Big Ten

Big Ten preview: In Chris Ash, Rutgers has the change it desperately needed

Big Ten preview: In Chris Ash, Rutgers has the change it desperately needed

There’s no doubt about it: Rutgers needed a change.

The Scarlet Knights cleaned house last year, firing head football coach Kyle Flood and athletics director Julie Hermann (head men’s basketball coach Eddie Jordan's exit followed a few months later, making for a brand-new look in Piscataway across the department's three highest-profile jobs).

While Hermann made plenty of negative headlines throughout her tenure, Flood’s final year brought a whole lot more than just losing football, with a seemingly never-ending stream of arrests and dismissals and the head coach himself suspended at one point following a controversy in which he sought to influence the grade of one of his players.

So a change was necessary, and a change is what happened: a new athletics director in the form of Pat Hobbs and a new head football coach in the form of Chris Ash.

Ash’s credentials are strong, a veteran of powerful Big Ten coaching staffs. He worked under Bret Bielema during three straight seasons at Wisconsin that ended in Rose Bowl berths, and he’s fresh off a two-year stint as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, during which Urban Meyer’s squad lost just two games and won the 2014 national championship.

But most importantly, perhaps, is the page his hiring has allowed Rutgers to turn and the fresh start he brings in the wake of Flood’s tumultuous final season.

“I haven’t looked back much,” Ash said last week during Big Ten Media Days. “I’m aware of what happened in the past, but what happened in the past doesn’t determine our future.

“We came with a plan. We met with every player, we told them what that plan was, we told them what we needed to see out of them. It hasn’t been necessarily smooth the whole time. I told them in December at my first team meeting that this room would not be the same when we kicked off in our first game against Washington, and it’s not, we have lost some players for various reasons. But we’ve changed that room also through our culture and our environment that we created, and we’re really excited about it.”

As Ash mentioned, it hasn’t necessarily been a smooth transition 100 percent of the time, and that was to be expected. Almost everyone in the program was brought in by Flood, and in that sense this situation isn’t all that dissimilar from every coaching change around college football.

But certainly there are unique elements to the end of an era that featured not just a bunch of losing on the football field — the Knights won just four conference games in their first two seasons in the Big Ten — but years’ worth of negative headlines crammed into one unfortunate season.

“It is a different environment,” Ash said. “There’s a high level of accountability, there are high standards, and we hold them to those standards. That’s not for everybody, it’s not easy to do. It’s hard to be one of those elite top 10-percent type of players every single day. It’s hard for coaches to be that type of a coach every single day. But it’s what we want in our organization, we want those top 10-percent guys to be as good as they can be every single day. It’s not easy, though.”

At least one player thinks the change is exactly what Rutgers needed.

“Change isn’t bad. Change is new, and new is not always bad,” defensive lineman Darius Hamilton said. “I think it’s exactly what this team needed. I think everyone’s very eager to have him on board. One thing I’ve sensed since coach Ash has walked through the door is excitement, excitement around the building, excitement around the state, excitement around the community. Kids’ whole mind frames have changed and work ethics have changed. Kids are staying after with no coaches, just themselves and other players in their unit to make it better day in and day out. It’s really a great sight to see.”

Like any coach that comes into a losing program with intent to make it a winner, Ash will require time. Especially in the loaded Big Ten East — with annually dominant powers Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, as well as a sleeping giant in Penn State — patience will most certainly be a virtue.

But Ash’s track record as an assistant should inspire confidence, as should his demeanor, which at least at Media Days showed he was all in at Rutgers.

“He’s a real passionate guy,” Hamilton said. “When you’re a player and you’re just as passionate about college football as your head coach is, it makes it real easy to play for him. … He cares about the little things, he cares about leadership. He’s really everything that you look for in a coach. And he’s a real proven guy who’s taken a chance on us and this program.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?