KEYS TO THE CONNECTICUT GAME
Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano assumed control of a football program that many snidely labeled as a Division IAA program after five years of awful recruiting, horrendous academic attrition, and laughable strength & conditioning under former Head Coach Terry Shea left the Scarlet Knights depleted of talent and depth. Schiano was immediately expected to show improvement through better recruiting, better retention, and better strength & conditioning. The team couldn't have been any worse, right? Wrong. After demolishing Buffalo 59-0 in 2000, Rutgers lurched to a 31-15 win at Buffalo in the season opener after a shaky 1st Quarter. Expected blowouts at the hands of Miami and Virginia Tech followed. But a stunning 20-19 loss at home to Division IA newbie Connecticut – in its first year of Division IA competition with a Division IAA roster and much less than the full Division IA complement of 85 scholarship players – opened eyes about the talent level at Rutgers and the quality of the coaching staff.
Rutgers unleashed the Bill Cubit offense on the opening possession, going 3-n-out after a 3rd down sack. Connecticut drove 59 yards in four plays, scoring on a 24-yard QB option by Husky QB Keron Henry. Two plays later, TB Rikki Cook fumbled at the RU27. The Scarlet Knight defense held and Husky PK Marc Hickok kicked a 46-yard FG. Midway through the 1st Quarter, upstart Connecticut led 10-0. Rutgers squandered a 52-yard KOR by Nate Jones when Husky DT Sean Mulcahy intercepted QB Ryan Cubit at the UC40 but Rutgers forced Connecticut 3-n-out. Rutgers then drove 84 yards in 14 plays, capped with a 19-yard TD pass to WR Delrico Fletcher to end the 1st Quarter. Henry fumbled at midfield and was knocked out of the game with a hip pointer. Although Rutgers could not capitalize upon the excellent field position, going 3-n-out, P Mike Barr pinned Connecticut at the UC04. With a cold true freshman backup QB Dan Orlovsky replacing Henry, Husky Head Coach Randy Edsall ran three times and punted. Following an 18-yard return by PR Tres Moses to the UC34, Rutgers penetrated the UC10 but a holding penalty forced the Scarlet Knights to settle for a 38-yard FG by PK Ryan Sands to tie the game at 10-10. Rutgers forced another 3-n-out and then drove 81 yards in nine plays, scoring on a 10-yard TD pass to Moses. Connecticut drove to the RU04 in the closing seconds of the half but CB Tony Berry intercepted Orlovsky in the end zone.
Connecticut stalled at midfield on the opening possession of the 2nd Half. The teams exchanged 3-n-outs and then exchanged punts. Yet another Rutgers 3-n-out ended disastrously when Schiano panicked and called a fake punt from the RU33. It failed. Two plays later, Husky TE Tommy Collins scored on a 30-yard TD off a short pass to give Connecticut a 17-16 lead after WS Shawn Seabrooks missed the tackle. Cubit threw an INT to end the next Rutgers possession and SS Chris Meyers retuned the pick 39 yards to the RU26. Fortunately, the Scarlet Knight defense held and Hickok missed a 37-yard FGA to end the 3rd Quarter. The teams again exchanged 3-n-outs before Sands kicked a 22-yard FG to give Rutgers a 19-17 lead. After another pair of 3-n-outs, Connecticut drove 41 yards in six plays and Hickok kicked the game-winning 47-yard FG with 3 minutes remaining. Rutgers could only muster one first down – on a Husky personal foul – and meekly turned the ball over on downs after failing to convert 3rd-n-2 and 4th-n-1. Connecticut ran out the clock to seal the biggest win in its brief Division 1A lifetime.
I will finally admit it. Unfathomable as it might appear, Connecticut is a better program than Rutgers right now. As recently as this summer, I refused to concede that Connecticut was better. But, while preparing a preseason preview of the Huskies and researching their 2002 season, I accepted the truth for what it was. Without the lure of a major conference affiliation and with primitive facilities until recently, Edsall has recruited, developed, and coached neophytes into a legitimate Division IA program in four short seasons. Connecticut has beaten teams at its level more often than not. It has played well against upper echelon Division IA teams. And it has recorded several upsets. On the road. This summer, I was demanding that Schiano beat a "lesser" Connecticut team. Three months later, I am not expecting a win. I rate Rutgers chances at 50%-50%. Rutgers and Connecticut each will struggle to stop the other's offense. I expect a shootout, similar to the Navy game. Here are my five keys to the biggest game of the season.
1. Pass Rush. The loss of star So TB Terry Caulley in Game #5 to a season-ending knee injury (ACL) has forced Edsall to rely more heavily upon his passing game to carry the offense. While Connecticut is averaging 183 rushing yards per game, the passing game is the key component of the Husky offense. Connecticut averages over 300 passing yards per game. Nearly 55% of Connecticut's plays from scrimmage are designed passes. Orlovsky is completing 60% of his passes and has a sterling 29-13 TD-to-INT ratio. The Rutgers pass defense is yielding 235 yards per game against a schedule stacked with several one-dimensional running teams. Michigan State, Virginia Tech, and Pittsburgh blitzed Rutgers with aerial assaults. The Scarlet Knight defense has repeatedly been burned for big pass plays – 10 TD passes of at least 20 yards plus another 21 pass plays yielding at least 20 yards. The Rutgers secondary has been vulnerable to spread offenses. Michigan State and Virginia Tech spread out the Rutgers defense and threw the football with tremendous success. Michigan State found gaping holes against Rutgers Cover 2 (2-deep zone) zone underneath scheme. Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh abused Rutgers' soft man-to-man coverage. Defensive Coordinator Paul Ferraro has yet to find a coverage scheme that the Scarlet Knight secondary can play effectively against a potent passing offense.
Ferraro's best pass defense strategy will be to apply a strong pass rush. That will be a daunting task because Connecticut has only allowed 9 sacks in 10 games. Furthermore, Ferraro must generate an effective pass rush without blitzing much. Orlovsky spreads the ball around among his receivers – five average at least two receptions per game. If Ferraro blitzes too frequently, Orlovsky will find open receivers in the zones vacated by the blitzers. 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. Orlovsky is a classic drop back passer. The DTs must get an effective push up the middle to collapse the pocket and force Orlovsky to move his feet. And the DEs must rush hard off the edges and flush Orlovsky.
Ferraro can afford to blitz one LB from his base 4-3 defense or his 4-2 nickel defense, leaving the remaining LBs 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 occasionally, but should mix in zone blitzes, dropping a DT back into pass coverage underneath. Ferraro must mix straight rushes, stunts, twists, blitzes, and zone blitzes to pressure Orlovsky into short throws. If Orlovsky is eluding the pass rush, he won't be focusing on his receivers downfield. Rutgers must sack Orlovsky at least twice and hurry him into completing less than 55% of his passes.
2. Ball Control. Rutgers has established a ball control offense. Though not a monopolizing offense, Rutgers has a two-minute edge in time of possession and 74-to-70 advantage in plays from scrimmage over its opponents. As advertised, Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg has built the offense around a power running game and a short passing game.
A team that was incapable of regularly mounting sustained drives last season regularly assembles 10+ play drives covering the length of the field. Improved run blocking and stronger running has limited the TFLs that were so debilitating last season. The offense has earned better 3rd down situations and, as a result, is converting first downs at a much higher rate. In its two most impressive wins of the season, Rutgers dominated time of possession. Against Navy, Rutgers held the ball for 32 minutes and ran 75 plays to 70 for Navy. More importantly, the Scarlet Knight offense kept the Middie's offense off the field after Navy dominated early in the 2nd Half. Against Temple, Rutgers held the ball for a whopping 38-and-a-half minutes and ran 87 plays to 60 for Temple. Rutgers never let Temple's spread offense find its rhythm.
Rutgers must avoid a shootout with the high-scoring Huskies. The Scarlet Knight defense likely will struggle against a Connecticut spread offense. Long, clock-eating drives will shorten the game, fatigue the Husky defense, rest the Scarlet Knight defense, and disrupt the Husky offense. Ver Steeg must balance the run and the pass, forcing Connecticut to defend the entire field. Ver Steeg must call enough deep passes to loosen the Husky secondary and provide space for the short/intermediate passing game to work. Rutgers must realize at least 75 plays from scrimmage and must execute at least 10 more plays than Connecticut. Rutgers must possess the football for at least 33 minutes.
3. Turnovers. Rutgers' turnover margin this season is even. Rutgers has thrown 13 INTs and lost 7 fumbles while the Scarlet Knight defense has intercepted 9 passes and recovered 11 fumbles. Although Rutgers is averaging 2.5 TOs per game, Rutgers has committed 13 TOs in its four losses – 10 INTs and 3 fumbles. INTs were the primary problem until the last two games, when Rutgers committed five fumbles after coughing up the football only twice in the first six games. Connecticut has a potent offense. Rutgers cannot afford fruitless possessions and still keep pace with the Huskies. Rutgers further cannot afford to short-circuit possessions with TOs, especially TOs that give Connecticut a short field. Rutgers must not commit more than one TO. The RBs cannot fumble and Hart must throw no more than one INT.
4. Return Game. Rutgers has an overall talent advantage over Connecticut. One of my sources described the Huskies as a Division IAA team with a 1st round NFL QB. If indeed Rutgers possesses a significant overall talent advantage over Connecticut, then that advantage ought to reveal itself in return elements of special teams. Connecticut is yielding 22 yards on kickoff returns and 14 yards on punt returns. Meanwhile, the Huskies only gain 20 yards on kickoff returns and 5 yards on punt returns. While Rutgers only averages only 19 yards on kickoff returns, the Scarlet Knight punt returners average 12 yards per return. The Scarlet Knights are allowing only 20 yards on kickoff returns and 5 yards on punt returns. Rutgers must dominate the return yardage category. The kickoff return team, so potent last season, must score a TD. And the punt return team must consistently provide Rutgers with field position. Rutgers appears to have the biggest edge favoring its punt return team. However, Rutgers must force Connecticut to punt in order to capitalize upon that advantage. Rutgers must force Connecticut to punt at least five times. Rutgers must outgain Connecticut by 100 yards in the return game. As a result of better averages, not more kickoff returns.
5. Power G. I haven't seen Connecticut play this season. I've been told that the Husky defense plays assignment football. Connecticut uses a 4-3 defensive scheme with a rush DE and an undersized SLB. I assume that Husky secondary plays mostly Cover 2 with zone coverage underneath in a concession to their relative lack of talent. Connecticut may lack athletes but the Huskies honor their assignments well. The Husky defense finished among the nation's leaders in total defense, pass defense, INTs, and TOs last season. With heavy losses in their secondary, Connecticut's pass defense is less stingy but the rush defense had gotten stouter. The Connecticut DLine is a little undersized with 250-pound DEs. Rutgers will likely find more success running between the tackles rather than off-tackle. As such, the Power G will be the key to the Rutgers running game.
The Power G is the bread-n-butter running play in Ver Steeg's offense. The C and backside OT block down on the backside DT and DE, respectively. The TE blocks the playside DE, preferably sealing him to the outside but blocking down if the DE slants inside. The playside OG blocks down on the playside DT. The playside OT double-teams the playside DT and then double taps the WLB. The FB leads through the hole and blocks the SLB while the pulling backside OG also leads through the hole, either kicking out or hooking the MLB. The TB follows the FB and pulling OG into the hole between the TE and OT.
With a big TB like RS Fr Justise Hairston or RS Fr Brian Leonard, the Power G is a good downhill running play. However, with Hairston out with a hyper-extended knee, Leonard will have to share the workload with two smaller TBs – So Markis Facyson and Jr Clarence Pittman. Neither Facyson nor Pittman run as strong as does Hairston. However, they must run hard inside as matchups dictate heavy reliance upon the Power G, which will put Connecticut's undersized DEs and SLB at the point of attack. The TE must be able to control the DE in a crucial matchup. If the Power G is successful inside, the Husky DEs will slant inside to stop it, leaving them vulnerable to runs off tackle. Rutgers must run the Power G at least 20 times and must gain at least 100 yards.
1. RS Sr DE Raheem Orr. Looking at the defensive statistics for the Temple game, one could assume that Orr had a relatively quiet game with 3 tackles, 2 TFLs, and a sack. However, my game notes are replete with references to Orr based upon the radio call from Tom McCarthy and Tim Pernetti. While Orr may not have wracked up big statistics, he nonetheless wrought havoc in the Owl backfield all afternoon. Rutgers will need a bigger effort out of Orr against Connecticut. The Huskies have allowed only 9 sacks in 10 games. Orr is averaging 8 tackles, 2 TFLs, one sack, and one QB hurry per game. He will need to better that output at Rentschler Field while also being generally disruptive. If Rutgers is to pressure Orlovsky, Orr must have a dominating performance. Raheem must wreak havoc off the edge in the Husky backfield. Orr will be matched up against RS So RT Grant Preston. Orr must manhandle Preston on the pass rush – beating him upfield or bulling inside him. Orr must flush Orlovsky from the pocket and force him to throw on the move. Orr must pressure Orlovsky into mistakes. Orr must record at least one sack of Orlovsky and a few hurries. If Orlovsky is dodging Orr, the Husky QB won't be barbecuing the Rutgers secondary.
2. So TB Markis Facyson. Facyson and Pittman split backup TB duties behind Leonard against Temple. Facyson gained only 14 yards on 6 carries against an Owl defense stacked to stop the run. Pittman gained only 8 yards on 8 carries. Leonard had nearly twice as many carries (26) as the starting TB while also pulling FB duty. Schiano acknowledged this week that Leonard is showing signs of fatigue. Leonard is most effective as a pass catching FB or as the sole RB. Facyson outplayed Pittman against Temple so Markis will likely get the TB reps when Leonard is playing FB. Facyson is not the bruising inside runner that are either Hairston or Leonard. The smaller, faster Facyson is more suited to run outside than inside but matchups dictate that Facyson must be able to run between the tackles. If Facyson can run between the tackles, he will give Ver Steeg plenty of options. Leonard will be a more dangerous receiving threat as the lead blocking FB off of play action. Facyson will have opportunities to run outside since the defense will be forced to honor its inside responsibilities. And Facyson can motion outside as a 3WR, leaving Leonard as the single RB, thus setting up the lead draw and setting Facyson up against a LB in pass coverage. Facyson must gain 75 yards rushing. Facyson also must catch at least three passes for 40 yards.
3. So QB Ryan Hart. Hart's performance has improved sine the 2nd Half of the West Virginia game. Hart threw for 384 yards against Pittsburgh – 287 in the 2nd Half alone—and for 316 yards against Temple. In the process, Hart became the first QB in Rutgers history to throw for 300 yards in back-to-back. Something that Mike McMahon couldn't do in four years under pass happy Shea. Hart's execution of the Ver Steeg's passing game has progressed. Hart is throwing deep more often and more successfully and the results are loosening defenses underneath. A looser secondary has more holes and allows Hart to complete a higher percentage of his passes and allows his receivers to gain more yardage after the catch. Hart must not get caught up in his matchup with Orlovsky. The Husky QB is more talented and more experienced. Hart's objective isn't to throw for more yardage than Orlovsky. The goal is to efficiently operate the ball control offense and keep Orlovsky's ass on the sidelines, from where he can't score. Hart must make sound reads and good decisions. He must continue to throw downfield to stretch the Husky secondary. He must not force passes over the crowded middle of the Husky zone defense. Hart must find his RBs as safety valves in the flats. Hart must complete at least 60% of his passes, throw for at least 250 yards, and must not throw more than one INT.
4. Fr PR Willie Foster. Foster displaced Jr CB Eddie Grimes as the backup PR and then replaced Moses as the PR in the second half against Pittsburgh after Moses suffered a badly sprained ankle. On his first punt return, Foster gained 45 yards but and illegal block nullified the gain. Foster continued punt return duties against Temple and gained 46 yards on three returns. Connecticut's punt coverage is poor, yielding 12 yards per return. Foster may not get many chances to return punts if the Scarlet Knight defense can't stop the Husky offense. Therefore, Foster must capitalize upon every punt return opportunity he gets. Foster must average 20 yards per punt return.
5. Fr MLB DeVraun Thompson. Replacing departed MLB Gary Brackett has been a nagging problem all season. So Will Gilkison beat Sr MLB Brian Hohmann for the starting job but Gilkison has been unimpressive. After excellent play on special teams, Thompson displaced Hohmann as the backup MLB by Game #5. Thompson's presence on the field was often noticeable because he was often around the football. Much more noticeably than Gilkison. Thompson, though undersized and perhaps not the most gifted athlete, has a nose for the football, as did Brackett. West Virginia ran right down Rutgers throat on its opening possession as Gilkison was missing in action. Thompson shed a block, plugged a hole, and stuffed Mountaineer RB Quincy Wilson on his first play. Thompson is eighth on the team in tackles despite his late start as a backup. Thompson has displaced Gilkison as the starting MLB. Schiano claims it is because Gilkison is needed at WLB in the absence of So William Beckford and So Berkeley Hutchinson. I think that Thompson has won the starting MLB job from Gilkison. Schiano deserves credit for recognizing that Gilkison was struggling, realizing that Hohmann as a backup offered no backup plan for the future it Gilkison didn't pan out. Schiano also deserves credit for attempting to fix the problems – both short-term and long-term – at MLB.
Connecticut has averaged 178 rushing yards per game since Caulley was injured in Game #5. Two backup TBs – RS Jr Chris Bellamy and RS Fr Cornell Brockington – have each gained 100 yards in a game since Caulley was lost. Connecticut will not be one-dimensional. Therefore, the MLB – Thompson – will be a key component in the rushing defense. Thompson must record 10 tackles and 2 TFLs. He must also honor his pass coverage responsibilities, especially the Husky RBs in the flats. Thompson must have an outstanding game in his first career start.
Coming Next: West Virginia Post-Mortem. Belatedly, I've nearly completed my review of the West Virginia game. I'll take a look back at the West Virginia game to see how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys.
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