PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Chris Ash is heading into his fourth season as the football coach at Rutgers and again facing an uphill battle.
There is no other way to describe it, coming off a one-win season and a winless record in nine Big Ten Conference games.
Through three seasons, the numbers are against the Scarlet Knights and Ash. Seven overall wins. Two winless seasons in the league sandwiched around a surprising 3-6 mark in 2017. That's a 3-24 mark in the Big Ten.
"I think anybody that is in our program wants to see significant improvement," Ash said before the start of training camp. "What that is, there's not a number. I know a lot of people want to put a number on it. To me, it's about improving, having your football team go out and having a chance to win as many games as possible. That's improvement. Is it 12 games, 10 games, eight games, six games? I don't know."
What Ash does believe is he has more depth on defense than at any time in his tenure, and that his special teams are good with punter Adam Korsak and placekicker Justin Davidovicz back.
The question mark is the offense. Sophomore Art Sitkowski will try to hold the quarterback job for the second straight year. The running backs position is good with Isaih Pacheco, Raheem Blackshear and a couple of freshman prospects.
The O-line and the receivers are a little more iffy.
"All I know is we're going to work really hard to put a really competitive, enthusiastic, tough, disciplined team on the field that gives us an opportunity to win every single game that we play," Ash said. "And that's what our focus is. I'm not worried about a number. I've never had a conversation with anybody about a number. We're trying to make our football team as good as it can be and that's our focus."
What Rutgers has to do more this season is to put itself in position to win games. If it does it enough, the Scarlet Knights will have a chance to win and build some confidence.
Last year, only three of their 11 losses were by seven points or less.
Junior defensive lineman Mike Tverdov, who shared the team lead with four sacks last year despite making only two starts, expects the defense to pick up where it left off late last season. The unit allowed a total of 34 points in losses to Penn State and Michigan State.
"As far as the season goes, I am very excited for the defensive side of the ball and the team in general," Tverdov said. "I think we are poised to do some special things this year. We have a lot more experience. We have a lot more guys coming back and a lot more young talent. If we can have good practices and a good training camp, I think we can have a really good year."
Here are some things to watch during the Scarlet Knights' season, which kicks off at home against Massachusetts on Aug. 30.
OFFENSIVE BOSS BACK:
For the first time in a decade, Rutgers is going to start the season with the same offensive coordinator as the year before. John McNulty snapped the trend. The negative is Rutgers averaged 13.5 points last season, the lowest among major college programs.
McNulty has already seen changes having the same offense.
"It is a lot better because you hear the older guys teaching the younger ones," McNulty said. "In the past, they would have probably have been learning it themselves. It's a lot easier. We are throwing stuff out they don't like. They at least can give you answers what they like and what they don't like."
NEW D COORDINATOR:
Andy Buh, who was Maryland's coordinator last season, has 23 years of experience. He worked with Ash at Wisconsin. He plans to change as little as possible.
"We come in and we looked at what Chris was running and I saw a lot of similarities," he said. "I tried to keep the verbiage the same, added a few things here and there, but for the most part kept it the same."
When Sitkowski came to Rutgers, there were hopes the strong-armed quarterback would be the starter for the next four years. While he started 11 games, it was not pretty. He was 134 of 273 for 1,158 yards, four touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Backup Gio Rescigno started one game and replaced him six times.
Sitkowski, who is battling Texas Tech transfer McLane Carter for the No. 1 spot, needs to improve if Rutgers is going to be better.
Oct. 5 vs. Maryland; Oct. 12 Indiana; Nov. 2 Illinois. Games against middle of the road conference teams Rutgers needs to start beating.