Last year, Rutgers traveled to Annapolis to play the U.S. Naval Academy with a bowl bid within reach. There were barely enough bowl eligible teams to fill all the bowl berths. Any BCS conference team was virtually guaranteed a bowl invitation – regardless of conference tie-ins – with a winning record. Though the Scarlet Knights, at 4-5, had dropped three consecutive games, the remaining schedule (@ Navy and Connecticut) was surmountable. Rutgers' fate was in its own hands. Sweep and go bowling. In 2003, Rutgers had beaten Navy 48-27 in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated. Both Navy and Rutgers were better teams in 2004. It looked to be a good matchup although Rutgers fans expected a win over the physically over-matched Midshipmen. It didn't happen. After the Scarlet Knights riled the Middies by delaying an emotional pre-game ceremony, the Naval Academy repeatedly torpedoed the Scarlet Knights, who quickly capsized. The humiliating 54-21 loss left many Rutgers fans wondering if – or demanding that – Rutgers should replace fourth-year Head Coach Greg Schiano.
Rutgers opened the game with a drive to midfield, where WR Willie Foster fumbled and Navy recovered. Nine plays and 52 yards later, SB Eric Roberts scored on a 5-yard TD run. Rutgers answered with a 13-play, 80-yard, six-minute drive capped with a 16-yard TD pass to TE Clark Harris to tie the game at 7-7. Navy regained the lead with a six-play, 72-yard drive highlighted by a 44-yard pass to WR Jason Tomlinson and finished with a 20-yard TD run by FB Kyle Eckel. Three plays later, Navy OLB David Mahoney jumped an underthrown out route, intercepted QB Ryan Hart, and returned the pick 18 yards for a TD to give Navy an early 21-7 lead to close the 1st Quarter. Rutgers self-destructed at midfield and punted. The Scarlet Knight defense finally stopped the Middie offense and forced a punt. Backup QB Terrence Shawell fumbled two plays later on a poorly conceived option and Navy again recovered. Navy QB Aaron Polanco followed a 34-yard pass with a 1-yard TD run. Rutgers blocked the XPA but the route nonetheless was on. With the game slipping away, Rutgers went 3-n-out. Navy briskly marched 72 yards in seven plays, with SB Frank Divis scoring on an 8-yard TD run for a 34-7 lead. Schiano essentially conceded the game by punting on 4th-n-2 at midfield. Divis ripped off a 39-yard run followed by a 47-yard TD pass to Roberts. Navy led 40-7 after Rutgers again blocked the XPA. The half ended with Rutgers' two-minute drill failing to cross midfield.
On the second play of the 2nd Half, Eckel busted a FB dive up the middle for a 78-yard TD. Rutgers reached the NA20 but could not convert 4th-n-5. Navy went 3-n-out but Middie S DuJuan Price intercepted Hart at the RU23 (Rutgers' fourth TO). Six plays and 61 yards later, Polanco scored on a 2-yard TD run, pushing the lead to 54-7. Shades of West Virginia. Navy stopped Rutgers on downs at the NA24. Navy Head Coach Paul Johnson substituted liberally to open the 4th Quarter but third team QB Billy Meraz fumbled near midfield. On the next play, Shawell connected with WR Tres Moses for a 43-yard TD pass. Third team FB Matt Hall fumbled three plays later at the NA09, which DT David Harley returned for a Rutgers TD, trimming the Navy lead to 54-21. An irritated Johnson returned his starters but Rutgers stopped Navy short of midfield. Shawell hit Moses for a 49-yard gain but Rutgers again turned the ball over on downs at the NA29. Navy killed the clock with a 17-play, nine-minute drive.
Johnson fields a younger, less experienced, more athletic Navy squad in 2005 after the best season at Annapolis in 100 years. Navy has played a weak schedule, without a single opponent that played in a bowl game last year. Navy pushed both Maryland and Stanford in close losses to open the season. Navy has since rebounded with four straight wins over Rice, Duke, Air Force, and Kent State. However, like Rutgers, Navy has yet to beat a good opponent. Just good are the Middies? The same question could be asked of Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights could finish 8-3 without beating a single Division I-A team with a winning record. Villanova is a Division I-AA program. Buffalo is one of the worse, if not the worst, Division I-A programs. Pittsburgh is struggling through a coaching transition. Declining Syracuse is now collapsing under its new staff. Inexperienced and injury-depleted Connecticut is learning that building a Division I-A BCS conference program takes a little longer than four years notwithstanding an outstanding job to date by its coaching staff. Two unproven teams will try to prove who is better. Here are five keys to a win over Navy that will clinch bowl eligibility for Rutgers for the first time since 1992.
1. 4-4 Defense. In 2003, Schiano employed a 4-4 defensive scheme against Navy's spread option offense. With mixed success. Navy gained 490 total yards and 373 rushing yards. Although Rutgers controlled the FB dive and contained the option, Navy found great success with the counter option, repeatedly catching Rutgers leaning the wrong way. In an apparent attempt to defend against misdirection last year, Schiano switched to a 4-3 scheme with two safeties mirroring the Navy SBs. The results were disastrous. Navy was easily able to seal the outside edge and run untouched up the sideline for 5-10 yards while the backside safety, who lost the race to the edge, negotiated traffic. The outside runs were so easy that Navy stopped running option and simply ran pitch. The Navy SBs gained 246 rushing yards on 24 carries. They had 21 gains of at least 5 yards and six gains of at least 10 yards. Schiano never adjusted and Johnson kept running outside.
Schiano must revert to the 4-4 scheme this year. The 4-4 will enable the Scarlet Knights to cover the gaps towards the motion side, leaving the DE or playside ILB unblocked for the QB and the FS unblocked to mirror the motion SB (pitch man). As witnessed in 2003, the formation is vulnerable to misdirection. The SS and the LBs must be disciplined – continue to read their keys and honor their assignments. If the backside OLB scrapes too aggressively in pursuit towards motion, Navy will try to pop a FB counter to the backside. Eckel scored his 78-yard TD on a counter. If the FS and/or motion-side OLBs cheat outside too aggressively, Navy will reverse the motion SB and run counter option. The motion side OT will pull and cut the backside DE. Navy's backside OT and center will seal the ILBs while the motion SB will block the FS. That will leave the backside OLB to cover QB and pitch SB. The DE must fight off the cut block and force the QB to pitch, leaving the SB for the backside OLB. Otherwise, the backside OLB must string the option towards the sideline, committing to neither QB nor SB and waiting for the cavalry to show. Rutgers must limit Navy to no more than 250 rushing yards and no more than two rushes of at least 20 yards.
2. Contain Navy Sr QB Lamar Owens. Navy Jr FB Matt Hall is not the bruising power back that Eckel was. Hall is 25 pounds lighter than Eckel. He cannot carry the Navy offense. Either with a majority of carries or a majority of rushing yards. He is averaging only 55 per game but 5 yards per carry. As a result, Navy Sr QB Lamar Owens is bearing the offensive burden. Owens leads Navy in carries (96) and rushing yardage (463). With Hall's limitations (relative to the sensational Eckel) undermining the effectiveness of the triple option, Johnson has been forced to delve deeper and broader into his playbook to better use his talent at QB and SB. Johnson is leaning heavily upon Owens. Lamar keeps the ball on a majority of options. He also runs a variety of keepers whereby he follows the FB or SB up the middle. Owens is also a proficient passer, averaging 131 passing yards per game and a 57% completion rate on only 11 pass attempts per game. Rutgers must put a lasso around Owens and keep him contained. The Scarlet Knights must punish Owens on every carry. Rutgers must defend Owens across the width of the field – option, counter-option, and QB counter. Rutgers must limit Owens to no more than 100 rushing yards and no more than two rushing TDs. Furthermore, Rutgers must not let Owns pass for more than 100 yards. And no TDs.
3. Big Pass Plays Allowed. Johnson does not like to pass when he is forced to by down-n-distance or the clock-lead. Navy tries to avoid 3rd-n-long situations and big deficits. However, Navy averages a terrific 20 yards per completion because the Middies throw downfield against opponents who cheat forward to stop the option. The WRs will fake a block against the CB or safety and instead run right past them. The SBs will do the same thing. The result is often a big gain. Polanco completed three passes of over 20 yards last year – 34, 44, and 47 TD. Two of the three occurred on 1st-n-10. The Scarlet Knight CBs and safeties must be disciplined and honor their coverage assignments before aggressively committing to run support. A receiver cannot engage in a block and then catch a pass. That is offensive pass interference. Therefore, CBs and safeties must wait for their designated receivers to throw a block before coming forward. Rutgers must not allow more than one pass of at least 20 yards. And none for TDs.
4. Inside Rushing. In 2003, the Scarlet Knight TBs gained 260 rushing yards on 48 carries (5.4 yards per carry) against Navy. Last year, Rutgers gained only 48 rushing yards on only 13 carries. The Scarlet Knight coaching staff panicked after falling behind quickly and abandoned a promising rushing attack in favor of an erratic passing attack. The result was a Scarlet Knight offense that sputtered and stumbled. The 2003 offensive game plan was more effective. Once engaged with Navy in an offensive slugfest, a ball control offense offers the dual advantages of resting/regrouping the Scarlet Knight defense while simultaneously fatiguing the Middie defense. Ball control can best be established by running inside on an undersized, inexperienced, thin (one-deep) Navy front seven. The Middies play a 3-4 scheme. The DL average 260 pounds. The LBs average 220 pounds. Only one DL and three LBs were experienced prior to this season. After failing miserably to run the football last year, new OLine Coach Kyle Flood has done a commendable job replacing three starters with younger players. The Scarlet Knight TBs are averaging 149 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Rutgers is still predominantly an inside running team. Inside Zone has replaced Power G as the bread-n-butter running play, allowing the TB to read the defense and pick his hole. Power G and iso are also part of the repertoire. Rutgers must pound Navy inside like a boxer throwing body punches. The Scarlet Knights must wear the Middie defense and control the 2nd Half. Rutgers must gain at least 200 rushing yards and score four rushing TDs.
5. Play Action Passing. Besides being undersized, the Navy defense is slow. If Rutgers can establish the run early in the game and create short-yardage situations, this will create perfect opportunities for play-action passes. The athletic Scarlet Knight receivers can slip behind the Navy DBs for big plays. Or can drive the Navy safeties back, creating big gaps underneath to exploit with crossing and slant routes. Rutgers must balance the pass with the run. Rutgers must average at least 15 yards per completion, hitting deep passes and gaining YAC underneath.
1. Fr TB Ray Rice. Rice caught the attention of Rutgers fans with 114 rushing yards versus Pittsburgh. He caught the attention of the Big East with 217 rushing yards against Connecticut. Ray has gained 542 rushing yards on 93 carries this season. He has emerged as a feature TB to compliment RS Jr FB Brian Leonard. Rice has excellent vision, terrific balance, and plenty of patience. He excels at the Inside Zone play that has become the staple of the Scarlet Knight rushing attack. At only 5-9, perhaps he can easily hide behind his 300-pound OL and pick a hole against a defense that cannot find him. Rice wore down the Husky defense last week. And set up three TDs by simultaneously carrying the offensive load and drawing the attention of the Connecticut defense. Ray must do the same against Navy. Especially with Leonard a little beaten up. Ray must get at least 25 carries. And must gain at least 125 rushing yards. He must score at least two rushing TDs.
2. So FS Ron Girault. A 4-4 defensive scheme will place a tremendous burden on the FS – outside run support on option, backside run support on counter option, and pass coverage against WRs and SBs. Two years ago, two-year starter Jarvis Johnson could not carry that burden. The FS must patiently read plays and then aggressively intervene. This is not a week for "all balls, no brains". Girault is more experienced than Fr WS Courtney Greene. Ron has a maturity that belies his age. Girault must be the FS playing centerfield in the 4-4 scheme. He will be the last line of defense against big plays – pass or rush. He must register at least 10 tackles. He must force a TO. And he must not give up more than one big play. But not for a TD.
3. Sr QB Ryan Hart. Last week at Connecticut, Hart played in relief of injured Fr QB Mike Teel in the 2nd Half and led Rutgers to a come-from-behind victory. Hart regained his starting job, although Teel's shoulder injury throws into question the circumstances of Hart's return to a starting job many think Ryan never should have lost. In compiling an 11-20 career record as a starter, Hart has exhibited more than his share of clunkers. While he was superb against Navy in 2003 (14 of 21 for 140 yards and one INT), Ryan was awful last year at Annapolis (27 of 40 for 264 yards, one TD, and 2 INTs). Hart doesn't need to bed the star on a team loaded with talent. He simply must be the facilitator. Put the ball in the hands of playmakers and put them in position to make plays. Hit enough deep passes to push the safeties back. Hit his receivers underneath in stride. Ryan must complete at least 65% of his passes for at least 250 passing yards. He must throw twice as many TDs as INTs. And no pick sixes.
4. RS Sr WR Tres Moses. Two years ago, Moses dissected the Navy defense with 7 receptions for 56 yards. He repeatedly converted clutch first downs, often with nifty moves after the catch. Moses has caught 28 passes for 456 yards this year. Tres must again be a playmaker against Navy. He must find the seams and gaps in the Middie defense for Rutgers. He must gain YAC. He must move the chains. Tres must catch at least 8 passes for at least 120 yards and a TD. Moses is a fifth-year senior and tri-captain. He must lead the way by example.
5. Jr PR/KOR Willie Foster. Rutgers has a tremendous edge in athleticism over Navy. While the Middie's spread option can balance the playing field for Navy's offense, the talent deficiency cannot be camouflaged on special teams. Foster has twice earned Big East Player of the Week honors. He has returned a punt (Pittsburgh) and kickoff (Villanova) for TDS. Foster must capitalize on the talent gap on special teams. He must have a big day returning kicks. He doesn't necessarily need to score a TD. But he must help Rutgers win the field position battle. He must average at least 15 yards per PR and 30 yards per KOR.