If Chris Ash can't even beat Illinois at home, my goodness
I’m sure there have been plenty of embarrassing moments for Chris Ash since he arrived in Piscataway.
From watching the likes of Michigan and Ohio State threaten to put up triple digits on his home field to getting stomped on by Kansas and Buffalo, the Rutgers coach has had no shortage of reasons to feel like he was at the bottom of a sky-scraping mountain.
You know what’s another bottom-of-the-mountain moment? Being a 5.5-point underdog at home to Illinois.
You know, Illinois, the same program that’s riding a streak of 13 straight losses to Power 5 teams. Illinois, the same team that’s searching for its first B1G win since Nov. 2016, having been outscored 484-166 in that stretch. Illinois, the same program that has one Power 5 road win in the Lovie Smith era, which was a 24-7 victory…at Rutgers.
Yet despite Illinois’ woes, it’s the Scarlet Knights who are now nearly a touchdown underdog at home.
Quite frankly, that might not even be enough points to give a Rutgers team that’s ranked No. 125 in FBS in scoring offense (that’s dead last among Power 5 programs) and No. 106 in scoring defense. Rutgers is easily the worst Power 5 team in terms of point margin at -98, which is pretty difficult to do considering that 4 of their 5 games were against FCS Texas State, Buffalo, Kansas and Indiana.
Kansas was favored to beat Rutgers, which marked the first time it was the favorite against a Power 5 team since 2009. And all it did was win that game by 41.
For crying out loud. You’ve got coaches like Dana Holgorsen calling out Rutgers’ awfulness when the two programs haven’t even played.
Entering Saturday’s showdown of B1G cellar dwellers, Rutgers is still searching for its first win against an FBS team this year. In all likelihood, we’ll still be searching for a reason why Ash can be the guy to at least start climbing that mountain.
In Ash’s defense, he did at least do some things in his first two years so get the program back on track. You know, besides changing those awful arena league uniforms.
While Year 1 was an embarrassment, Rutgers actually presented itself like a real Power 5 team in Year 2. The Knights were 3-3 in the B1G at one point coming off — wait for it — a home winning streak! Despite the fact that they closed going 0-3 and got outscored 116-13, going 3-6 as a B1G East team showed that Ash was making legitimate progress.
Perhaps that’s why there was some optimism for Year 3 of the Ash era. With the NCAA violations from the Kyle Flood era in the rearview mirror, why couldn’t the Knights at least avoid being a laughing stock in 2018?
When Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs called out CBS Sports for putting Ash on a hot-seat list in the preseason, one could understand where he was coming from:
Hey CBS Sports! You can take my guy off your list. Program building takes time and Chris Ash is doing a great job! https://t.co/eg09sDpsD3
— Pat Hobbs (@PatHobbsRU) July 21, 2018
Hobbs is right in a sense that nobody was going to come into Rutgers and turn it into a B1G contender in Year 3. Just getting to a bowl game in Year 3 would’ve been huge.
Even with the in-state recruiting advantages, we’re still talking about a program that’s getting roughly half of what other B1G teams will get in shared conference revenue (Rutgers won’t get a full piece of the B1G revenue pie until 2020-21). To think that type of financial deficit (about $26 million) could be overcome easily would’ve been a mistake.
But surely Hobbs didn’t envision this kind of start to 2018.
His team is in jeopardy of falling to 1-5, and potentially being eliminated from bowl eligibility by Halloween. By the way, that’s before Rutgers begins a 4-game stretch with Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State to end the season.
The only good news is that with Michigan and Penn State coming to town, Rutgers can get a nice boost to its dwindling attendance thanks to the visiting crowd. It’s only been three home games, but Rutgers is averaging 35,585 fans per game (there definitely aren’t that many by the fourth quarter). Last year’s team averaged 39,749. That’s a 10.5 percent decrease if that continues. If you want to go back to Ash’s first year when Rutgers averaged 44,804 fans per home game, that would be a 20.6 percent dip in attendance if the 35,585 average continued.
It’s not even just attendance and embarrassing losses that are becoming issues. Ash’s teams started out by doing what Flood’s teams couldn’t — stay out of trouble. But that’s not even the case anymore after eight Rutgers players were involved in a credit card fraud scandal. We’re still waiting to hear how that one plays out.
We’re still waiting to hear about how Ash’s future plays out, too.
Hobbs already came out and praised Rutgers’ fight following last week’s loss against Indiana. Players aren’t giving up, according to Ash. Not surprisingly, Ash said after the Kansas debacle that it could take 4-6 years to build a program up.
That’s probably what I’d say if I wanted to keep my job after getting beat by 41 points against Kansas, too.
Hobbs obviously doesn’t want to fire Ash, whom he hired to clean up Flood’s mess after the disastrous 2015 season. If Hobbs had any desire to make that move, surely he wouldn’t have quote-tweeted a story reporting that he was on the hot seat.
But as you watch Rutgers against Illinois on Saturday — it’s like a car accident that you can’t look away from — think about this. What in the world has Ash done to show that he’s capable of righting the ship? In the midst of what looks like possibly his worst Rutgers season yet in Year 3, what can Hobbs see that makes him believe he can even achieve mediocrity in Year 4 or Year 5?
Beating Illinois would be a start. At many places, not beating Illinois would be a finish. Ash isn’t at one of those places. He’s at a place with an athletic director who seems like he’s going to support the team as long as it’s trying it’s hardest.
Sooner or later, though, Hobbs is going to realize that he’s still standing at the bottom of the mountain, no closer to even beginning that climb.