When Rutgers switched its offense from the pro style to the spread, growing pains were inevitable.
But after back-to-back shutouts and only seven points to show for the past three games, the Scarlet Knights search for answers at the halfway mark of the season.
The struggles are there for Rutgers, but the consensus among the unit is that the problems are correctable.
“A lot of stuff that’s easily correctable — people going the wrong way once in a while, just little things, just one guy every play,” said junior quarterback Zach Allen. “Once we get that communicated, just emphasize communication this week — pointing out blitzes, pointing out coverages, just trying to help everyone out and do everything. Just point everything out and really communicate well.”
Between matchups with No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan, Rutgers faced two of the top defensive units in the country in consecutive weeks.
In terms of scoring defenses, Michigan ranks No. 1 with 10.3 points per game and Ohio State sits at No. 2 with 10.8 points per game.
While coach Chris Ash didn’t excuse Rutgers’ results, he did reiterate the difficulty those matchups present.
“You guys watched the same game I watched the last two weeks,” Ash said. “Quarterback drops back to pass, there’s not a lot of time to pass the ball. When you’ve got defenses that can play press coverage like those two defenses can because of their DBs, and that’s the style of play that we want to be able to build here. When you’ve got a defensive line that can rush the passer and you’ve got DBs that can play press man and limit your opportunities to get open, it’s a pretty good combination defensively, and not so good offensively.”
The struggles up front were well documented on Saturday against the Wolverines when the offensive line allowed four sacks. The pass game suffered along with the run game as Rutgers completed one pass and ran for 34 yards on 36 carries.
“For us, the biggest problem that we had during the game was just simply guys living in their own world,” said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. “If you’re an offensive lineman, you put your head down and stare at the guy in front of you, there’s a lot of things that can happen. There’s blitzes, there’s movements, there wasn’t very much communication going on in there. And then when things got hard, we got down.
“You didn’t see people trying to help each other out in different areas. You saw people trying to survive and were not going to be successful trying to do that. We have to keep our heads up, we have to keep our eyes up, we have to communicate — any offense in the country, regardless of what you do. If there’s a lack of communication, if there’s a lack of what’s going on with the defensive front, the defensive pressures, you’re not going to have any chance for success.”
Allen, who replaced Chris Laviano at quarterback in the first quarter and for the rest of the Michigan game, acknowledged the miscommunication across the offense.
“I think we know what we’re doing — we just have to do it better,” Allen said. “… The plays, we know everything that’s going on. We just have to execute it better. We know what to call when they do certain coverages, certain checks — we just have to do it better.”
Mehringer echoed those sentiments when asked about play calls.
“It’s certainly not for the lack of effort — I can promise you that,” he said. “We’re continuously researching ways and we did some things on third down and in some of the passing situations.
“But you look at it too — honestly, if we don’t protect, it doesn’t matter what plays we call. We didn’t do a great job of that. There was people in the backfield, we didn’t identify pressures. So it’s hard. You look at the majority of the completions, throwaways. People try to make sure that we salvage yardage and not take sacks. So we got to do a better job there.”
As the difficulties persist, Mehringer said he is open to changes in the offense. Namely, he said Rutgers could explore two-back sets. Without Janarion Grant, the offense lacks the spark it needs to start back up.
With the separation struggles for the wide receivers in press coverage, Mehringer said Rutgers could consider senior running back Justin Goodwin more in the pass game.
“We have talked about moving him around,” Mehringer said. “I think he can do some things for us. We have explored a two-back set for us to maybe get some more production from those guys. But I think for some of those, we’ve got to have guys that go out and make some plays for us, too. And we’ve got to do a great job as coaches of finding ways to help those guys get open as best we can. But I think we’ve got to have guys that go make plays as well.”