KEYS TO THE WEST VIRGINIA GAME
Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano and West Virginia Head Coach Rich Rodriguez each took over their respective programs three years ago. Schiano replaced Terry Shea, who finished 11-44 in five seasons on the banks, with a litany of 30+, 40+, and 50+ blowouts on his resume. Rodriguez replaced the legendary Don Nehlen, who was 149-93-4 in 21 years at West Virginia, including two undefeated seasons and a national championship game appearance in 1988. Schiano had to first clear the detritus of the Shea error before he could even begin building a foundation. Rodriguez inherited a team that won the Music City Bowl. Schiano had to completely change the culture of Rutgers football – on the team, at the school, and in the State of New Jersey. Rodriguez merely had to implement his preferred offensive and defensive schemes, although the Mountaineer roster was not equipped for such a transition. Both coaches suffered through disappointing inaugural seasons – Schiano at 2-9 and Rodriguez at 3-8. However, when the two teams met in Morgantown, Rodriguez demonstrated that his program clearly was much further ahead of Rutgers in its transition. In a game in which Rutgers could do nothing right and West Virginia could do nothing wrong, the Mountaineers led 59-0 at halftime on the way to an 80-7 route. West Virginia started slowly last season and, after an impressive performance at Tennessee, Rutgers hoped to settle the score with the Mountaineers. But the offense was as inept as it was in 2001 and the defense did all it could to avoid a repeat disaster. On a wet and dreary day in Piscataway, West Virginia won 40-0.
Mountaineer S Jahmile Addae intercepted QB Ted Trump at the RU36 on the third play of the game – on which RG Brain Duffy also suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Scarlet Knight defense held and Mountaineer PK Todd James missed a 48-yard FGA. Rutgers went 3-n-out and then the teams exchanged punts after brief drives. After a Mountaineer 3-n-out, West Virginia pinned Rutgers at the RU14 with a punt. On 3rd-n-12, Mountaineer DE Time Love sacked Trump in the end zone for a safety. West Virginia took the ensuing free kick and drove to the fringe of scoring position before the Scarlet Knight defense again stiffened. Starting at the RU13, Rutgers lost 11 yards while going 3-n-out and West Virginia returned the punt to the RU24. Five plays later, Mountaineer QB Rasheed Marshall connected with WR Phil Braxton on a corner route for a 12-yard TD early in the 2nd Quarter. Trump threw another interception that S Jermaine Thaxton returned 24 yards to the RU18. Mountaineer RB Avon Cobourne scored three plays later on a 5-yard run. Rutgers again went 3-n-out and the Scarlet Knight defense again stopped West Virginia at the fringe of scoring position. The teams exchanged 3-n-outs before Rutgers mounted its first sustained drive into scoring position, which ended prematurely on a fumble by TB Markis Facyson. The Scarlet Knight defense ended the half by stopping West Virginia at the fringe of scoring position for the fourth time in the 1st Half, which ended with West Virginia leading 16-0.
After covering for an impotent offense, the overworked Rutgers defense collapsed in the 2nd half. West Virginia took the 2nd half kickoff and drove 80 yards in 13 plays over 7 minutes, scoring on a 6-yard draw by Marshall. Trump drove Rutgers to midfield but threw his third INT, which Thaxton returned to the WV44. The Mountaineers drove 36 yards in plays and James made a 37-yard FG to extend the lead to 26-0. Trump's day ended with his fifth 3-n-out – two poor throws and a dropped pass. After the Rutgers defense forced a punt to open the 4th Quarter, QB Ryan Cubit replaced Trump but fared no better. Another 3-n-out was followed with an unsuccessful fake punt. The Rutgers defense again stopped West Virginia o the fringe of scoring position. However, Cubit made a poor throw on drag route to FB Ray Pilch and SS Angel Estrada jumped the route, intercepted the pass, and returned the pick 43 yards for a TD. Another 3-n-out preceded an 8-play, 50-yard drive to close out the scoring as the teams exchanged punts afterwards.
A shaken Rutgers team travels to Morgantown to face a dangerous West Virginia team. At 3-2, Rutgers has the better record but the 1-4 Mountaineers are the better team. While Rutgers has padded its record with unimpressive wins over Buffalo, Army, and Navy, West Virginia has lost close games to Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Miami. Michigan State and Virginia Tech demolished Rutgers when it stepped up in class. Rodriguez suffered heavy losses from his 9-4 Continental Tire Bowl team while Schiano has continued to upgrade the talent level at Rutgers. Entering the season, West Virginia appeared potentially vulnerable. But the Scarlet Knights have been less impressive – especially on defense – than expected while the rebuilt Mountaineers have been more impressive – especially on defense. Rutgers has not yet closed the gap sufficiently to win in hostile Morgantown. But the Scarlet Knights must put up a good fight, something they haven't done in Morgantown since 1991. Here are my five keys to the West Virginia game.
1. Minimize Big Plays Allowed. Despite an emphasis against Virginia Tech on reducing big plays allowed, the Scarlet Knight defense yielded 11 gains of 15 yards or more to Virginia Tech. The Hokies scored on passes of 28 and 45 yards and a 35-yard TD run. Virginia gained 270 of its 473 yards of total offense on these 11 plays. A notoriously stubborn running team, Virginia Tech spread the field against Rutgers' man-to-man coverage and QB Bryan Randall shredded the Scarlet Knight secondary. Missed tackles accounted for a few of the big plays. But the vast majority occurred against soft man-to-man coverage that let Virginia Tech take what it wanted underneath and beat Rutgers deep.
West Virginia prefers to run the football. After losing most of their starting OLine and four-time All Big East RB Avon Cobourne, the Mountaineer offense has struggled to move the football. RS Sr RB Quincy Wilson and Jr RB Kay-Jay Harris provide the Mountaineers with two viable options to lead their ground attack. Plus, Jr QB Rasheed Marshall adds another running dimension to the West Virginia offense. Marshall is not a prolific passer. I expect West Virginia to align frequently in 4WR sets and either run the option or throw at the Rutgers secondary. Rutgers must deny West Virginia big plays that will rapidly move the Mountaineers downfield and instead must force West Virginia to methodically drive the length of the field. The Scarlet Knights must contain Marshall in the pocket and force Marshall to beat Rutgers with his arm, not his legs.
2. Interceptions. So QB Ryan Hart has thrown six INTs in losses to Michigan State and Virginia Tech. In both games, Hart stubbornly attempted to force throws into heavy coverage over the middle rather than exploiting more vulnerable areas of the field. Part of this tendency is attributable to poor playcalling by Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg. Michigan State quickly adjusted to the Scarlet Knight's short passing game and employed press coverage to disrupt the timing of the passing game. As a result, Ver Steeg shortened the pass routes rather than throwing deep against the press coverage. Against Virginia Tech, Ver Steeg similarly emphasized a short passing game into the teeth of the Hokie defense. In both games, Ver Steeg failed to stretch the field vertically with his WRs/TEs and horizontally with his RBs.
West Virginia employs a similar defense to Virginia Tech in that the Mountaineers put 8 men on the line of scrimmage and leave only 3 men in the secondary. With three LBs and two safeties in the middle of the field, Ver Steeg must first attack the periphery of the West Virginia defense. Throw to the RBs in the flats to pull the LBs and safeties up. Throw to the WRs on fade and skinny post routes to push the CBs back. Throw to the TEs on corner and out routes. These routes should stretch the Mountaineer defense. Then, Ver Steeg can call plays that send the WRs and TEs over or into the middle. Hart must not throw more than one INT against West Virginia. But Ver Steeg must help his QB with shrewd playcalling that attacks West Virginia where it is most vulnerable.
3. Rushing Defense. West Virginia has run for 236 (2002) and 446 yards in the past two games. Compared to only 96 and 181 passing yards. Although West Virginia employs a spread offense, the Mountaineers clearly are a running team. If Rutgers is to control the West Virginia offense, the Scarlet Knights must throttle the powerful Mountaineer ground attack. Schiano must keep his base 4-3 defense on the field to stop the West Virginia ground attack. Wilson and Harris are both big backs. Replacing LBs with CBs plays to the strength of the West Virginia offense. Furthermore, Schiano must dispense with the man-to-man coverage that his secondary is incapable of providing. Schiano must use a Cover 2 (two deep) zone with zone coverage underneath. That will place a tremendous burden upon the front seven but will ease the pressure on the non-performing secondary.
The DTs must clog the middle and force West Virginia to use three OL to block them. The MLB must make the tackles inside because the safeties will be too wide to provide reliable help up the middle. The DEs, who usually align wide and pinch inside, must control the guard-tackles gaps. The DEs also must keep Marshall inside the pocket on passes. The OLBs will bear the heaviest burden. They must provide run support inside, keep containment on pitches, and force the pitch on options. In addition to these substantial responsibilities, the OLBs must cover the hook zones (against slant and curl routes) and must run to the flats to cover bubble screens. The safeties will have to provide run support inside while also assuming pitch man responsibilities on the option. If Rutgers can control the West Virginia running game from a base 4-3 Cover 2, the Scarlet Knights should limit their vulnerability in pass coverage. However, if the Cover 2 scheme is not effective against the Mountaineer running game, then Schiano will switch to a Cover 1 look – moving a safety up on a slot WR, moving the SLB out on the other slot WR, reverting to man-to-man coverage underneath, and pray that Marshall doesn't shred the secondary.
4. Running Between the Tackles. Michigan State, with an imposing front seven, limited the Scarlet Knight RBs to 50 rushing yards on 28 carries. 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. One month later, against a Virginia Tech defense renowned for its stubborn rush defense, Rutgers was able to run inside effectively against the smaller Hokies. The Scarlet Knight RBs gained 136 yards on 28 carries. Virginia Tech held Rutgers to 2 yards or less on only 9 of 28 designed runs. Four of the 9 were TFLs (or no gain). Twelve runs gained at least 5 yards. The longest run was 21 yards. As has been the pattern, Rutgers gained most of its yardage between the tackles. Only 4 running plays went off tackle and none were pitchouts or other outside runs.
West Virginia similarly has a small defense, featuring only three DL and three LBs. Two safeties on the line of scrimmage give the Mountaineers a numbers advantage at the point of attack. But the Mountaineers don't have a size advantage. West Virginia limited the anemic Rutgers rushing offense to 33 yards on 19 carries last season. The Scarlet Knights have shown an improved running game under new OC Ver Steeg and OLine Coach Mario Cristobal. The running game must take pressure off Hart to carry the offense by himself. Rutgers should be able to run between the tackles against the smaller Mountaineers. Both Fr TB Justise Hairston and RS Fr FB Brian Leonard are big backs that can run downhill. The Rutgers OLine must control the line of scrimmage and allow Hairston and Leonard to hit the holes cleanly. Their momentum alone will carry them several yards. If the holes are open, they will run over the Mountaineer defense much as they did to Navy. Rutgers must rush for at least 175 yards. That will draw the West Virginia LBs and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and open up the middle for slant routes and crossing routes.
5. Throw Deep. West Virginia employs a 3-3 Cover 1 defensive scheme. Defensive Coordinator Jeff Casteel puts two safeties up on the outside of the line of scrimmage, essentially giving the Mountaineers a 3-5 look. 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 deep and as the last line of defense. Much like Virginia Tech, West Virginia crowds the line of scrimmage and dares the opposition to throw deep. Casteel can blitz from this scheme or drop eight into coverage. As with Virginia Tech, the Mountaineer secondary can be beaten for big plays because so few players cover such a large area. However, the Rutgers OLine must provide Hart with the time to throw. Something they did not accomplish against Virginia Tech. The Rutgers WRs must force the Mountaineer 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 routes – 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 Mountaineer defense and create openings for the short passing game over the middle. If Hart can't throw deep, then the Mountaineers will compress the field as they did last year and suffocate the short routes. Hart must connect on at least 4 deep passes for gains of at least 25 yards.
1. So QB Ryan Hart. Against the better competition this season, Hart's performances have been unsatisfactory. Hart has gotten flustered in the face of defensive pressure. He has failed to make the proper reads. And he has thrown too many passes he shouldn't have. Or missed open receivers with poor throws. Against Michigan State, Hart's breakdowns blended in the with the symphony of offensive, defensive, and special teams breakdowns. Hart's early passing kept Rutgers in the game, but Rutgers faded as Hart wilted before mounting defensive intensity. A second-year QB starting his sixth game could not reasonably be expected to carry his team on the road in the Big 10. Hart had fewer excuses against Virginia Tech. True, the special teams and defense performed as poorly against Virginia Tech as they did against Michigan State. But Hart was aided tremendously by a legitimate running attack from the opening kickoff. Yet Hart still struggled in completing 16 of 33 passes for 182 yards, one TD, and 4 INTs. Eleven of those 33 passes reflected either bad reads or bad throws. Such a level of inefficient quarterbacking is unacceptable in the west coast offense.
Expect West Virginia to pressure Hart. Given time, Hart has shown the accuracy to pick apart a defense. Under pressure, Hart has shown a tendency to make poor reads and poor throws. Casteel can blitz any one or more of his three OLBs and two safeties that line up on the line of scrimmage. Hart must read the blitzes and read the pass coverage quickly and correctly. He must identify the correct target. And he must make an accurate throw. Hart has a tendency to force the ball over the middle rather than making the safe throw to a RB in the flat. Yet Rutgers drove 89 yards against Virginia Tech – its best drive of the game – when Hart threw to his RBs. Hart must test the periphery of the Mountaineer defense first to open up the middle. Until that time, his safety valves should be the RBs in the flats. Hart must throw for at least 225 yards and must not throw more than one INT.
2. RS Fr FB Brian Leonard. Leonard had another sensational game against Virginia Tech – 12 carries for 76 yards plus 4 receptions for another 30 yards. His blitz pickups are consistently solid and his lead blocking improves each week. Against the Hokies, Leonard's running was consistently good. However, Hart involved Leonard in the passing game too late. If the Mountaineer LBs and safeties are clogging the passing lanes over the middle of the field, Leonard will be open as a safety valve in the flat. Brian has shown an uncanny ability to either make the first tackler miss or simply break his tackle. Especially on 1st and 2nd downs, when the yardage isn't as crucial, Hart should look to Leonard when pressured. Leonard will consistently gain yardage to keep the chains moving. Leonard's presence out of the backfield will force the safeties or LBs to come up to cover him. Such movement will then open the middle of the field for the WRs and TEs. Leonard must also get plenty of carries inside. He did much of his damage on draw plays and should continue to see such carries. Leonard must get at least 10 carries and must gain at least 50 yards rushing. Plus, Leonard must catch at least 6 passes for 60 yards.
3. RS Sr DE Raheem Orr. Orr was probably the only Scarlet Knight to play well on defense against Virginia Tech. Orr realized his best performance yet against a quality opponent – 9 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 2 QB hurries. And his tackles weren't downfield, either. The Hokies lost 2 net yards on Orr's nine tackles. One of his sacks pushed the Hokies out of FG range; another pushed them into a longer FGA, which they missed. Orr leads the Big East in tackles, TFLs, and sacks among DL. After years of hype, he is starting to realize his potential. Rutgers needs a big game from Orr. The Scarlet Knight defense has shown an inability to stop opposing passing attacks or option running games. Rutgers will face both against West Virginia. Therefore, the defense likely will need to make big plays of their own to offset the big plays they yield. And Orr must be the ringleader of those big plays. Orr must contain Marshall in the pocket. And run down Marshall from behind. While still honoring his containment responsibilities because West Virginia will run reverses at him. Orr must give the Scarlet Knights a comparable effort to that he posted against Virginia Tech.
4. Fr TB Justise Hairston. Hairston had a pleasant debut against Buffalo when he gained 88 yards on 19 carries. Including 9 carries for 41 yards on the game clinching drive. However, Hairston stumbled in the next two games, gaining only 50 yards on 24 carries as he often struggled to follow his blockers or find daylight. Against Navy, Hairston demonstrated the power running whose potential has excited both Schiano and Rutgers fans. Hairston gained 161 yards on 31 carries. He single-handedly wore down the Navy defense and allowed Rutgers to control the ball and the clock. Hairston played well against Virginia Tech, too. He gained 57 yards on 15 carries although he demonstrated his trouble in finding the hole on several occasions. Hairston's size proved beneficial against the smaller but tough Hokies. That size should like prove beneficial against a comparably small Mountaineer defense. Rutgers likely will run predominantly between the tackles. That means Hairston will get the lion's share of carries from the TB slot. His ability to burst through the hole and run over defenders will be essential to a strategy of possessing the football and wearing down the Mountaineer defense. Hairston must carry the football at least 20 times. And he must gain at least 100 yards. Hairston also must be better incorporated into the passing game as a safety valve. He should catch at least two passes for at least 15 yards.
5. RS Fr P Joe Radigan. Radigan has struggled in three of his last four games. None of these performances appreciably affected the outcomes of the games because Michigan State and Virginia thoroughly dominated Rutgers in all aspects while Navy rarely stopped Rutgers offense. Not so this week. On the road. In a hostile environment. Against an opponent who struggles to drive the length of the field. Radigan must have an excellent performance against the Mountaineers. The Scarlet Knight defense will struggle to stop the West Virginia offense. Therefore, Radigan must push the Mountaineer offense back into their side of the field with his punts. Radigan must average 43 yards per punt. And he can't have any punts shorter than 37 yards. It's a tall order to place on a young kicker.
Coming Next: West Virginia Post-Mortem. I'll take a look back at how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys.
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