Rutgers football takes on New Mexico at Highpoint Solutions Stadium in Piscataway. STAFF VIDEO BY MARK R. SULLIVAN Mark R. Sullivan
PISCATAWAY - It’s been 283 days since Chris Ash was introduced as the Rutgers head coach and 41 days since the start of summer practice, with the first three games of the season now behind the Scarlet Knights.
But are they ready for Big Ten play?
“I don't know if we're ready yet,’’ Ash admitted. “We've gotten better at some areas. We're not as good as we need to be in some areas.’’
Ready or not, the Scarlet Knights leap headlong into the deep end of the pool Saturday when Iowa comes to High Point Solutions Stadium ranked 25th in the Amway Coaches Poll and as the preseason pick to win the Big Ten’s West division.
While the Scarlet Knights have won back-to-back games, the level of competition, as well as the stakes, will be raised dramatically this weekend against the Hawkeyes.
“I really like our attitude right now,’’ Ash said. “I like our desire to continue to fight, regardless of what we're faced against and the challenges that we've put ourselves in. But the fight-and-won't-quit mentality and approach to the game of football right now with this team is exceptional, and (I’m) really happy with the way that those guys have kind of bonded together and have done that.
“You don't win those last two games like we've done after we put ourselves in holes if you don't have really strong-character kids and a strong belief in what you're doing and in each other, and (I’m) really happy for our guys to say that we have that right now.’’
There are plenty of question marks. The most notable one is at quarterback, where the staff figures to have Chris Laviano on a short leash after his performance against New Mexico, which included a 75-yard TD pass and not much else.
Then there’s that little matter of the slow starts, with Rutgers having been outscored 56-14 in the first quarters of its games so far.
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But armed with the confidence two straight wins has instilled in them, the Rutgers players certainly don’t feel those issues are insurmountable against an Iowa team coming off a loss to North Dakota State.
`We still have to clean up a few things, but I think we’re ready,’’ safety Anthony Cioffi said. “Nothing’s going to be perfect, but everything is moving at a lot better pace now. Everybody is in tune with the defense, and we’re just ready to play.
“Our goal is to be undefeated at home. We want it to be a tough environment here when teams come to play, so this is where we need to play our best football.’’
Controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball will be critical as Rutgers must now prepare for teams that will be far more physical at the point of attack than their last two opponents, Howard and New Mexico.
“I think the team is ready. The only person not used to what they’re doing is me, a first-year starter,’’ left tackle Tariq Cole said. “I’ve never played in a Big Ten game before. I need to get acclimated to everything the Big Ten has in store for me. So I’m probably the least ready.’’
How tough are things about to get?
Rutgers went 1-7 against Big Ten competition last season and has a 4-12 mark in league play during its first two seasons.
And after Saturday’s game, they'll have to Ohio State for a showdown with Ash’s former employer, with the Buckeyes currently ranked No. 2.
“Am I excited to go out and find out where we're at every Saturday? Absolutely, because I talk about our process of preparation. I really like what we do,’’ Ash said.
“I think the guys believe in what we do. I think we practice extremely hard on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Tuesday is a physical practice; Wednesday is still a fairly physical practice. Thursday, we get a lot of reps on the scout team. Friday is what we call Feel Good Fridays, getting our minds and bodies right, and then putting the final touches on the game plan.
“Saturday is a day to go out and try to prove that we are getting better. This Saturday we've got a great test. We're going to find out.’’
We certainly are.
Staff Writer Stephen Edelson is an Asbury Park Press columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org