Opponent Preview: Rutgers

Maryland's final regular season game is against Rutgers, which will travel to College Park, Md., Nov. 29 for a 3:30 p.m. bout in Byrd Stadium.

Maryland’s (7-4) final regular season opponent, Rutgers (6-5), is coming off a demoralizing 45-3 loss at Michigan State Nov. 22, the Scarlet Knights’ third straight road defeat. The Scarlet Knights, about to complete their inaugural Big Ten season, are led by head coach Kyle Flood, who took over for Greg Schiano back in 2012. They feature an offense that’s ranked 91st in the FBS at 368 yards per game, and a defense that sits 92nd nationally with 436 yards allowed per game. Rutgers will travel to College Park, Md., Nov. 29 for a 3:30 p.m. bout in Byrd Stadium.

Offense

Rutgers’ offense should be rather familiar to Maryland fans considering its mastermind is former Terps headman Ralph Friedgen, who is in his first season in Piscataway, N.J. The Scarlet Knights, like many of UMD’s recent opponents, run a strict, straightforward pro-style with a quarterback under center and two backs in the backfield. They don’t get overly creative with jet sweeps, end-arounds, shotgun-spread looks or four-receiver sets, typically sticking to their bread and butter. Rutgers does use its tight end more than most Big Ten teams, but the Scarlet Knights usually stay away from two-tight sets, preferring to use the traditional two-back, one tight-end, two-receiver look.

Rutgers may not employ many gimmicks, but perhaps the Scarlet Knights should try a few in order to get its offense moving as the Scarlet Knights are averaging 24 points per game (93rd in the FBS) and 368 yards of total offense (92nd in the FBS). Their ground game is picking up 147.6 yards per outing (86th in the FBS), while the passing attack generates 220.5 yards a night (72nd in the FBS).

Rutgers isn’t a ball-control team, with a 29:54 time of possession (57th in the FBS), although the Scarlet Knights don't typically beat themselves at 42 penalty yards per (24th in the FBS). Rutgers is also only converting 35 percent of third downs (105th in the FBS), while turning 63 percent of its redzone attempts into touchdowns. The Scarlet Knights are minus-2 (74th in the FBS) in turnover margin, giving the ball away 18 times, including twice last week.

Quarterbacks

The bulwark of Rutgers’ attack is Gary Nova (Sr., 6-2, 220), who injured his knee against Nebraska a few weeks ago but he played against MSU and should be good to go. Nova broke the school record for career touchdowns earlier this season, and overall he’s been fairly stable, last week's game notwithstanding. A conventional pro-style pocket passer, Nova has an average-to-above average arm, actively reads defenses and usually gives his receivers a chance to make a play. He’s not overly athletic, but Nova has been known to shed a tackle and scramble away from the blitz, which he hadn’t always done in the past. He’s also improved as far as blitz pickup, stepping up in the pocket to find an open target instead of merely throwing the ball away or attempting an ill-advised pass to avoid a sack.

Then again, Nova is always good for a meltdown or two per game (he had five interceptions against Penn State). For all the touchdown passes he’s thrown, Nova’s also closing in on the school record for career picks as well. On top of that, his accuracy can wane at times, and he tends to sail the ball or throw behind an intended target.

For the season, Nova has completed 150-of-265 passes (56.6 percent) for 2,320 yards and 16 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He’s averaging 211 yards per game, has a long of 93 yards and an efficiency rating of 141.01 (36th in the FBS). Last week Nova was 11-for-26 for 108 yards and two picks.

The backup, Chris Laviano (Fr., 6-3, 210), has seen action in five games this season, including last week in the rout. He’s still adjusting to the college game, however, and needs to improve his reads and accuracy. Right now, Laviano typically rolls out so he only has to read half the field instead of scanning the entire defense. Physically, though, he is a Nova clone with similar arm strength and overall skills.

Running Backs

Rutgers’ ground game hasn’t exactly been groundbreaking this year. The Scarlet Knights’ backs are picking up just 4.0 yards per carry, 147.6 yards per game and have produced 17 touchdowns.

Some of that falls on the offensive line, but Rutgers suffered a major blow when feature runner Paul James, a junior, suffered a torn ACL in late September. Through four games James was averaging 5.8 yards per carry and had scored five touchdowns, easily making him Rutgers’ most prolific back.

Since losing James for the year, the Scarlet Knights have used a rotation of runners, though no single back has separated from the pack as of yet.

Rutgers initially opted for its most experienced backups in Desmon Peoples (So., 5-8, 175) and Justin Goodwin (So., 6-0, 200), but both had ball-security issues and were summarily benched. Peoples is still the team’s leading rusher with 447 yards (3.9 yards per carry) and three touchdowns, while Goodwin has racked up 316 yards on 81 carries (3.9 yards per carry) and one touchdown. Last week Peoples didn't get a single carry, and Goodwin had just two carries for four yards.

With Peoples and Goodwin seeing less time, the Scarlet Knights may be content to rotate freshmen Robert Martin (Fr., 6-0, 200) and Josh Hicks (Fr., 5-10, 205). Martin, who is coming off a torn ACL of his own suffered in high school, is considered a power back with a little shift to him. He doesn’t have great speed or downfield acceleration, but Martin follows his blocks well, has solid vision and can cut back through a lane. His forte, though, is running downhill, breaking through the first line of defense and carrying defenders forward for positive yardage.

Martin has 55 carries for 277 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and four touchdowns in 2014. Against Michigan State, however, he was limited to 16 attempts for 68 yards.

Hicks, meanwhile, is similar to Martin in that he’s a bulldozer back, although he’s even more of a grinder and pile pusher. Hicks too lacks terrific speed, but he’s stronger than Martin and has been known to run over -- and though -- defenders at times. For the season, Hicks has 81 totes for 169 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and one touchdown. Last week he carried the ball eight times for 31 yards.

Rutgers differs from most modern-day offenses in that the Scarlet Knights actively get their fullback involved. Michael Burton (Sr., 6-0, 230) is one of the squad’s best offensive players, and is considered an elite run blocker and a steady pass protector. Moreover, he’s been known to flare out of the backfield on third downs, taking a Nova pass in stride to pick up crucial first downs. Burton, one of the best all-around fullbacks in college football, has 13 receptions for 138 yards this year.

Receivers

The Scarlet Knights’ receiving corps has had an up-and-down campaign. They’re averaging a very good 15.0 yards per catch, but the unit in general has been plagued by drops.

By far and away the No. 1 target is Leonte Carroo (Jr., 6-1, 205), a home-run threat who holds five school receiving records and will likely leave early for NFL. Carroo possesses 4.45 40-yard dash speed, strong hands and the ability to make plays in the air. He’s a physical, aggressive receiver who can out-muscle defenders for jump balls, but has enough speed to take the top off the secondary as well. Moreover, Carroo has terrific chemistry with Nova, stemming from their days as high school teammates (they’ve literally been playing pitch and catch for around eight years now).

Carroo, however, isn’t great at breaking through double teams. And because he’s Rutgers’ main threat, he’s often shadowed by multiple defenders, who can take him out of games.

So far this season Carroo has 47 receptions for 939 yards and eight touchdowns. He has a long of 78 yards. Against MSU, he tallied just one catch for six yards, however.

Beyond Carroo, the Scarlet Knights do not have a trustworthy second option. In fact, there really is no clear-cut No. 2, as Andre Patton (So., 6-4, 200) works in a rotation with a couple other targets. Patton’s a big receiver, but he has questionable hands and average speed. He suffered an injury prior to the season and really hasn’t gotten back into a groove. For the season (he's only played seven games) Patton has just nine receptions for 55 yards, and last week he caught two balls for 13 yards.

The slot receiver, Janarion Grant (So., 5-11, 175), is known more for his special teams prowess than his wideout skills. Grant’s a burner with first-rate Florida speed, but he’s dropped more than his share of passes this year. Rutgers does like to get him the ball in space so he can carve up the defense, but the problem is he’s not reliable. So far in 2014 he has 17 catches for 202 yards, and is coming off a one-reception, 22-yard game.

Another wideout who has started several games and works into the rotation is John Tsimis (So., 6-0, 185). Tsimis has good speed and can get behind a defense, but, like most of the unit, he’s had consistency issues with his hands and route running. He does have 18 receptions for 180 yards and three touchdowns this year. Last week he pulled down five passes for 39 yards.

One of the Scarlet Knights’ more productive backups, Andrew Turzilli (Sr., 6-3, 195), will likely miss the final game with a strained hamstring, which he hurt two weeks ago against Indiana. He only had nine catches all year, but had scored three touchdowns.

Tight Ends

Like the receivers, the Scarlet Knights’ No. 1 tight end, Tyler Kroft (Jr., 6-6, 240), has had an erratic campaign. Kroft suffered an early-year injury and hasn’t quite bounced back yet, his hands questionable, his routes imprecise and his blocking unsteady. At this point, Kroft’s considered a better receiver than blocker, although it’s not like he’s terrible at the latter.

Either way, Kroft is a threat who must be accounted for, because he’s a sizable target, has the ability to get down the seam and possesses enough athleticism to pull down passes in traffic. Kroft has 20 receptions for 219 yards this year, and recorded three catches for 40 yards last week.

The second tight end is Nick Arcidiacono (So., 6-5, 235), who is kind of like a Tyler Kroft-lite. He’s an OK blocker and an OK receiver, but hasn’t excelled in either area. He normally only sees a few snaps each game, as Rutgers doesn’t use the second tight end very much.

Offensive Line

The Scarlet Knights have had their share of struggles on the offensive line this year, with three-fifths of the front five lacking in one area or another. Mostly, the group has kept Gary Nova upright as he has been sacked 18 times, which ranks 32nd in the FBS. The run blocking, however, has been suspect as Rutgers backs are only picking up 4.0 yards per carry and 147.6 yards per game.

That said, left tackle Keith Lumpkin (Jr., 6-8, 310) usually does the job protecting Gary Nova’s blindside. He has deft feet, satisfactory agility and good athleticism, stemming from his days as a basketball player. Lumpkin, for the most part, has had a pretty good season both run and pass blocking, although he’s struggled against the Big Ten’s elite. Lumpkin isn’t the strongest left tackle out there, and can get overpowered from time to time, which is why he’s had trouble against the Ohio States, Nebraskas and Wisconsins of the world.

The left guard, Kaleb Johnson (Sr., 6-4, 300), could have left early for the NFL and been a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick last year, but he decided to return for his senior season. Johnson’s a stout, burly guard who may be Rutgers’ most reliable performer up front. He doesn’t open truck-sized lanes, and he’ll allow a pressure from time to time, but Johnson’s held his own as both a run and pass blocker. One issue here, though, is Johnson’s penchant for picking up personal fouls. Those who know Rutgers football well say he’s good for one unsportsmanlike penalty per game.

At center, Betim Bujari (Sr., 6-4, 295) has had a run-of-the-mill senior season. He’s an average college middle man, who’s relied on more for his brains than his blocking. Bujari is a heady player who reads defenses well, but ankle problems have sapped some of his get-off and athleticism. He likely won’t affect the game much as either a hole opener or pass protector.

The right guard, Chris Muller (So., 6-6, 300), has been up-and-down all season, performing adequately as a run blocker, but stumbling a bit when pass blocking. Muller doesn’t play with fantastic leverage, and quick-twitch ends have beaten him off the ball. That said, he’s mobile enough and agile enough to pull down the line and execute second-level blocks.

Last but not least, there’s right tackle Taj Alexander (Sr., 6-4, 290), yet another Scarlet Knights’ lineman who has floundered in pass pro. In fact, Alexander sometimes gets removed when Rutgers is in obvious throwing situations. But unlike his right guard, Muller, Alexander hasn’t made up for his pass protection woes with standout run blocking. He’s rather average in that latter area as well, and has not had a consistent final season.

The man who rotates in with Alexander, J.J. Denman (So., 6-6, 300), would probably ascend to the starting role if he didn’t have so many uneven performances. Denman is probably a better run blocker than Alexander, but he is not adept in pass protection.

One other lineman to note is backup guard Dorian Miller (Fr., 6-3, 285). Miller is still learning the game, developing his strength and honing his fundamentals, but he has good potential and projects as a solid starter down the road.

Defense

Just as they do on offense, the Scarlet Knights like to stick with their base defense. Rutgers runs a 4-3 under defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, and usually stay in that alignment, regardless of how many receivers are on the field.

Sometimes you’ll see them drop a defensive end into coverage, and the Scarlet Knights will run nickel and dime packages if they absolutely have to, but they like to keep it simple with a straight 4-3 as much as possible. That’s the scheme the players are most comfortable with, and the feeling is the coaches would rather them perfect one system rather than having guys out of position because they’re unsure of their assignments.

Although Rutgers sits in its base and is considered a gap-control defense, the Scarlet Knights do blitz often enough. In fact, they have a third-down package where they move the edge rushers inside and shift the rush-linebackers down to the end spots, hoping to exploit a weaker blocker. Rutgers will also blitz the A- and B-gaps, and once in awhile will send multiple dogs through the same lane, the second man coming through unblocked.

The system seems to be working, because the Scarlet Knights have recorded a hefty 31 sacks this year (25th in the FBS) and forced 16 turnovers. Rutgers has a knack for stripping the ball, as opponents have fumbled 20 times and coughed it up nine times thus far (47th in the FBS).

At the same time, Rutgers is giving up 30.3 points per game (90th in the FBS) and 436.1 yards of total offense (91st in the FBS). They allow opposing backs to gain 205 yards per outing (100th in the FBS) and 5.3 yards per carry. The pass defense, meanwhile, is surrendering 231.2 yards per game (70th in the FBS) and 13 yards per catch.

Foes are converting on 42 percent of third downs (88th in the FBS), 50 percent of fourth downs (47th in the FBS) and 80 percent of their redzone attempts (43rd in the FBS).

Last week, Michigan State’s rather potent attack racked up 520 yards, including 278 through the air and 242 on the ground.

Defensive Line

Considering the rushing yards the Scarlet Knights have allowed this year, it’s hard to call any part of the front seven “standout,” but the defensive line really is the deepest and most reliable unit. In fact, this potent group is hardly to blame for the rush defense woes, as many in the nine-man D-line rotation are considered above-average run stuffers. Moreover, the Scarlet Knights feature a couple supreme pass rushers, who routinely beat their man off the ball. Of the team’s 31 sacks this year, more than two-thirds come courtesy of the front four.

Rutgers does list a starting four, but the depth chart can be a bit misleading, because the backups see a good amount of snaps. The two mainstays, though, are starting three-technique Darius Hamilton (Jr., 6-4, 255) and five-technique Kemoko Turay (Fr., 6-6, 235).

The former is a bit undersized, but he has violent hands and sheds blocks easily. Hamilton is a terrific plugger who wraps well and can corral backs in the hole. He can get pushed around from time to time since his leverage can lapse, but mostly Hamilton’s faired well up front. For the season he has 35 stops, 9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble.

Turay, meanwhile, doesn’t even start yet, but is the team’s most effective pass rusher. This guy has NFL written all over him and may already be one of the most fearsome ends in the Big Ten.

Turay just started playing football a few years ago, so he’s still mastering his fundamentals and working on his run defense, but his freakish athleticism, long arms and aggressive hands work well when rushing the passer. He has 25 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, one breakup and (get this) three blocked kicks this year.

Besides those two, the rest of the defensive line is filled with interchangeable parts. Hybrid defensive end David Milewski (Sr., 6-4, 245) may be the third most reliable option up front, as he’s a decent tackler and pocket presser. He’s certainly not as formidable as the former two, and can be exploited against big, physical lines, but normally Milewski has held up. He has 49 stops, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, two breakups, four quarterback hits and two forced fumbles this year.

Another “tweener” type, Djwany Mera (Jr., 6-4, 260), has been OK, although he hasn’t had a standout campaign. Against average offensive lines he’s done well plugging the gaps, but superior foes have given Mera fits as he’s not the strongest customer at the point of attack. Mera has 15 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a half sack, two quarterback hits and one breakup this year.

Interior tackle Kenneth Kirksey (Sr., 6-1, 275) is another listed starter, but he hasn’t been particularly effective thus far. His experience has paid off at times, as he’s sniffed out a few plays and recorded a couple tackles for loss, but Kirksey can disappear at times as well. He’s not poor in any one area, but he’s not a game-changer either. In 2014 he has 22 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a half sack, one quarterback hit and a forced fumble.

Three others who rotate through include tackle Daryl Stephenson (Jr., 6-3, 275) and ends Julian Pinnix-Odrick (So., 6-5, 260) and Quanzell Lambert (Sr., 6-1, 250). The above have combined for one total start, but all see significant time and have contributed when subbing in. Lambert has two fumble recoveries this year; Pinnix-Odrick has a forced fumble, a recovery and two sacks; and Stephenson has a tackle for loss and does a good job occupying blockers.

Linebackers

While the defensive line has been relatively effective this season, the linebackers have been rather underwhelming. That 5.3 yards per carry Rutgers is surrendering this year mostly comes courtesy of the following group, which lacks playmakers.

At weakside linebacker, Steve Longa (So., 6-1, 225) has been rather disappointing since shifting over from the MIKE spot. Longa’s been banged up, which hasn’t helped, but he also doesn’t take tight closing angles and allows leaky yardage. He isn’t a terrific tackler, and has struggled in pass coverage too. Longa has been able to hang with some tight ends, but slot receivers and speedier receivers give him problems. For the season he has 85 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a breakup, three quarterback hits and a fumble recovery.

The middle linebacker, Kevin Snyder (Sr., 6-3, 235), has played through an injury for the better part of 2014, and it’s sapped his speed. Snyder tackles well, but he’s a step slow and doesn’t always reach the hole in time. He’s also had some problems disengaging when attacking the gaps. Snyder has been decent in coverage, but can be exploited there as well. He has 51 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, four breakups, one quarterback hit and a forced fumble so far.

The strongside backer is Qunetin Gause (Jr., 6-1, 220), a first-year starter who is probably Rutgers’ most effective run defender. He’s not particularly fast, but Gause takes tight closing angles, tackles well and seems to have a nose for the ball. The problem is he isn’t very good in coverage and often has to be removed in passing situations. For the season he has 64 tackles, seven tackles for loss, a sack, a breakups, two quarterback hits, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.

The only backup to note is L.J. Liston (So., 6-2, 235), who rotates in for Snyder when the latter is unable to play through pain. Liston has one start this year and has appeared in eight games, recording 11 tackles and a tackle for loss. He should be a fine defender moving forward, but hasn’t really done much to stand out in 2014.

Defensive Backs

Compared to last season, when Rutgers’ secondary was pretty terrible, the 2014 version has performed markedly better. The Scarlet Knights still give up their share of passing yards (231.1 per game; 13.0 yards per catch), but the corners and safeties usually keep receivers in front of them and limit big plays. Of course, some of that is because opposing offenses have had so much success running the ball against Rutgers they haven’t needed to pass the ball, but most believe the secondary’s technique and overall play has progressed.

No. 1 corner Gareef Glashen (Sr., 5-10, 180) has had a notable final season in Piscataway, and is arguably the squad’s most improved player. Last season he was a liability in coverage, but this year he’s taken major strides (although he gave up a big play or two against Michigan State's potent attack).

Granted, Glashen is not a great tackler, but he’s able to shadow most wideouts while getting physical with taller, sturdier receivers for jump balls. He’s typically asked to guard the opposition’s biggest wide receiver, mainly because Glashen’s a never-back-down type who isn’t afraid to mix it up.

That said, he’s not a bump-and-run corner and mainly plays off-coverage, so he surrenders his share of receptions. Glashen does have fluid hips and flips well, however, allowing him to track deep. He’s also adept at keeping plays in front of him. For the season, Glashen has 52 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, an interception and nine pass defenses.

While Glashen hasn’t been bad this year, the No. 2 corner, Nadir Barnwell (So., 5-11, 185), has been rather inconsistent. He’s yet another Scarlet Knight who has battled through nagging injuries, and it’s noticeably affected him in coverage. In fact, he went down with a significant injury when Rutgers took on Indiana, leaving his status moving forward is in question.

Barnwell does have plenty of raw talent, but right now he’s learning the position’s finer points and has been prone to mental errors. That was evident earlier in the year when he was torched up top, though recently he’s at least been able to limit downfield plays. He has 28 tackles, one tackle for loss, four breakups and a fumble recovery this year.

The third corner, who would start in place of Barnwell, is Anthony Cioffi (So., 6-0, 185). Cioffi is not the fasted defensive back around, and he lost even more speed after putting on weight this offseason. It follows that he’s had some issues in tight coverage; right now he cannot be relied on to play press.

But Cioffi does have loose hips, above-average instincts and a nose for the football, which is why he sees the field in certain packages. This year he has 22 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, two breakups and a fumble recovery.

At free safety, Rutgers uses a rotation of Johnathan Aiken (Sr., 5-11, 190) and Delon Stephenson (So., 5-11, 190). Aiken earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors earlier this season, but he’s mostly been up-and-down. Aiken isn’t a standout tackler and takes imprecise angles to the ball, but he has elite speed. The latter quality has aided him in deep coverage, but he doesn’t have the instincts needed to consistently pick up wideouts that cross his face. Aiken has 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, a pass defense and a forced fumble in 2014.

Stephenson has seen most of his time at nickel-corner, but he does play the free safety spot as well. Like Aiken, he’s had issues tackling when backs reach the second and third levels. Stephenson, though, has been OK in coverage, mostly limiting major-yardage plays.

The strong safety spot is manned by former DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) star Lorenzo Waters (Sr., 6-0, 195), who has had a particularly difficult time in his final college season. Waters has whiffed on numerous tackles and is a liability as a run defender, which is a problem when you’re an in-the-box strong safety. He’s performed decently in coverage, although he hasn't generated many game-changing plays. Waters has 53 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, two picks, zero pass defenses and a forced fumble this year.

Special Teams

The Scarlet Knights’ special teams doesn’t feature many true weapons, other than their return man, but the unit isn’t exactly a weak link either.

Kicker Kyle Federico (Jr., 6-0, 190) is basically an average college booter with an average leg. He can consistently connect from 35 yards and in, but beyond that he’s hit or miss. Federico is 12-of-17 this year, with a long of 45 yards. He’s missed from 36, 42, 50, 46 and 46. On kickoffs, Federico has had just 14 of his 55 boots go for touchbacks.

The punter, Joey Roth (Jr., 6-0, 175), seized the starting job from Tim Gleeson a few weeks ago. Roth has nailed a couple long punts that have flipped field position, but he’s shanked a couple as well. One concern with Roth is his slow get-off, which makes him susceptible to blocks. So far he’s averaging 34.9 yards per boot with a long of 51. He’s placed two punts inside the 20 and had nine fair caught.

Rutgers’ return man is a true speedster who’s a threat to hit the home run every time he touches the ball. As evidence, see Janarion Grant’s (So., 5-11, 175) first collegiate touch, which he took back 100 yards for a touchdown. Since then, however, he’s been relatively quiet and hasn’t reached the end zone. (Grant did just have two 60-plus yard returns against Indiana two weeks ago, however.) For the season he’s averaging 24.1 yards per kick bringback, with a long of 71, and 7.5 yards per punt return, with a long of 23.

In terms of coverage units, Rutgers sits in the back half nationally in defending both kicks and punts. They are surrendering 21.81 yards per kick bringback and 8.80 yards per punt return.

Two other pertinent notes heading into this game: Rutgers leads the country the last five years in field goal blocks. As aforementioned, the freshman defensive end Kemoko Turay has three alone this season and is a beast coming off the edge.

Also, the Scarlet Knights’ long snapper, Alan Lucy, has had trouble this year. He’s just a freshman and has committed more than a couple errors when sending balls back to Roth and Federico. Rutgers really doesn’t have a competent backup, however, so the Scarlet Knights are forced to ride with Lucy.

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