has leaned heavily on that veteran presence in the trenches since Urban Meyer took over the program. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover in the starting lineup, and he’ll need to assert himself as the leader of the unit.
- Air it out: Miller had some shaky performances throwing the ball down the stretch, but taking the passing game to a higher level is not solely his responsibility. The Buckeyes also need improved play and more reliable options at wide receiver, and they’ve recruited to address that issue over the past couple of years. Michael Thomas, who redshirted during his second year on campus, might be leading the charge for a new batch of playmakers on the perimeter.
Spring start: March 17
Spring game: April 12
What to watch
- Starting fresh: There are new playbooks to learn again for the Nittany Lions, and spring practice will be the first chance for James Franklin to start shaping his team in his image. That process doesn’t just include memorizing schemes and assignments for the players, since every coach has a different way of structuring practices and meetings. The sooner the Nittany Lions adjust the better off they’ll be in the fall.
- Next step: As debut seasons go, it’s hard to find much fault in the work Christian Hackenberg did after being tossed into the fire as a true freshman. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns, completing 59 percent and setting the bar pretty high for himself down the road. As part of his encore, Franklin would probably like to see the young quarterback cut down on his 10 interceptions as a sophomore.
- Tighten up the defense: There were pass defenses with more holes than Penn State’s a year ago, but that will be little consolation for a program that has traditionally been so stout on that side of the ball. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas can get the job done at cornerback, but the Nittany Lions need to get stronger at safety -- and also need to fill notable spots in front of them with linebacker Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones now gone.
Spring start: March 25
Spring game: April 26
What to watch
- Toughen up: The Scarlet Knights have seen hard-hitting competition and proven they aren’t afraid of a challenge, but the Big East and American conferences don’t provide nearly the weekly physical test that playing in the Big Ten does. There’s no reason to think Kyle Flood won’t have his team ready for the transition and a new league, but developing both strong bodies and minds starts in spring practice.
- Settle on a quarterback: There’s a veteran signal-caller on hand with 28 career starts to his credit, but Flood made it no secret as far back as January that he would hold an open competition during camp to lead the offense. Gary Nova has the edge in experience, but he also has more interceptions in his career than games started. That could open the door for one of three younger guys to step in, though Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have combined to take a grand total of zero snaps.
- Star turn: There’s nothing wrong with spreading the wealth, and the Scarlet Knights certainly did that in the passing game last season. Having five targets with at least 28 receptions can keep a defense off-balance, which is a good thing. But ending the season with none of those guys topping 573 yards might not be quite as encouraging, and establishing a consistent, go-to, big-play threat in the spring could prove useful for a team that finished No. 62 in the nation in passing yardage.
"I wanted them to know up front exactly how it was all laid out," Flood told ESPN.com.
A detailed road map should come in handy, because Rutgers is about to enter some uncharted territory.
It's not like big-time football is a foreign concept in Piscataway, N.J. The Scarlet Knights competed against Miami and Virginia Tech in the old Big East, as well as some very good West Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville teams. But Flood said the "week-in and week-out physicality" of the Big Ten may require some adjustments by his team, and that's one reason he and his coaching staff focused on loading up on linemen on both sides of the ball during the most recent recruiting period. Their end game was more about depth than pure beef.
"If you go out with the goal of getting bigger, you can get less athletic," he said. "What we’ve tried to do is accumulate more, so that we have more available to us throughout the season, but without sacrificing the athletic ability we need to play with in our system."
The question is now how well that system will fare in the Big Ten.
Rutgers hosted the first college football game against Princeton in 1869 but was largely irrelevant in modern times until Greg Schiano resurrected the program in the early 2000s. Flood served as Schiano's offensive line coach from 2005 until Schiano left for the NFL after the 2011 season, and the team's philosophies -- aggressive defense and a low-risk, pro-style offense -- haven't changed much. The Scarlet Knights never got over the hump to claim the Big East BCS bid, and other than the magical 11-win season of 2006, they were never really much a national factor.
Still, consistency has been a hallmark, as the team has gone to seven bowl games in the past nine seasons.
"We have shown to be a team that can compete with anyone," first-year athletic director Julie Hermann told ESPN.com. "We expect to be a bowl team. We have been a consistent winning program over the last decade and look forward to playing on the national stage of the Big Ten."
The school needs to upgrade its overall athletic facilities in order to reach Big Ten standards, but the football infrastructure -- including the 52,454-seat High Point Solutions Stadium -- is on pretty solid footing. There are also some lingering concerns about Rutgers' monetary muscle; Flood's $851,000 salary will be the lowest in the Big Ten and is not far above some assistants' pay in the league. But the Scarlet Knights did just hire former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen to call offensive plays and will make him one of the league's best-compensated coordinators at $500,000 per season.
Hermann said Flood's salary pool for assistants is around $2.5 million, which would compare favorably to the rest of the Big Ten. The influx of Big Ten revenue, which will eventually dwarf what Rutgers was making in the Big East and the AAC, should prove a major help.
"We will need to invest in our program to get top coaches like Ralph Friedgen and to retain key personnel," Hermann said.
No one can question Rutgers' emotional investment in the Big Ten move. The school and its fan base had dreamed about a Big Ten invitation for years, and the financial windfall and stability the league offered provided the perfect lifeboat out of the sinking AAC. The Scarlet Knights saw a significant season-ticket increase immediately after the Big Ten announcement in November 2012 and should see another bump this year with Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin coming to the banks of the Old Raritan. Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner said the Oct. 4 game against Michigan "has probably generated as much interest as any game in the preseason."
Lou Nordone can't wait for that game, or for the inaugural Big Ten opener against Penn State on Sept. 13. Nordone serves on the executive committee of the Rutgers Touchdown Club and says he has handled the team's official game balls on the sidelines for 129 straight Scarlet Knights home games. Nordone suffered through some lean years with the program and envisions the Big Ten meaning big things.
"It's great not only for Rutgers but for New Jersey and the surrounding areas," he said. "It's going to put Rutgers on the map nationally, instead of just locally."
Rutgers just has to make sure it can navigate some uncharted football territory.
Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:
It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.
Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.
Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).
Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)
What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.
What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.
To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.
At this rate, it would be easy to say that the concerns now fall on Kelly, who lost his second coordinator to a head-coaching job in an eight-day span Wednesday when Bob Diaco accepted the UConn post. That came in the wake of Chuck Martin packing his bags for Miami (Ohio). The moves hamstring the Irish staff as it readies for Rutgers on Dec. 28's New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and as it gears up for the mad dash to national signing day in the 39 days following the 2013 finale.
The initial reaction across players and fans, per routine, was overreaction. Tweets decrying Diaco for looking out for himself were soon deleted, eventually giving way to more and more congratulatory remarks for a man whose next career step was only a matter of time.
Make no mistake, this is far from the situation that is taking place in Piscataway, N.J., where Flood, the second-year head coach, let go of three assistants after an underwhelming 6-6 campaign. The Scarlet Knights step into the Big Ten next season. And this is far from the case that Kelly was referencing in that bowl press conference, as he had just taken the Cincinnati job and had only three of his Central Michigan assistants with him by the time the Bearcats faced, and defeated, Western Michigan in the International Bowl nearly seven years ago.
"It certainly creates a little bit of a challenge," Flood said of Rutgers' situation, "but I'm confident that people are put in positions where they can be successful, and that's really my job as the head football coach, to make sure we got a coach assigned at every position and in all three phases and the coordinator role."
Kelly's challenge is considerably smaller. This is Notre Dame, after all. Initial reaction among recruits speaks to that, with most youngsters recognizing that much of what they were promised remains in place so long as Kelly is at the forefront. If Diaco does not bring along other Irish assistants with him to Storrs, Conn., Kelly will have a much easier time filling the holes on his staff. Kerry Cooks, let's not forget, has also been the co-defensive coordinator these past two years, and he will probably take on Diaco's responsibilities for (at least) the rest of the month.
The fact this Notre Dame team went 8-4 and had its top two assistants get hired to run their own shows speaks volumes about where the program is now. Jimbo Fisher lost seven assistants in a season that ended with Florida State winning the Orange Bowl, and the Seminoles have turned out oh-so fine in the year since. This is a good problem to have, and as IrishIllustrated's Pete Sampson said, one coordinator leaving right after the other could trigger an eventful race back to South Bend to occupy Kelly's office whenever he should depart.
That's down the road. For now, the calendar has 19 days remaining in a year that began with a letdown against Alabama in the national title game and will likely end with a win against Rutgers -- with plenty of embarrassment (Manti Te'o, Everett Golson) and departures (Gunner Kiel, two receivers) sandwiched in-between.
As they did in this past year, the Irish will enter 2014 hoping to close whatever gap remains toward a national title. And while Jameis Winston isn't walking through that door, the two most important elements of that chase, Kelly and Golson, still are.
Coach: Kyle Flood (9-4 career, 9-4 at Rutgers)
2012 record: 9-4
Key losses: RB Jawan Jamison, CB Logan Ryan, LB Khaseem Greene
Key returnees: QB Gary Nova, WR Brandon Coleman, OL Kaleb Johnson
Newcomer to watch: DL Darius Hamilton
Biggest games in 2013: Arkansas (Sept. 21), Louisville (Oct. 10)
Forecast: Offensively, Rutgers has an identity and experience with Nova, Coleman and an offensive line that returns two all-conference selections. The Scarlet Knights’ defense is a different story. Leading the Big East in scoring defense and holding nine opponents to 15 points or fewer last season, the defense returns just four starters, especially missing the presence of Greene (136 tackles) and Ryan (94 tackles and four interceptions). Linebacker Jamal Merrell and defensive end Jamil Merrell will be called on to lead the defense as they ranked third on the team in tackles and second on the team in sacks, respectively. Defensive lineman Isaac Holmes returns from a season-ending injury he suffered against Arkansas to provide even more experience up front.
Though Nova will be without last year’s 1,000-yard rusher Jawan Jamison, Flood expects him to improve on a season where he started every game, throwing 22 touchdown passes and 2,695 yards. Coleman, Nova’s top target, tied the Big East lead with 10 touchdown receptions last season.
“I think any time your quarterback starts an entire season and has an opportunity not to just go through the winter program or spring practice, or your summer program, but all of those things in a calendar year, he has a chance to come out of it a significantly higher-level player,” Flood said. “I think Gary has taken advantage of all those things. He's as anxious as we are to see him out on the field and see him perform.”
Picked to finish third in the American Athletic, the Scarlet Knights will host Arkansas, a team they upset on the road last season. But Rutgers will have to steal at least one of its conference road games against Louisville and Central Florida if it wants to finish near the top of the league again.
The Rutgers football team helped after Hurricane Sandy in several ways, including selecting 22 kids affected by Hurricane Sandy to play a flag football game in the final five minutes of a football game, asking game attendees to make a $5 donation at a game, and working to remind everyone that there is still a lot to do before the state fully recovers from Hurricane Sandy.
The Champions of Change program gives the White House a chance to honor groups of people doing great work in their communities.
“As soon as a disaster hits, we see citizens come together to help those in need. Time and again, we have seen the courage and heroism of first responders, organizations, and ordinary people in providing relief, recovery, and care, and these Hurricane Sandy champions of change are no exception. From providing up-to-the-minute news, to assisting with long-term recovery to showing compassion to neighbors to donating vital supplies, these ordinary heroes are an inspiration to us all,” Paulette Aniskoff, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Public Engagement, said in a statement.
The 36-year-old Taggart is the youngest head coach in a Big East that boasts no shortage of them. Taggart is the fifth-youngest coach in the nation in 2013, according to a list of 14 that Temple provided to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey.
Taggart is less than a month younger than the sixth-youngest coach on that list, second-year Memphis coach Justin Fuente. Two spots lower? That would be 38-year-old Temple head man Matt Rhule, giving the Big East three of the nation's eight youngest coaches.
As for the flip side of things, UCF coach George O'Leary is the elder statesman of the league, at 66 years old. O'Leary is the sixth-oldest coach in the nation in 2013.
Connecticut's Paul Pasqualoni (63) and SMU's June Jones (60) also crack the 60-and-over crowd, coming in as the ninth- and 17th-oldest active coaches, respectively.
Here is a list of Big East coaches by birth date:
Willie Taggart, USF (Aug. 27, 1976)
Justin Fuente, Memphis (July 30, 1976)
Matt Rhule, Temple (Jan. 31, 1975)
Tony Levine, Houston (Oct. 28, 1972)
Kyle Flood, Rutgers (Jan. 20, 1971)
Charlie Strong, Louisville (Aug. 2, 1960)
Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati (Sept. 18, 1954)
June Jones, SMU (Feb. 19, 1953)
Paul Pasqualoni (Aug. 16, 1949)
George O'Leary (Aug. 17, 1946)
Perhaps folks did not notice so much because that group has been playing at a high level.
For the fourth straight season, somebody new will be calling the defensive plays. In 2011, coach Greg Schiano did it while Bob Fraser retained the defensive coordinator position. After Schiano left for Tampa Bay, his protege, Robb Smith, took over as coordinator and play caller in 2012.
With Smith off to join Schiano, Dave Cohen takes over those duties.
Fortunately, the players' adjustment level has been minimal. There has been no real scheme shift to speak of, no wholesale changes to the playbook, no different way of doing business. Cohen served as an assistant on staff last season, so he is well versed in the Rutgers way of doing business on defense.
"When we went from Coach Schiano to Coach Smith, they had the same philosophy because they worked with each other for so long, so not many things changed," linebacker Kevin Snyder said in a recent phone interview. "When Coach Cohen came, he took on the same philosophy that Coach Smith instilled in our defense. He has continued to preach the same thing. There is some continuity in what we’re doing. We’re not just bringing in brand new people and starting over. It’s a continuing process on our defense with the same thing."
Cohen has served as a defensive coordinator at Western Michigan, Delaware and Fordham so he knows what it takes to get the job done. About the only thing expected to change is players seeing him now as the guy in charge.
"They’re seeing a different side to coach Cohen, but I worked with him for three years in that role so I knew exactly what we were going to get and how that was going to look on the field when we promoted him. There is always a little bit of an adjustment period when the voices change, but again with the system being intact, that will go a long way in helping," head coach Kyle Flood said.
Still, Cohen has plenty of work to do this spring, as the Scarlet Knights go about trying to replace so many key players on defense. There is no question he is going to be in the spotlight this season because the defense has been the backbone of this program over the last several years.
Kyle Flood is back in Piscataway, N.J., for his second season at the helm of the program, and his ninth overall with the school. We caught up with the head coach Wednesday, with one practice in the books and the Scarlet Knights looking to leave a lasting impression as they ready for their final season in the Big East.
What are you looking for Gary Nova to improve upon this spring? What do you want to see from the guys behind him?
Kyle Flood: I think Gary's got a unique advantage coming into this spring that we haven't had a quarterback have in a long time around here, in that he got a chance to play in 13 football games last year as a starting quarterback and essentially played in the entirety of every one of them. So I think there's an experience advantage that he has that hopefully we can capitalize on. I think the fastest ways we can capitalize on it is if we can keep the highs and make them consistent, and then take some of the low points and take some of the games where maybe he wasn't as pleased with his performance and move him up a little bit, so you don't see the big swings between the really positive games and the games he wasn't happy with. So I think that in and of itself, if we can get to that point -- and I don't know if that happens in just 15 practices in the spring; I think that's the combination of everything he's done since the bowl game, spring practice and then what's going to come afterwards -- but going into next season that's hopefully what we can do.
You guys obviously have a challenge without Brandon Coleman this spring. What are you looking for from the receiving corps during these practices, and is there anyone you're looking to see rise to the occasion?
KF: I think they're all fighting to find out what their role is going to be. Guys like Miles Shuler, who has got a tremendous skill set and really has come a long way in terms of being a receiver the last year. I'm excited to see what kind of spring Miles is going to have. A guy like Quron Pratt, who has been an excellent player here — statistically maybe that hasn't shown up, but he really has done a lot of things for us over the last two years. He can now have a much bigger role. When guys like Timmy Wright and Mark Harrison graduate, it provides opportunity, and with Brandon Coleman not there this spring it'll be even more opportunity for him to showcase himself. And then you've got some younger guys also, guys like Ruhann Peele and Carlton Agudosi, who are fighting right now to show the coaching staff how big of a role they should have next year.
There's no Coleman, and we know about Savon [Huggins]. Who are some of the other playmakers you are hoping to emerge from spring?
You guys are breaking in two new coordinators this spring. Offensively with Ron Prince, do you expect this spring to be a little bit of a feeling-out period, or do you think things will go over relatively smoothly with him in charge of the offense?
KF: It'll go over smoothly from coach Prince's perspective and from mine. I think that the bumps in the road are going to be some of the young players who now are going to have a lot more on their plate than they've ever had, and that'll create -- even yesterday in our first practice, some of the young receivers and running backs not having been in the fire, so to speak, are out there and they're struggling to get lined up. They're not as quick as maybe you would like them to be or maybe the group of receivers would have been last year because they were used to doing it. Those are all going to be things that are part of the learning curve as we go forward. I think there are going to be some rougher patches this spring at every position, but generally when those things happen it's much more about the younger players being allowed and given more opportunities than anything else. When you get to the season you're really only repping your starters and your ones and one-and-a-halves, as we call them. So right now everybody's getting reps, and at times that can make it a little bit slower or a little bit more choppy than you'd like it to be, but it's a necessity because you've got to find out what they know.
Defensively, you lose an all-timer in Khaseem Greene and another really good linebacker in Steve Beauharnais. Are those players really replaceable, or do you look for a collective effort from the group?
KF: I don't think you replace players really at any position. Football is the ultimate team game, and to think that you're going to replace a Khaseem Greene or a Steve Beauharnais, that's really not the way we think about it. We've played defense at a high level here for a long time and we've done it with a lot of different pieces. And I think now what the staff is looking to see is who are the pieces going to be. And at linebacker we've got two guys in Jamal Merrell and Kevin Snyder, who, in my opinion, have already established themselves as players in our defense. We're trying to figure out who the third piece of that puzzle's going to be. Is that going to be a new Mike? Is that going to be a new Will? I'm not sure I can answer that question just yet. But I'm confident with what we have coming back that we'll be able to continue our tradition here of playing defense at a high level.
Three new starters in the secondary. Jeremy Deering is back there full-time. What do you see from him and that position group as a whole? What makes you feel more comfortable with him back there?
KF: As coaches I think we'd better always be trying to get our best athletes on the field. And if there is a guy on your team you think can be a starter on defense but he's on offense, and he has a significant role on offense but maybe it won't be showcased the way he could be on defense, I think it's our responsibility to see if that player would have an interest in it. And I approached Jeremy with that decision and he was really excited about it. And it was certainly something that we tinkered with a little bit last year trying to build some depth in our sub packages, and we weren't really able to really put it in as far as we wanted to, but now with having an offseason and needing a guy with the departures of Duron Harmon, Wayne Warren and some of the other defensive backs, it's really a position on our team that will have more new faces than any other. And we really thought that Jeremy Deering, even though he is going into his senior year, he's got the right skill set to do that. He's got the right frame of mind to do it and he has the desire to do it, and I think Jeremy's going to do very well back there for us.
Big-picture, the Big East has been going through a lot of changes. The conference welcomes in four new teams this fall. I was just curious from your standpoint if there's anything different that you have to prepare for when you're seeing fresh staffs and fresh players on your schedule this season?
KF: I think with the way the Big East was constituted in the past, we've seen a good variety of pro-style offenses, spread offenses. We have played the academies, so we've seen the option. We had West Virginia in the conference for a long time, so we played against the 3-3 defense. I don't know that there will be anything in this new collection of teams that will be significantly unique. Now I do know that each one will bring very specific challenges and they'll have strengths and weaknesses to their teams just like we do. But those will be things we'll address after spring practice. Right now we're trying to figure out what we are. We're trying to figure out who are going to be the playmakers on our team that are going to be out there. Who are going to be the people in the sub packages, and really what is our football team going to look like? And that's what I'm most concerned about, and I think that's what spring practice is for. We have the schedule, so we know who the first four games are going to be now. We'll get a little bit involved into doing some early game-planning for them, but we won't do that until after spring practice is over.
Spring Start: Feb. 28
Spring game: April 6
What to watch:
- Quarterback: Jacob Karam returns as the starter after throwing for 1,895 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. But coach Justin Fuente says Karam will be pushed during the spring and has to win the starting job all over again.
- Bump up the physicality: Fuente has said repeatedly that he wants to see his team be more physical, especially now that it is joining the Big East. The spring is the perfect chance to improve in this area. "We will play some of the same teams we played last year, but they will be the bigger, more physical teams we played last year," he said. "We have to understand that we have a lot of ground to make up. That is not ground that is made up easily."
- Competition at defensive back: The Tigers lose two starters from their defensive backfield -- Cannon Smith and Robert Steeples -- and Fuente is excited about the competition at this position going into the spring.
Spring Start: March 26
Spring game: April 27
What to watch:
- Quarterback: Even though coach Kyle Flood says Gary Nova is his starter, you can bet there is going to be competition at this position going into the spring, especially with a new offensive coordinator in Ron Prince. That doesn't mean there will be changes, but certainly Prince is going to want to take a look at all the players he has available to evaluate what they can or cannot do.
- Defensive leaders: Rutgers lost its top defensive playmakers and needs to find guys who can step in for Scott Vallone, Khaseem Greene, Steve Beauharnais and Logan Ryan, to name four. Plus, there is a new coordinator in Dave Cohen, so there might be some adjustment period.
- Huggins stepping up: The time is now for the highly heralded local recruit to live up to the expectations that came with him when he arrived on campus. Jawan Jamison is gone off to the NFL, so all eyes have turned to Huggins to see if he has what it takes to be the next 1,000-yard rusher.
Spring Start: March 25
Spring game: April 20
What to watch:
- Replacing Zach Line: The Mustangs have to replace their top runner over the past several seasons in Line, who had three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Leading the charge this spring are junior college All-American Traylon Shead and reserve back Rishaad Wimbley, who switched from defense a few seasons ago.
- New defensive starters: The Mustangs lost the bulk of their playmakers on defense in Margus Hunt and linebackers Taylor Reed and Ja'Gared Davis. Finding guys to step up without them is a huge priority. Watch for Zach Wood at defensive end in place of Hunt; and Kevin Pope and Robert Seals at linebacker.
- More consistency at QB: June Jones' offense runs best when the quarterback is at his best. Garrett Gilbert returns as the starter, but he is going to need to find much more consistency this spring and into the fall. Two numbers that have to be improved: accuracy (53 percent in 2012) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (15-to-15 in 2012).
Spring Start: March 20
Spring game: April 13
What to watch:
- New coaches, new style: Coach Willie Taggart has promised to ratchet up the intensity and transform his team into more of a smash-mouth group. That process begins in the spring, when he has his first opportunity to really show his players what he expects out of them. You can bet he expects a lot more physicality from his offensive and defensive lines to start.
- Quarterback competition: Who will emerge as the starter? Will we even know after the spring? Matt Floyd and Bobby Eveld, the top two candidates, have plenty of work to do as they fight to win the starting job. But this competition could very well go into the fall, when freshman Mike White arrives on campus.
- Defensive back improvement: This was the worst group the Bulls had a year ago and the one in most need of immediate improvement. USF registered two interceptions in 2012, tied with Auburn for the fewest among all 120 schools in the nation. And they both came in the same game -- against UConn on Nov. 3.
Spring Start: March 22
Spring game: April 20
What to watch:
- New staff: Matt Rhule certainly has a familiarity with Temple, having served as an assistant there under both Al Golden and Steve Addazio. But anytime a new coach comes in, there is change, so the spring gives him his first chance to really start implementing his style and what he wants to get accomplished.
- Quarterbacks: You can bet this competition is going to be open this spring, with Chris Coyer, Juice Granger and Kevin Newsome all returning. Coyer and Granger both started a year ago; Newsome transferred in from Penn State a few years ago. How this shakes out is one major story to watch.
- Running backs: Montel Harris and Matt Brown are gone, taking with them 1,426 yards rushing and 16 of the team's 21 rushing touchdowns. Jamie Gilmore got more carries as the season went on when Brown was hurt; Kenny Harper also is back and certainly will be relied upon even more.