KEYS TO THE VIRGINIA TECH GAME
In 1992, Rutgers beat Virginia Tech 50-49 in one of the most memorable games in Rutgers history. Two closes losses followed. Ever since, Virginia Tech has had its way with Rutgers, winning the past eight games by an average score of 47-11. And Virginia Tech Head Coach Frank Beamer is not prone to deliberately run up the score, either. Virginia Tech has led Rutgers by a combined score of 49-0 at the close of the 1st Quarter the past two years. However, while the 2001 Rutgers team sputtered to a 50-0 defeat, the 2002 team mounted a comeback before succumbing 35-14, the closest margin since 1996. The 2002 game saw the offense unfairly praised and the defense unfairly vilified in the press and in the court of public opinion. I didn't quite see it that way. I saw the defense get Rutgers into trouble and then get them out of trouble while the offense didn't do a whole lot on its own.
Rutgers took the opening KO and drove to midfield, from where the Hokies forced a punt. Virginia Tech methodically drove 80 yards in 14 plays over 6 minutes, capped by a 3-yard TD run by TB Lee Suggs. Rutgers went 3-n-out and Tech started its next possession on the RU36 after Rutgers punted. Five plays later, Tech QB Bryan Randall threw a 16-yard TD pass to WR Ernest Wilford. After another Rutgers 3-n-out gave the Hokies good field position, Suggs broke a 42-yard TD run two plays later to extend the Hokie lead to 21-0 at the end of the 1st Quarter. After a third consecutive Rutgers 3-n-out – each of which lost yardage – P Mike Barr blasted a 57-yard punt to push Tech back to the VT22. CB Brandon Haw intercepted Randall at the VT35 and returned the pick 11 yards. Six plays later, QB Ryan Cubit threw a 12-yard TD pass to WR Aaron Martin to get Rutgers on the scoreboard. Tech started the ensuing possession at the VT10 and Rutgers pushed the Hokies back to the VT03, from where the Hokies punted. Starting at the VT43, Rutgers drove to the VT10, from where Cubit threw an INT to blunt the drive. Virginia Tech drove 89 yards, scoring on a 58-yard TD run by TB Kevin Jones. On the verge of closing the gap to 7 points, Rutgers now trailed 28-7. Rutgers went 3-n-out for the fourth time in the half but Barr again pushed Tech back with his punting. The Hokies drove 49 yards in 5 plays but ended the half at the RU38.
Virginia Tech fumbled on the second play of the 2nd Half and Rutgers recovered at the VT36. Six plays later, TB Markis Facyson caught a tipped pass for a 31-yard TD. Virginia Tech drove 44 yards before the Rutgers defense forced a Tech punt. Starting at the VT13 and spanning the 3rd and 4th Quarters, Rutgers drove inside the VT10 but Cubit was sacked on 4th down to end the scoring threat. The Hokies had dodged another bullet. But another Hokie fumble gave Rutgers the football at the VT42. However, Cubit threw another interception to kill another scoring opportunity provided by the defense. Virginia Tech drove 56 yards in 6 plays but missed a 36-yard FGA. Rutgers went 3-n-out again (for negative yardage again) and Hokie PR DeAngelo Hall returned the ensuing punt 51 yards for a TD with 5 minutes remaining. A sixth Rutgers 3-n-out (the fifth occasion with negative yardage) essentially ended the game as Virginia Tech ran out the clock.
The pressure is off Rutgers for a few weeks. Rutgers finished September at 3-1, exactly where it was supposed to be. However, last year Rutgers lost more of those games it was supposed to win than it actually won. The season was wrecked before it had barely begun. Now that the young team has met early season expectations – and with the resulting confidence from winning those games – the Scarlet Knights can relax and focus upon the business of improving. The season will offer additional opportunities for victories. The Scarlet Knights must keep improving so as to position themselves to capitalize upon those opportunities. A win over #4 ranked Virginia Tech is highly unlikely. However, the Scarlet Knights can use this contest as yet another opportunity to demonstrate further improvement in the program. Rutgers gave the Hokies a scare last season. And avoided its first blowout loss since 1996. Can Rutgers hang with an improved Hokie team that will contend for the Big East and national championships? Here are my five keys to the Virginia Tech game.
1. Minimize Big Plays Allowed. The litany of big plays allowed by the Rutgers defense is alarming. A 75-yard TD run by Buffalo. 51-yard, 62-yard, and 27-yard TD passes by Michigan State. A 26-yard TD pass by Army. A 55-yard TD pass plus 29-yard and 20-yard TD runs by Navy. The list does not include other big gains that didn't result in scores. The Scarlet Knight defense is young and inexperienced at LB and at safety. These are the positions that experience most benefits. The price for playing talented young players are the blown assignments that are the inevitable result of youth. Defensive Coordinator Paul Ferraro's task is to minimize those blown assignments during the growth process. As the young players gain experience, blown assignments are less and less attributable to youth and inexperience.
The Hokie offense is loaded with playmakers. Jones, among the very best RBs in the country, burned Rutgers for a 58-yard TD last year. Wilford averaged 18 yards per reception last season in earning Second Team All-Big East honors. Randall is a dual threat to either run or pass. However, the Hokie playmakers are also prone to TOs. Jones has a tendency to fumble and Randall has shown poor judgment in his pass selection. Unfortunately, neither has demonstrated that tendency this season. The Scarlet Knights must minimize the big plays and make Virginia Tech methodically drive the length of the field. The Hokies have shown the ability to do exactly that so such a strategy won't necessarily stop Virginia Tech. However, minimizing big plays allowed will slow the pace the game and enable Rutgers to hold the Hokies to a modest scoring total. Rutgers must not allow the Hokies to score more than 40 points. In order to accomplish that, the Scarlet Knights must not allow more than one big play TD defensively.
2. Throw Deep. Virginia Tech employs a 4-4 Cover 1 defensive scheme. Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster puts converted safeties at OLB, essentially giving the Hokies a 4-2 nickel scheme. The CBs tend to play off the WRs, allowing short passes but coming up quickly to make tackles. The FS (centerfielder in the Cover 1 scheme) plays shallow and isn't positioned to provide effective double coverage on the outside. Virginia Tech denies its opponents the ability to run the football and dares the opposition to throw deep. The eight-man front allows Virginia Tech to control the line of scrimmage. A young and inexperienced Hokie defense was vulnerable to the run last year but that defense is now a year older, more experienced, and more physically mature. The Virginia Tech defense is allowing only 81 rushing yards per game. Foster relies upon a dominating DLine and frequent blitzing to pressure the opposing QB into quick throws, thus easing the burden on the CBs. The Hokie secondary can be beaten for big plays because so few players cover such a large area. However, the Rutgers OLine must provide So QB Ryan Hart with the time to throw. And the Rutgers WRs must force the Hokie CBs to defend both the inside and outside routes as well as shallow and deep routes. And Hart must make accurate throws. Hart's ability to hit longer roués – fade, corner, and post routes – will have the greatest impact upon the effectiveness of the Rutgers offense. If Hart can hit those big plays, that will stretch the Hokie defense and create openings for the short passing game and running game. If Hart can't throw deep, then the Hokies will compress the field, as did Michigan State. Hart must connect on at least 4 deep passes for gains of at least 25 yards.
3. Punt Team. The punt team is more than just RS Fr P Joe Radigan. Sure, Radigan is the most visible component. But all 11 members of the punt team must execute against Virginia Tech, which has a reputation for both blocked punts and punt returns. I can't remember the last time Virginia Tech didn't block a punt for a TD or return a punt for a TD against Rutgers. Punt team breakdowns by Rutgers have contributed to the recent string of blowouts at the hands of Virginia Tech. Successful punt team performance will start with RS Fr LS Clark Harris, who must consistently make good snaps to Radigan. Lost seconds fielding poor snaps can be fatal against the opportunistic Hokies. Two years ago, Rutgers executed a successful fake punt when the Hokies failed to adapt to a formation adjustment. The successful fake punt slowed the Virginia Tech punt rush for much of the game. Schiano must look to aggressively counter attack any Hokie punt block attempts, as he did two years ago. A successful fake punt will force Virginia Tech to reduce its punt pressure, much as a draw play or screen pass slows an aggressive pass rush. Even if a fake punt is unsuccessful, it is preferable to a blocked punt that typically is returned for a TD. Plus, the attempted fake, even if unsuccessful, will send a message.
Radigan has been inconsistent this year. He has followed strong efforts against Buffalo and Army with poor efforts against Michigan State and Navy. Most recently, Radigan had punts of 26 and 28 yards against Navy in his only two opportunities. And both punts were from deep in Rutgers territory. Radigan will be under tremendous pressure in his first appearance against Virginia Tech. He must remained poised and kick well. His kicking must push the Hokie offense back and force them to drive the field. The Rutgers punt team cannot be so preoccupied with punt protection that it fails its other assignment – punt coverage. Virginia Tech's success at returning punts is a direct reflection of its ability to block teams. Opponents are so preoccupied with punt protection that their punt coverage suffers, allowing big punt returns. The Scarlet Knights must prevent any punt blocks, must average 40 gross yards on its punts, must not allow Virginia Tech any big punt returns (i.e., >20 yards), and must average 37 net yards on its punts.
4. Man-to-Man Coverage by CBs. The Scarlet Knight CBs have had mixed results with man-to-man coverage in the base 4-3 Cover 2 defense. Sr CB Nate Jones has generally shutdown the WRs on the left side of the defense (offense's right side). Haw has been the preferred target for opposing QBs. Both Michigan State and Army threw at Haw far more frequently than at Jones, although Jones was often a weak safety in the 3-2 Cover 2 (two deep zone) dime defense. Virginia Tech will present the first standard pro set offense that Rutgers has faced to date. Michigan State and Army operated spread offense while Buffalo and Navy employed option versions of the spread. The Hokies basic offensive formation is the "I" set with two WRs. The Hokies will deploy their WRs as split backs, sometimes with the QB in the shotgun. The Hokies will also replace a WR with a second TE. Virginia Tech lacks depth at WR. The emphasis of the Beamer offense is running the football. Therefore, Virginia Tech will rarely employ more than 2 WRs.
In the Cover 2 defensive scheme that Ferraro employs, the CBs funnel the outside WRs inside to the LBs and safeties. The CBs force the outside WRs to release inside, run with them for about 10 yards, and then pass them to the safeties while still maintaining responsibility for the flats. Rutgers' outside CBs have struggled with conflicting assignments against spread offenses as opponents flood the secondary. The CBs have been forced to choose between staying with the outside WR on intermediate routes or coming up to cover the secondary receiver in the flat. Against Virginia Tech, the Rutgers CBs generally will not be overwhelmed with conflicting coverage assignments. The CBs typically will be responsible for the two Hokie WRs. The LBs and safeties will be responsible for the TEs and RBs.
Rutgers will need its safeties to provide run support to contain the formidable Virginia Tech running game. In order to facilitate that assignment, the CBs must cover the Hokie WRs man-to-man. Since Schiano has shown a reluctance to use press coverage against opponents, the CBs absolutely must not get beat deep since they will be giving an 8- to 10-yard cushion to the Hokie WRs. Furthermore, the CBs must come up quickly to tackle the Tech WRs as soon as they catch the football on out, hitch, curl, and sideline routes. The CBs can't afford any missed tackles. The CBs must limit the Hokie WRs to no more than six receptions for no more than 60 yards. And no TDs.
5. Placekicking. The placekicking continues to be a disaster. RS Jr Ryan Sands missed FGAs of 35 and 45 yards against Buffalo. Rutgers left at least 9 points on the field against Buffalo. Sands was short on a 39-yard FGA against Army. RS Fr Justin Musiek missed XPAs against Army and Navy and was way wide right on a 44-yard FGA against Navy. So PK Mike Cortese had made two XPAs and a 36-yard FG – all against Army – and understandably missed from 53 yards against Buffalo. Sands is finished unless both Musiek and Cortese prove totally incapable as substitutes. Musiek had a fair opportunity last week against Navy and performed unsatisfactorily despite Schiano's faith in him – Schiano didn't pull Musiek after he missed the XPA. Now, it is Cortese's turn. Schiano must straighten out his placekicking situation, which is currently unacceptable. Placekicking likely won't provide the difference between winning and losing to Virginia Tech. However, the Hokie defense likely will limit Rutgers' scoring opportunities. In order to keep the scoring margin close, the Scarlet Knight must capitalize on every scoring opportunity. That means the PKs can't leave points on the field.
1. So QB Ryan Hart. While crucial to the execution of the west coast offense, Hart's performance was not as critical in recent weeks as were those in areas needing greater improvement or production. Against Michigan State, Hart was the most important player on the field for Rutgers. As at Michigan State, Rutgers must establish the passing game to foster the running game. Hart started quickly against Michigan State and, as a result, Rutgers put the favored Spartans back on their heels. Hart completed 5 of 8 1st Quarter passes for 170 yards and 2 TDs. The young QB staked the Scarlet Knights to early leads and hushed the home crowd. Once Michigan State deployed its CBs in press coverage and disrupted the timing of the Rutgers short passing game, Hart struggled thereafter with his accuracy and decision-making, completing only 9 of 23 attempts for only 96 yards and two INTs. Unfairly burdened with the entire offense in the absence of a running game, Hart withered under the pressure. Hart faces a similar challenge against Virginia Tech. Running against the 8-man Hokie defensive front is a daunting task. Virginia Tech dares an opponent to throw deep and beats its pass rush. More so than did Michigan State. Hart must make quick reads and accurate throws. He can't afford to throw INTs. And he must find receivers downfield and not simply shorten his throws, as he did against Michigan State. Hart must use his RBs more heavily as safety valves and not force throws inside to his TEs. Hart's throws must keep the Hokie defense off balance and must force them to defend all Scarlet Knight receivers and the entire field. Hart must throw for at least 275 yards and must not throw more than one INT.
2. RS So WR Tres Moses. For two years, Rutgers fans waited for the emergency of Moses as a playmaker. As a true freshman in 2001, Moses showed glimpses of the ability to make tacklers miss after catching the football. Through his true freshman campaign and an injury-abbreviated sophomore season, Moses always seemed one tackle away from breaking a long gain. But he never managed to break a play. After a spring camp performance that wasn't noteworthy, I was not expecting much from Moses this season. In fact, I expected true Fr Marcus Daniels to quickly displace Moses as a starting WR. That hasn't happened because Moses answered the challenge posed by the newest crop of WRs. Since returning a punt for a 66-yard TD to open the Buffalo game, Moses has been a playmaker. He added a 15-yard TD against Buffalo that was more run than it was catch. He made several acrobatic first down catches against Michigan State on fade routes. He caught two TD passes against Army – one a 16-yard catch-and-run plus an acrobatic 10-yard reception. Moses converted several 3rd down situations against Navy with yardage after the catch (YAC) to keep drives alive. He also forced a fumble on a fumble return by Navy, maintaining an important possession for Rutgers. The key to beating Virginia Tech is to exploit their CBs, who are out on an island with little support. Moses must make catches inside and outside, shallow and deep. He must fight through any press coverage to release into his route quickly and not allow the timing of pass plays to be disrupted. Moses must gain YAC and he must beat the Hokie CBs deep. Moses must catch at least 5 passes for at least 100 yards and a TD.
3. RS Fr FB Brian Leonard. Leonard has emerged as Rutgers' best multi-dimensional threat. He can lead block as the FB, block in blitz protection, run as a TB, or catch the ball out of the backfield. As a receiver, Leonard has shown an ability to outrun and overrun defenders. Against Buffalo, Brian converted 7 first downs on 11 touches – 6 carries and 5 receptions. Against Michigan State, Leonard caught the football two yards behind the line of scrimmage on a drag route and turned upfield for a 72-yard gain. Against Army, he caught two short passes at the line of scrimmage and gained over 35 yards afterwards. Leonard also broke three runs of at least 15 yards, including a 61-yard TD run. Ver Steeg must use Leonard to stretch the Michigan State OLBs horizontally. Flare routes and drag routes will pull the Hokie OLBs up the line of scrimmage and into the flats – away from the middle of the field. That will open the interior for slant routes to the WRs and hook routes to the TEs because the OLBs won't be sitting in the middle of the field. Leonard may not be 100% recovered from a knee injury suffered last week. However, he still should provide a decoy threat that the Hokie OLBs must respect, at least until Leonard's effectiveness is confirmed. If Leonard is 100%, he will primarily be a receiving threat. Leonard must catch at least 4 passes and gain at least 60 yards.
4. Sr LT Mike Williamson. In four games, Rutgers has only faced one legitimate defense – Michigan State. Buffalo, Army, and Navy presented defensive units that were small and slow. The Spartans were big and fast. And made mincemeat of the Rutgers OLine, especially Williamson. Against Michigan State, Williamson was repeatedly blown up or simply beaten on both running plays and passing plays. He yielded two sacks because he was driven straight back into the QB. And he repeatedly disrupted running plays because he was pushed backwards into the backfield. Against Army, Williamson was OL with the most missed blocking assignments. Rutgers has drawn a break with the suspension of Hokie starting RS Sr DE Cols Colas. That leaves only RS Sr DE Nathaniel Adibi as an experienced threat at DE. Foster may align Adibi against Williamson to create a mismatch on the edge. Williamson will not outplay Adibi. But he must limit the damage that Adibi causes. Rutgers Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg likely will not run straight at Adibi behind Williamson but will run away from him on the bread-n-butter Power G, on which Williamsom must maintain a seal block on the backside. Williamson will have to chip block Adibi on lead draws so that Adibi can't pinch on the TB unimpeded and make the tackle for a loss. Williamson will also have to neutralized Adibi on isolation runs. When Williamson is matched up against So DE Darryl Tapp or any of the Hokie backup DEs, he must neutralize them sufficiently to allow Rutgers to run at the DEs behind Williamson on the Power G. Williamson must not yield more than one sack. And must not get blown up on a run blocking assignment more than once.
5. So WR Shawn Tucker. Tucker is Moses' bookend. While Tucker has not caught as many passes as has Moses, Tucker had made his share of big plays. Tucker burned Michigan State for a 65-yard TD catch-and-run. He burned Buffalo for a 27-yard gain, Army for a 30-yard gain, and Navy for a 23-yard gain. Tucker must have a big game to complement a similar performance from Moses. If the Rutgers WRs can't victimize the Virginia Tech secondary, then the Rutgers offense will be squeezed into a shorter and shorter field, much as it was against Michigan State. Tucker is the taller of the two WRs. He is more likely an inside threat on slant routes when using his bigger body to shield the football. As with Moses, Tucker must fight through any press coverage and beat the pressing CB for big gains, either on YAC or a deep throws. Tucker must be an inside threat on slant routes and must be prepared to take the inevitable hits from the Hokie OLBs and FS. Shawn also must be a threat on the outside on fade and corner routes. Tucker must catch at least 4 passes for at least 100 yards and a TD.
Coming Next: Navy Post-Mortem. I haven't had a chance to review the tape of the Navy game yet. Once I do, I'll take a look back at the Navy game to see how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys.
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