Keys to the Pittsburgh Game

Although Rutgers appeared to close the gap with Pittsburgh last year, the Panther offense suddenly found its rhythm the next week at Syracuse and Pittsburgh was a solid Top 25 team by the end of the season. Pittsburgh has stumbled with upset losses to Toledo and Notre Dame. Have the Panthers recovered physically, emotionally, and psychologically? Or is Pittsburgh dangerous, like a cornered panther? Here are my five keys to the Pittsburgh game.


Rutgers entered Heinz Field last year having recovered from their terrible season-opening start with a solid 44-0 pounding of Army, originally feared to be least of three pushovers – Villanova and Buffalo allegedly constituting the other two.  Pittsburgh Head Coach Walt Harris' defense appeared formidable with most of the starters returning from a very strong unit.  However, the offense was uncertain as Harris had to replace his starting QB and his top two receivers with unproven players.  The matchup begged for a very aggressive strategy by Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano to capitalize upon Pittsburgh's inexperience and perhaps catch the Panthers with enough big plays to spring the upset.  Schiano responded partially – with an aggressive defense strategy and a typically cautious offensive strategy.  The result?  Pittsburgh's defense dominated in 23-3 Panther victory. 

KOR Shawntae Spencer returned the opening kickoff 34 yards to the UP34.  Panther P Andy Lee launched the first of many effective punts 51 yards to the RU04, where it was downed.  Rutgers opened with a staple of the Bill Cubit offense – the dreaded 3-n-out.  A 13-yard punt return put Pittsburgh at the RU33.  The Panthers drove to the RU06, where WS Shawn Seabrooks stopped Panther TB Brandon Miree for no gain on 4th-n-1.  Pittsburgh quickly forced another Rutgers punt and started at the RU45.  The Scarlet Knight defense again stopped Pittsburgh on 4th down at the RU31 as QB Rod Rutherford threw incomplete.  The teams exchanged three consecutive 3-n-outs before Pittsburgh drove 86 yards in 8 plays, again being turned back on the goal line and settling for a 19-yard FGA for a 3-0 lead early in the 2nd Quarter. 

After Rutgers's fourth 3-n-out, Lee again pinned Rutgers at the RU02 with another punt.  Rutgers escaped from the shadow of its own end zone, Panther DE Claude Herriott sacked QB Ted Trump and forced a fumble that LB Gerald Hayes returned 8 yards for a TD.  KOR/CB Nate Jones pinned Rutgers at the RU08 with a bad decision on a kickoff and the fifth Rutgers 3-n-out gave Pittsburgh field position at the RU48.  The Rutgers defense forced Pittsburgh 3-n-out but PR Sean Carty fumbled the ensuing punt and Panther LB Malcolm Postell recovered at the RU14.  The Rutgers defense pushed Pittsburgh backwards and K David Abdul missed a 41-yard FGA as the half closed.  The defense, faced with poor field position more often than not, had kept Rutgers in the game trailing only 10-0 at halftime. 

Pittsburgh quickly stopped Rutgers on the opening possession of the 2nd Half and a short punt and good punt return gave the Panthers excellent field position at the UP46.  The Scarlet Knight forced a Pittsburgh 3-n-out but the Panthers again stopped Rutgers quickly and forced another punt.  Pittsburgh then drove 80 yards in 6 plays behind two long passes from Rutherford, including a 31-yard TD pass WR Lamar Slade to blow the game open at 17-0.  Pittsburgh forced another Rutgers punt but CB DeWayne Thompson forced a fumble and Jones recovered the football at the UP41.  Rutgers used a HB option pass to drive the UP02 but settled for a 20-yard FG.  KOR Torrie Cox retuned the ensuing kickoff 58 yards to the RU40 but FS Jarvis Johnson forced a fumble and MLB Gary Brackett recovered at the RU17 near the end of the 3rd Quarter.  Pittsburgh forced the tenth Rutgers punt.  After the teams exchanged 3-n-outs, Pittsburgh drove 55 yards in 8 plays but DT William Burnett blocked a 38-yard FGA.  TB Marcus Jones immediately fumbled the ball and Pittsburgh recovered at the RU30.  Four plays later, RB Marcus Furman scored on a 6-yard pitchout to close out the scoring at 23-3.  Postell ended the next Rutgers possession with an interception of Trump at the RU49.  Rutgers forced another Pittsburgh 3-n-out but Postell intercepted Trump again in the closing seconds. 

Although Rutgers appeared to close the gap with Pittsburgh last year, the Panther offense suddenly found its rhythm the next week at Syracuse and never looked back.  Pittsburgh was a solid Top 25 team by the end of the season and entered this season poised to make a run at the Big East championship.  Upset losses at Toledo and to Notre Dame offset a big road win at College Station against Texas A&M.  The Panther offense doesn't look sharp and the rebuilt defense is struggling to stop opponents.  Notre Dame bullied Pittsburgh both offensively and defensively in a 20-14 upset win last week. Have the Panthers recovered physically, emotionally, and psychologically?  Or is Pittsburgh dangerous, like a cornered panther?  I think that Pittsburgh still has too much firepower for Rutgers.  Pittsburgh has a much better offense than does West Virginia and their defense is comparable.  Here are my five keys to the Pittsburgh game.


1.  Minimize Big Pass Plays Allowed.  While the Rutgers defense is ranked #108 nationally at 206 rushing yards allowed per game, the Scarlet Knight defense has been slightly more generous in yielding 208 passing yards per game.  While one would expect a typical defense to yield more passing yardage than rushing yardage, Rutgers passing statistics have been depressed withgames against four opponents who primarily run the football – Buffalo, Navy, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia.  Furthermore, the defense has repeatedly been burned for big pass plays although the secondary deploys either zone coverage or loose man-to-man coverage.  Buffalo completed a pass for 21 yards.  Michigan State scored TDs on 27-, 51-, and 62-yard passes and completed additional passes for 20 and 27 yards.   Army scored a TD on a 26-yard pass and gained 23, 27, and 35 yards on other passes.  Navy threw a 55-yard TD pass and another pass for 33 yards.  Virginia Tech hit paydirt with TD passes of 28 and 45 yards plus other passes for 32 and 35 yards.  West Virginia threw an 83-yard TD pass and completed passes for 28 and 59 yards.  Missed tackles on short passes accounted for a few of the big plays.  But the vast majority occurred against soft man-to-man coverage or porous zone coverage that let opposing WRs get behind the Rutgers secondary. 

Pittsburgh has a slightly more prolific passing attack than does Michigan State, who torched Rutgers for 351 yards, mostly during the first three quarters before the Spartans ran out the clock.  The Panthers feature the nation's leading receiver in So WR Larry Fitzgerald, who is averaging 132 receiving yards per game.  Fitzgerald is big, strong, and athletic and can catch any pass thrown in his vicinity – double or triple coverage notwithstanding.  RS Jr WR Princell Brockenbrough is averaging 22 yards per catch opposite Fitzgerald and RS Sr TE Kris Wilson gives Rutherford a target over the middle of the field.  Pittsburgh can strike quickly from anywhere on the field with their receiving corps.  Rutgers Defensive Coordinator Paul Ferraro must deploy his secondary in a 2-deep zone (Cover 2) with zone coverage underneath.  Since Both Fitzgerald and Brockenbrough are deep threats, a Cover 1 scheme is too risky, especially considering the poor man-to-man coverage skills of the Rutgers CBs. The Scarlet Knight safeties must not allow the Panther receivers to get behind them.  Rutgers must keep all passes in front of them and then come up and make the tackles.  While such a strategy might not stop the Panther passing game, it will prevent quick scores that will finish the game by halftime, as in 2001.  Rutgers must not yield more than two long passes, only one of can be a TD pass.  Rutgers must limit Pittsburgh to 250 yards passing. 

2.  Pressure Rutherford.  Notre Dame sacked Rutherford eight times last week.  The Irish pass rush overwhelmed the Panther OLine and forced Harris to commit his two RBs and his TE to a maximum protection blocking scheme, leaving only two receivers in the pattern.  That enabled Notre Dame to cover Fitzgerald and Brockenbrough man-to-man underneath with 2-deep help over the top.  Schiano's CBs lack the cover skills to risk such a Cover 2 man under strategy that would allow maximum blitz pressure from the LBs.  A Cover 2 zone under scheme will require that at least two of the LBs drop into pass coverage over the middle.  Therefore, Rutgers must generate an effective pass rush primarily with its DLine, which has been the most effective unit on defense. 

Ferraro must twist and stunt his DL to create maximum pressure with his DLine.  The DLine must prioritize pressuring Rutherford.  Containing Rutherford is a secondary concern.  The DTs must get an effective push up the middle to collapse the pocket.  And the DEs must rush hard off the edges and chase down a scrambling Rutherford.  Since the LBs will be in pass coverage, they will be responsible to bringing down Rutherford should he elude the pass rush and scramble out of the pocket.  Ferraro can afford to blitz one LB from his base 4-3 defense, leaving the other two to fill the underneath zones.  Ferraro can blitz two LBs or safeties from his 3-2 Cover 2 dime package, again leaving the other two LBs/safeties to fill the underneath zones.  Ferraro can rush more LBs from these formations only as a zone blitz, dropping a DT back into pass coverage underneath.  Rutgers cannot sell out on blitzes because the Panther receivers will run wild through the gaping holes in the secondary.  Ferraro must mix straight rushes, stunts, twists, blitzes, and zone blitzes to pressure and confuse Rutherford.  Rutgers must sack Rutherford at least four times and hurry him into completing less than half of his passes.

3.  Run Between the Tackles.  Rutgers is methodically establishing a legitimate running game.  The Scarlet Knight did not rush for over 100 yards in any Big East game last season.  Rutgers' RBs have gained 136 and 119 rushing yards against Virginia Tech and West Virginia, respectively.  Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg is building his running game inside out.  When the season opened, Rutgers ran almost exclusively between the tackles.  The Power G -- with the FB and the pulling backside guard leading through a hole between the tackle and TE, the isolation run, and lead draw were the primary running plays.  As the OLine gained proficiency in their blocking assignments on these plays, Ver Steeg began incorporating more off tackle runs with zone blocking.  Last week, Ver Steeg tried a pitch out on a 2XPA.  There have been fewer blown blocking assignments by the OL and the RBs are learning to read their blocks.  Both Hairston and Leonard are big backs who can run downhill if they can hit the hole cleanly. 

Pittsburgh's run defense is comparable in performance to that of West Virginia, yielding 167 yards per game.  Notre Dame rushed for 352 yards against the once-formidable Panther defense.  Pittsburgh is likely still beaten up from the punishment suffered at the hands of Notre Dame.  Rutgers must capitalize upon this vulnerability and run at Pittsburgh.  The Panther defense is likely too quick to allow Rutgers to run outside consistently.  Rutgers must play to its strength and run between the tackles.  A successful running game will keep the explosive Pittsburgh offense on the sideline and will disrupt the rhythm of the Panther passing game.  If the Scarlet Knights can establish their running game, a still-hungover Panther defense may wear down, putting Rutgers in position to pull an upset.  Rutgers must rush for at least 175 yards. 

4.  Efficient Passing.  In its three losses, Rutgers has thrown 4 TDs and 8 INTs.  The Scarlet Knight's west coast offense has completed only 48 of 93 passes (52%).  Although Rutgers has averaged 13 yards per completion, that average drops to less than 9 yards per reception after the 1st Quarter of the Michigan State game, which saw two completions for 65 and 72 yards.  The low yardage yield per pass, combined with the low completion rate, are stifling the offense.  Rutgers must either complete a higher percentage of its passes or gain more yardage per reception.  Ver Steeg must diversify the passing attack to accomplish both.  Defenses are plugging the middle of the field and jumping short and intermediate routes, resulting in INTs and negligible yardage after catch (YAC).  Ver Steep must call more deep passes to loosen up pass coverage underneath.  Ver Steeg must more fully involve all of his primary receivers so that the defense must cover all five eligible receivers.  Rutgers must complete at least 60% of its passes and must average at least 10 yards per completion. 

5.  Throw to TEs and RBs.  The RBs and TEs have combined for only 14 of 34 receptions and 116 of 360 receiving yards during the past two games against Virginia Tech and West Virginia.  Ver Steeg must more fully utilize his RBs, especially his underused TBs, in the passing game.  He must call the numbers of this RBs and TEs more frequently and get them the football in the flats to stretch the LBs horizontally.  He must also run them vertically to stretch the underneath zones – corners and seam routes for the TEs and seam and wheel routes for the RBs.  So QB Ryan Hart must look to the RBs more frequently as safety valves when he is under pressure or the middle of the of field is crowded.  Hart must not look to the middle for his TEs as safety valves until the passing game has successfully stretched the interior zones both vertically and horizontally.  The RBs and TEs must combine for 12 receptions and 125 receiving yards.


1.  So QB Ryan Hart.  Hart has played poorly in Rutgers three losses.  The sophomore, with only nine career starts under his belt, was not realistically expected to single-handedly carry the Rutgers offense.  However, Ver Steeg has generated a running game to take the pressure of Hart.  Now, Hart must execute the west coast offense more efficiently than he has against better competition.  In recent weeks, Hart has preferentially targeted his WRs and overall passing production has suffered.  In the 2nd Half against West Virginia, Hart began distributing the ball to all of his receivers and the Rutgers offense came to life.  Hart must continue to incorporate those lessons into his future performances.  Repeated throws to his WRs on comeback routes in the flats will generate minimal yardage and will increase the pressure upon Hart to complete each of his passes.  He must get the football downfield to his TEs and WRs and to his RBs in the flats.  And he must more effectively read opposing defense and locate his safety valve receivers.  Hart has rarely thrown to his TB – that must change.  Hart must complete at least 60% of his passes, throw for at least 225 yards, and must not throw more than one INT. 

2.  RS Sr DE Raheem Orr.  Orr displayed a dominating effort against Virginia Tech but was relatively quiet against West Virginia.  Orr leads the Big East in tackles, TFLs, and sacks among DL.  If Rutgers is to pressure Rutherford, Orr must have another dominating performance.  Raheem must wreak havoc off the edge in the Panther backfield.  Orr will be matched up against three-year Panther starter RS Sr RT Matt Morgan.  Orr must manhandle Morgan on the pass rush – beating him upfield or bulling inside him.  Orr's performance against the run is less important.  Pittsburgh is a passing team.  Orr must get to Rutherford to minimize the damage that the powerful Panther passing attack can cause.  Orr must record at least two sacks of Rutherford and a few hurries. 

3.  Fr TB Justise Hairston.  Hairston gained a respectable 57 yards on 15 carries against the tough Virginia Tech defense.  Against the smaller West Virginia defense, Hairston gained 115 yards on 27 carries.  Hairston punished the Mountaineer defense with his bruising runs.  Only repeated breakdowns in the passing game prevented Hairston from more fully wearing down the West Virginia defense.  Pittsburgh has a young LB corps that lacks both depth and experience.  In addition to attacking the Pittsburgh LBs through the air with the RBs and TEs, Ver Steeg must give Pittsburgh a steady diet of Hairston between the tackles.  Hairston is still struggling to follow his blockers through the hole and must improve in that area.  Hairston must carry the football at least 25 times.  And he must gain at least 120 yards.  Hairston also must be incorporated into the passing game as a safety valve on delayed flare or seam routes.  Defenses must account for him in their pass coverage or pay the prices.  Hairston should catch at least two passes for at least 15 yards. 

4.  RS Fr FB Brian Leonard.  Leonard struggled against West Virginia's 3-3 Cover 1 defense.  With three LBs, two safeties, and two CBs near the line of scrimmage, Leonard didn't find much receiving room in the flats.  Opponents are starting to pay more attention to Leonard as a receiving threat out of the backfield.  LBs are jumping his drag routes and coming up quickly on flare routes.  Does Ver Steeg have a wheel route in his arsenal?  Leonard should run a wheel route once a quarter to keep the LBs from jumping his shallow pass routes – or burn them if they do.  Pittsburgh, like Virginia Tech, features a four man DLine.  The wider DLine will create openings for Leonard on lead draw plays.  The OTs will more easily be able to chip block DEs in a 4-3 scheme than they did against the Mountaineer DEs in a 3-3 scheme.  Leonard must catch at least 4 passes for 35 yards receiving and must get at least 10 carries for 50 yards rushing. 

5.  Jr TE Chris Loomis.  Loomis returned to the Rutgers lineup three weeks ago against Navy, against whom he caught three passes for 38 yards and a TD.  Virginia Tech and West Virginia shutout Loomis.  The TEs must regain their once prominent role in the offense. They must run more vertically to stretch the underneath zone defense.  As the leader of the TE crew, Loomis should show the way against Pittsburgh.  Loomis should catch at least 3 passes for 40 yards.  While several TEs should see passes thrown their way, Loomis should lead the group.  If he can't produce, then RS Fr TE Clark Harris must meet these production goals. 

Coming Next:  West Virginia Post-Mortem.  I'll take a belated look back at how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys. 

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