KEYS TO THE ARMY GAME
One year ago, I was very apprehensive about playing Army, whom Rutgers had not previously faced since 1998. I was aware that Army had since changed its head coach, who had since drastically changed the offensive and defensive systems. But I had not seen the new look Black Knights. I had seen the Scarlet Knights, though. Lowly Buffalo 34-11 had pummeled Rutgers the previous week. After Division IAA Villanova beat Rutgers 37-19 the week before. And Army couldn't be worse than Buffalo, could they? Well, Army was worse than Buffalo. At least early in the season. And Rutgers wasn't as pathetic as it looked against Buffalo. When Homecoming ended, Rutgers walked away with a 44-0 whitewashing of the Black Knights. Whew!
Rutgers forced Army 3-n-out on the opening possession and Tres Moses put the Scarlet Knights at midfield with a punt return. The running of Markis Facyson carried the Scarlet Knights into scoring position. But on 4th-n-1 at the MA27, Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano, humbled by pitiable rushing efforts against Villanova and Buffalo, eschewed a 4th down conversion attempt and settled for a 45-yard Ryan Sands FG. On Army's next possession, Fr QB Zac Dahman threw an INT and WS Shawn Seabrooks returned it for a 33-yard TD to stake Rutgers to an early 14-0 lead. A 45-minute thunderstorm delay ensued but Army was unable to regroup. Sands missed a 39-yard FGA after another Army 3-n-out. Rutgers pinned Army deep after yet another Black Knight 3-n-out. Moses returned another Army punt to midfield but Rutgers QB Ted Trump threw an INT inside the red zone to kill another scoring opportunity. Following the standard Army possession (yup, 3-n-out), Moses returned a punt 35 yards to the MA20. Trump connected with WR Chris Baker on a 21-yard TD pass to extend the Rutgers lead to 17-0 early in the 2nd Quarter. The teams each exchanged 3-n-outs before a brief Army drive halted at midfield and Rutgers ran out the half. The first half was ugly as neither offense operated very effectively. Defense and special teams were the catalysts for the Rutgers lead.
Rutgers opened the second half with a 10-play, 70-yard TD drive (missed XPA) and an 11-play, 80-yard TD drive sandwiched around a Brandon Haw INT that ended Army's best scoring opportunity yet. Nate Jones intercepted Dahman to end another Army threat Trump quickly marched Rutgers 42 yards in 5 plays for another TD, aided by the receiving of FB Ray Pilch (2 for 40 yards). The 3rd Quarter closed after another Army 3-n-out, with Rutgers leading comfortably 37-0. PK Mike Cortese missed a 48-yard FGA to open the 4th Quarter but Army promptly fumbled on its next play. TB Marcus Jones carried 4 times on the ensuing 24-yard TD drive that completed the scoring. The teams exchanged three punts, with Rutgers punt return and punt teams improving field position nearly 50 yards in the process. Schiano passed on a 41-yard FGA and Army ran out the clock.
The 2002 Army Black Knights were one of the worst football teams I've ever seen. A passing team that couldn't pass and an 8-man front defense that couldn't stop the run. Add a true freshman starting his first game on a team playing too many freshmen and sophomores, and you get the 2002 Black Knights. Rutgers affirmed that it wasn't as bad as it looked in losing to Villanova and Buffalo. Subsequent efforts against Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Miami, and Notre Dame would confirm the Army victory. Exactly one year later, Rutgers repays Army with a visit to West Point. Army should be better since their young team is a year older, more mature, and more experienced. But Army will not provide a good measuring stick for the improvement of the Rutgers program. Rutgers should handle Army easily. However, Army could provide a bad measuring stick for the Scarlet Knights if the game is not a blowout. If Rutgers is to start demonstrating progress, then it must demolish the likes of Army on its schedule. Here are my five keys to the Army game.
1. Run Blocking. Rutgers discovered a rushing attack against Buffalo. However, Michigan State knocked the Rutgers rushing game back to 2002 in holding the Scarlet Knight TBs to 50 yards on 28 carries. Michigan State stuffed the Rutgers rushing offense with its base 4-3 defense. The Spartans did not need an eighth man on the line of scrimmage. The Spartan DLine completely dominated Rutgers OLine on the line of scrimmage. Spartan DL repeatedly stalemated, beat, or blew up Scarlet Knight OL, TEs, and FBs. Michigan State frequently penetrated the backfield on running plays, forcing the Rutgers TBs out of the designed holes. As a result, other Spartan defenders – blocked away from the designed hole which was plugged – were able disengage their blockers and make the tackles elsewhere. Or the Spartan DLine fully occupied the Rutgers OLine, freeing the LBs to make tackles at the point of attack. Michigan State held Rutgers to 2 yards or less on 19 of 29 designed runs. Six of the 19 were TFLs (or no gain). Only 3 runs gained at least 5 yards. The longest run was 15 yards.
Michigan State showed that Rutgers still needs much improvement before it can run against a legitimate Division IA opponent. Until Rutgers can, its offense will continue to be one-dimensional. And Rutgers lacks the experience at the offensive skill positions to successfully operate a one-dimensional offense. Army does not constitute a legitimate Division IA opponent. The Army rush defense was ranked #109 (of 117) in Division IA last season, allowing an average of 210 rushing yards per game. Army yielded this yardage will employing a 4-4 defensive scheme that put eight men on the line of scrimmage. Rutgers' rushing offense should get well against the undersized Black Knight defense despite the eight-man front. I'm expecting Schiano to emphasize the running game even to the detriment of scoring. A 27- to 35-point offensive output behind a dominating running game would be preferable to another 44-point effort that resulted from an all-around effort – defensive scores off TOs, special teams production, rushing, and passing. Rutgers must rush for 200 yards. That's a high goal but the running game needs the work. Achieving this high mark won't mean the running woes are cured. But it will provide the live repetitions that the OLine needs to improve its blocking techniques.
2. Man-to-Man Coverage. Rutgers man-to-man coverage has been poor in the first two games. Buffalo lacked a QB capable of exploiting the Rutgers secondary. Michigan State did not. The Spartan WRs abused the veteran Rutgers CBs, who generally played loose man-to-man coverage that conceded the short and intermediate routes. Although the spread offense is predicated upon quick throws and precise timing, Rutgers' large cushions conceded a free release and short/intermediate throws to the Spartan WRs. Spartan QB Jeff Smoker completed 15 of 23 passes for 293 yards, 3 TDs, and 2 INTs in the first half alone. Of those 23 first half attempts, Smoker threw 17 to his WRs, mostly short/intermediate routes – slants, outs, ins, flares, screens, curls, sidelines, hitches, and crossings. The Spartan WRs caught 10 of those 17 first half passes for 201 yards, 9 first downs, and a TD. The Rutgers CBs were not victimized on all these gains (i.e., the 62-yard TD pass) but yielded most of them. The large cushions allowed Michigan State to push many of the routes into the intermediate zones. Smoker gained at least 10 yards on each of his 10 first half completions to his WRs. Despite this focus on short passes, Schiano generally refused to tighten the coverage. The Rutgers CBs aligned in press coverage only 9 times the whole game.
Although Army also operates a spread offense, the Black Knights do not pose a fraction of the threat that Michigan State did. The Spartans featured a four-year starter at QB and a stable of fast, athletic WRs. The Black Knights will start a sophomore QB with only 11 games of experience, including only four starts. And Army doesn't have the athletes at WR that Michigan State did. Rutgers' secondary should perform better against the slower, less athletic Black Knight WRs. I'm expecting Schiano to tighten the cushions that the CBs give the WRs and I'm expecting Schiano to use more press coverage. Rutgers must limit the Army WRs to less than 100 receiving yards. That's a stingy amount against a spread offense. Realizing this goal won't mean the pass coverage problems are solved. But it will provide the live repetitions that the CBs needs to improve their coverage techniques. And improved pass coverage on the WRs in a spread will be a vital component in recipes for road wins at Morgantown and at the Linc because both West Virginia and Temple also feature spread offenses.
3. Tackling. I counted at least 13 missed tackles against Michigan State. The Spartans gained 91 yards and 4 first downs on these plays. Three gained at least 14 yards. The LBs missed 6 tackles. The DEs missed three. Rutgers lacks the defensive playmaking capability to compensate for such breakdowns. The tackling must improve. Especially when the opponent spread the field and formationally limits Rutgers' ability to gang tackle. Rutgers must limit the missed tackles to less than a handful. As with the other keys, accomplishing this assignment won't indicate the problem is remedied but will simply be a sign of progress as young players refine their techniques.
4. Place Kicking. Last week, the placekickers did not see action except for KOs. So K Mike Cortese did not put any of his 5 KOs into the end zone. Against Buffalo the prior week, Cortese put only one of five KOs into the end zone. Ultimately, I would like to see Cortese put half of his KOs into the end zone where they can be returned only at risk to the opponent. Cortese has a month to improve his kicking before the season really starts in Morgantown against West Virginia. Army will provide an intermediate test with which to measure the progress of the KO team. Meanwhile, the placekicking was abysmal against Buffalo. RS Jr Ryan Sands missed FGAs of 35 and 45 yards. Cortese understandably missed from 53 yards. Rutgers left at least three points on the field against Buffalo. The Scarlet Knights aren't so potent offensively to be able to afford the luxury of wasted scoring opportunities. I would like to see Schiano to give RS Fr Justin Musiek an opportunity to kick against Army. Regardless who kicks, FGAs under 40 yards must become automatic.
5. Punting. RS Fr P Joe Radigan had a rough game at Michigan State last week. While Radigan averaged 40 yards on 9 punts, he was wildly inconsistent. Three of his punts went 20 (rolling another 17), 25, and 30 yards. Two of these kicks occurred during the first half, while the outcome was still undecided. The long snapping is also still unsatisfactory. Against Buffalo, the punt snaps were too low, skidding before reaching Radigan. Against Michigan State, the snaps forced Radigan to move laterally to handle them. Radigan looks like a soccer goalie behind the punt formation. Special Teams Coach Darren Rizzi has a month to work out the kinks in his punt team before the Scarlet Knights travel to Morgantown to face West Virginia. Army will provide an intermediate test with which to measure the progress of the punt team.
1. Sr LT Mike Williamson. When Rutgers ended summer camp with Williamson listed as the starting LT, I was concerned. After yielding 51 sacks last season and gaining only 620 rushing yards (including sacks), Schiano badly needed to overhaul his OLine and upgrade its talent level. The arrival of New Haven transfer RS So John Glass, JUCO transfer Jr Clint Dato, and JUCO transfer Ron Green was supposed to supply an infusion of experienced talent that Schiano had not yet accomplished with developing his high school recruits. Yet despite this supposed infusion of talent, Williamson maintained his grip on the starting LT job throughout summer camp. Even before Dato suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for six weeks. The much-heralded Green is serving backup duty behind starting RT Sameeh McDonald. And Williamson, who was unable to displace any of the non-performing OL at any position last season and who has only started three games, is manning the crucial LT slot on Hart's blind side.
Williamson performed terribly against Michigan State. The Spartan DE blew up Williamson on the first play from scrimmage and Jr TB Clarence Pittman gained only one yard after dodging the intruder in the backfield. Williamson committed a false start on the second possession that put the Scarlet Knights in a long yardage situation. Spartan DE Clifford Dukes blew up Williamson on the third possession and badly collapsed the pocket, causing Hart to get sacked. Pittman again was victimized on his only other carry when Williamson again was blown up on a running play, getting knocked back into Pittman, who lost 5 yards. The second half was no better. On the second possession, Williamson was beaten as Fr TB Justise Hairston was tackled for no gain and Williamson missed a block on Moses' reverse that lost 3 yards. Spartan DE Greg Taplin blew up Williamson for another sack late in the 3rd Quarter. Williamson was beaten on another block in the 4th Quarter on So TB Markis Facyson's only carry – a 2-yard gain.
Williamson must improve or Schiano must find a more effective replacement. Such performances are not acceptable. Left tackle is the most important position on the OLine. Williamson cannot be a sieve at LT because it will disrupt the entire offense, especially the passing game. Williamson must pitch a shutout against Army in pass protection – no sacks. He also must cut by two-thirds the amount of blown running assignments. He's got three games to get better. Or get replaced.
2. So MLB Will Gilkison. Gilkison has struggled in his first games since he replaced the departed Gary Brackett as the starting MLB. Gilkison is faster and more athletic than was Brackett but lacks Brackett's instincts, fundamentals, and toughness. Brackett had a nose for the football and was among Rutgers top two tacklers the previous two years. Brackett exhibited the type of production one expects from the MLB in a 4-3 defense. Through two games, Gilkison is 5th on the team in tackles, behind SS Jarvis Johnson, CB Nate Jones, DE Raheem Orr, and WLB William "Poppa" Beckford. Gilkison played poorly at Michigan State. He recorded only 4 tackles but missed at least three others. All three were in pass coverage. Two of them resulted in Spartan first downs. Gilkison has the speed to make plays but his tackling fundamentals are shaky. He beat Spartan RB Jaren Hayes to the sideline on a flare pass but failed to breakdown, getting beaten as Hayes cut back inside Gilkison. Hayes beat Gilkison on another flare that Gilkison had covered when Jaren faked the cutback and darted outside. Gilkison also blew a coverage assignment when he allowed Spartan TE Jason Randall to get behind him on slant route that gained 15 yards. Gilkison is paying the price for his lack of playing time at LB last season, as he was limited primarily to special teams even though he was the backup SLB. Gilkison must improve his play at MLB. Gilkison may not lead the team in tackles against Army's spread offense. But he should get his share when Army comes his way. Army will run counters and draws from its spread offense, much as Michigan State did. The Black Knights will also flare their RB out of the backfield. Gilkison has to make the tackles on those plays.
3. RS Fr FS Bryan Durango. In his first assignment as FS against Buffalo, Durango was one of my key players and responded with a solid if not spectacular performance. But that was all I expected from the rookie. Don't get burned. Such was not the case against Michigan State. Durango was burned in the 1st Quarter on a throwback wheel route to Hayes. With responsibility for the deep half of the field, Durango bit on a play action fake and then stayed put as Smoker rolled to the other side of the field. Meanwhile, Hayes wheeled outside after the fake handoff and streaked up the sideline. Durango, who saw the play action fake, somehow missed Hayes on the wheel route and let Hayes get behind him. Durango could have caught Hayes because Smoker slightly underthrew the pass but Durango leaped for the throw instead of running through the tackle. Hayes scored a 51-yard TD, breaking Durango's subsequent tackle attempt at the RU10. Durango also missed a tackle on a Hayes draw that gained 18-yards and a first down. Army will test Durango similarly but at a slower speed. This game will be a good learning experience for Durango and will offer him a chance to put last week's lesson to use. Durango must not get beat deep this week.
4. RS Sr CB Brandon Haw. Haw intercepted Smoker on a miscommunication with his WR and retuned the pick 61 yards for a TD. Despite that big play, Haw had a rough day as Smoker picked on him repeatedly, completing at least 3 of his 10 first half passes to WRs against Haw. Brandon yielded completions of 12 yards to WR Matt Trannen on a sideline route, 13 yards to WR Ziehl Kavanaght on a deep out, and 12 yards to Kavanaght on a deep in. All resulted in Spartan first downs. The last two occurred on Michigan State's 10 play, 63-yard, 1:14 drive to end the half. Smoker seemed to be avoiding Nate Jones and targeting Haw or the other CBs. Haw is a three-year starter at CB. He should not be getting picked on like this. Haw must tighten his coverage and lock down his man against Army. The Black Knights must not complete more than two passes on Haw. And none over 10 yards. And none for TDs.
5. Jr CB Eddie Grimes. Grimes also had a rough day in the defensive backfield. And I'm not even considering the terrible pass interference call against Grimes for allowing himself to be pulled into Spartan WR Matt Trannen. Spartan WR Agim Shabaj beat Grimes on a 27-yard corner route late in the 2nd Quarter when Grimes moved up into press coverage. Late in the 3rd Quarter, Grimes whiffed on Hayes on a flare route that eventually gained 6 yards. Later on the same drive, Spartan WR Jerramy Scott beat Grimes up the seam for a 20-yard gain. Grimes did not play much the previous two season behind Jones, Haw, and the departed DeWayne Thompson. So, he's still learning. But he must improve if he is to force Haw to improve. Grimes will see lots of action against Army, especially in the dime package. Grimes also must tighten his coverage and lock down his man against Army. The Black Knights likewise must not complete more than two passes on Grimes. And none over 10 yards. And none for TDs.
Coming Next: Army Post-Mortem. A look back at the Army game to see how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys.
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