Finding the positives for a program coming off a 1-11 season are few and far between. But if there is a diamond in the rough for Rutgers — something to cling to as it tries to escape the quicksand — it’s Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco.
There’s really no positive way to spin last year. In every respect, in every category, Rutgers’ offense was just plain bad, and that’s putting it politely. Not much about last year’s campaign provides much optimism for Year 4 of the Chris Ash era — a pivotal year for the Scarlet Knights and their head coach.
If there’s one thing Rutgers shouldn’t have to worry about this fall, though, it’s the talent that occupies the backfield. While Blackshear and Pacheco aren’t going to make a lot of preseason All-B1G teams, the two running backs can provide a solid 1-2 punch for John McNulty’s offense.
Blackshear and Pacheco combined to rush or 1,137 yards and six touchdowns last year, the lone bright spots for a team that ranked last in the B1G and near the bottom nationally in total, scoring and passing offense. The numbers from the 2018 campaign may not be overwhelming, but they suggest that Rutgers will, at the very least, have a foundation for its offense this fall, cracking the door for dramatic improvement on that side of the football.
Improving really isn’t exactly a lofty goal for Rutgers, but the question is by how much? Nobody is expecting the Scarlet Knights to own the B1G’s most prolific offense in 2019, but establishing a stable rushing attack will translate to better offensive production and increase the number of scoring opportunities.
Rutgers has a solid combination in its backfield to do exactly that.
Blackshear has already received significant praise this offseason from former USC star and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, who likes the versatility from the junior back. Blackshear isn’t just a ball carrier capable of grinding out yardage, he’s an excellent pass catcher and good blocker.
In addition to his 586 yards on the ground, Blackshear hauled in 44 receptions for 367 yards and two touchdowns for the Scarlet Knights.
“This is the age of versatile running backs I like what I’m seeing and reading about this young kid Raheem Blackshear from Rutgers the more you can do the more valuable you make yourself,” Bush said. “The Scarlet Knights will need him this year.”
Blackshear is the do-it-all back capable of grinding out hard-to-get yards. His versatility is going to be a major asset to the Scarlet Knights again this fall.
Pacheco’s skillset is the perfect complement to Blackshear’s abilities, too.
If Blackshear is the all-purpose back, Pacheco is the running mate with unmatched speed and big-play capability. As a true freshman, 13 of Pacheco’s 111 touches went for 10 yards or more. Four of those exceeded 20 yards, which included an 80-yard touchdown run against Michigan.
The Blackshear-Pacheco combination didn’t result in much offensive success a year ago, and the 1-11 record is a huge reason why not many are considering the two backs in Piscataway to be a viable threat this fall. But there are a few other reasons why the Scarlet Knights should be more successful on the ground this season.
For starters, Rutgers’ passing game was atrocious last season, ushering in four-star true freshman Artur Sitkowski under center. He threw 18 interceptions with just four touchdowns and completed a meager 49.1 percent of his passes. Sitkowski’s inexperience and inaccuracies allowed defenses to clamp down on the rushing attack, forcing the Scarlet Knights to beat teams through the air.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Sitkowski has a full year of experience now, and Rutgers has also welcomed in former Texas Tech quarterback McLane Carter, who could challenge for the starting job. Those factors may not result in a monumental leap in offensive production, but completing passes will certainly help open things up for Blackshear and Pacheco.
Then there’s the fact that, for the first time this decade, the Scarlet Knights begin the year with the same offensive coordinator as the season before. With constant scheme change due to the coordinator carousel in Piscataway, it’s been impossible for Rutgers to create or establish an offensive identity. McNulty’s return for a second season should help counter that inconsistency, as well.
See, there are some real reasons to believe Rutgers is on the incline heading into 2019.
Rutgers has been at its best when its been able to run the football effectively. The program enjoyed its most successful year of the Ash era in 2017 when Gus Edwards and Robert Martin were seeing a majority of the carries (granted Jerry Kill was calling the offense then). Edwards rushed for 713 yards and six touchdowns while Martin racked up 434 yards and three scores.
That year, Rutgers finished 4-8 with a 3-6 conference record. It also found itself in three tight games, falling to Washington, Eastern Michigan and Nebraska, but the Scarlet Knights were more competitive on a weekly basis.
And really, that’s what Blackshear and Pacheco can help Rutgers achieve this season. With two underrated players occupying the backfield, the Scarlet Knights have the chance to prove it can compete every Saturday in the B1G. It doesn’t mean Rutgers is going to start challenging Ohio State or Michigan in the East. It doesn’t even necessarily mean bowl eligibility will come in 2019. But it does provide the offense with a foundation.
Rutgers is still a program taking baby steps to get to the next level. Whether or not it will happen under Ash is to be determined. But because of Blackshear and Pacheco, 2019 has the potential to be the best season in the Ash regime.
Their names may not be there in the preseason, but don’t be surprised if you see Blackshear or Pacheco on an All-B1G ballot at the end of the year.