PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Northwestern and its high-powered offense are going to get a new look from Rutgers.
Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash has decided to take a more hands-on approach with his struggling defense when the Wildcats (3-3, 3-1 Big Ten) travel to Rutgers on Saturday.
Rutgers (1-6, 0-4) has lost its last six games, giving up an average of 40.8 points in those setbacks.
A former defensive coordinator Ohio State, Ash took a larger role in the defensive strategy before the Maryland game last week. He's also more involved in coaches meetings, running some player meetings and taking over occasional game-day play calling from coordinator Jay Niemann.
"We play a lot of really good snaps defensively," Ash said. "The issue is we have four or five plays that continue to jump up and bite us. The effort has been to try to eliminate those few plays and find out why they continue to happen. Well, it's one player here. It's one unit here. It is nothing consistent. It is something different.
"So, you know, just trying to bring the whole group together and meet together, install together, try to have common language together. That's really what it's about."
Northwestern gained 487 total yards last weekend in 30-24 overtime win against Nebraska. Clayton Thorson completed a career-high 41 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns and wide receiver Flynn Nagel had a career-best 12 catches for 222 yards and two touchdowns, earning him Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week.
"He's just worked incredibly hard," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Nagel, "And you know, typically, success comes to those that do that."
The Wildcats will be ready if Rutgers tries to roll its coverage or double team Nagel.
"Disguise him," Fitzgerald said. "Halloween is coming up."
NOT LOOKING AHEAD
With No. 23 Wisconsin and No. 4 Notre Dame looming the next two weeks, it would be easy for Northwestern to overlook lowly Rutgers.
"It's very consistent with how we approach things here. It's a 1-0 approach each week," Fitzgerald said. "Every game is a one-game season, so the rest of the stuff is for that week when it comes up."
Rutgers true freshman quarterback Art Sitkowski leads the nation in interceptions (15) and been benched three times in his seven starts. In the most recent game last week at Maryland, he went 2-of-16 for eight yards and four interceptions.
"Decision-making," Sitkowski said of what needs to change. "This position is all about decision-making. You've got to make the best decisions to put your team in the best spot to win. If you can't do that, you won't be successful."
Nagel has more receptions (46) and yards receiving (622) through six games than any Northwestern player since at least 2000. His 220 yards last weekend were the third-most in school history and the most for a Big Ten player since 2013. The senior is averaging a conference-leading 103.7 yards receiving and 8.0 catches.
While Rutgers is on a six-game losing streak, Northwestern has won two in a row and have won and five straight Big Ten road games, averaging 34 points in the wins.
Thorson joined former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett last week as the only Big Ten players to pass for 9,000 yards and run for 20 touchdowns. The senior's 455 yards was the sixth most in school history. It's also tied for the second-highest total among Power Five programs this season.
Thorson is 10th on the Big Ten's all-time passing list with 9,303 yards.
It's the first meeting with Rutgers as a member of the Big Ten, but the Scarlet Knights are 3-0 overall against the Wildcats. Gary Melton, the father of Rutgers wide receiver Bo Melton, played in the last win in 1991. He scored on a 96-yard kickoff return and added 63 receiving yards.
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