Given the recent results on offense, the Rutgers offense understands its need for improvement.
As the Scarlet Knights enter the second half of their season with Homecoming against Illinois on Saturday at noon, the latest sting of a 78-0 shutout to No. 4 Michigan leaves a sour taste.
The unit knows it needs to improve as a whole, but offensive line coach AJ Blazek said his group in particular has to step up its game.
“There were a handful of things that went wrong (against Michigan),” Blazek said. “(Offensive coordinator) Drew (Mehringer) addressed some of it (Monday). A lot of it was in the blitz pictures, starting with us recognizing and communicating all the way across the line. One guy gets it and the other guy didn’t or doesn’t, some guys just get cut loose.
“The other one is you go out and get smacked in the mouth a couple of plays. You got to fight through that. That’s where I got to do a good job keeping the guys’ pads down and finishing, but it starts at the line of scrimmage. If you get popped once, you got to fight through that and push back.”
Against a top Wolverines defensive line, sophomore left tackle Zack Heeman said Rutgers’ margin for error was slim.
“They’re big, athletic guys,” Heeman said. “Well-coached, good pad level. So the smallest mistake here and there, whether it’s footwork or technique or pad level, you’re going to get exposed. So you have to be ready to play every snap.”
The common theme at the bottom of the struggles on offense was communication — or lack thereof.
It starts with the offensive line, Heeman said.
“The biggest thing that we, as an offensive unit, talked about is communication,” he said. “So it starts from the O-line, QBs all the way from the receivers, tight ends. Everybody’s got to be on the same page.
“Offensive line — me, personally, I got to play with better pad level. But yeah, I think we’re doing a good job. Just got to keep pushing and I think, eventually, our hard work will pay off.”
How does Rutgers make the necessary adjustments and improve its communication?
“Just practicing it,” said sophomore Marcus Applefield. “Just think about the worst situations first and then just block the base. Just communicate, get your calls right and then everyone’s on the same page.”
Heeman echoed that point, with an emphasis on second-level assignments beyond the defensive linemen.
“There can’t be any gray area in terms of what we’re trying to run, in terms of who we’re working to on the linebacker combos,” Heeman said. “But yeah, it’s got to be a point of emphasis when we’re on the line of scrimmage and more and more decisive. And when we’re making our calls, we need to make sure all five guys hear it and everyone knows it.”
As a utility man on the line with experience at guard and tackle, Applefield knows the responsibilities and attention to detail that come with all positions in the trenches. Communication starts inside at the ball and branches out to the rest of the offense, he said.
“It’s definitely collective to the tackles making their calls, guards and centers making their inside calls but then all of us echoing it,” Applefield said. “It’s all collective, and offensive line’s one of the only positions where we have one mouth.”