KEYS TO THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Rutgers has not beaten Boston College in 12 years. The physical decay of the Rutgers football team under former Head Coach Terry Shea – and the subsequent efforts of current Head Coach Greg Schiano to reverse that deterioration – has compromised Rutgers against Boston College, which has traditionally been known as a power football team. Big, strong RBs run behind big, strong OLines. Big, strong DLines control opposing running games. Boston College has manhandled a physically weaker Rutgers team for the past seven years. While the Eagles' ball control offense does not lend itself to huge blowouts, Boston College nonetheless has beaten Rutgers decisively. Boston College overpowered a demoralized Rutgers team with a divided coaching staff 44-14 in the finale last season. The Rutgers offense was the worst in Division IA, as Schiano and former Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit could not co-exist, especially in regards to the QB position where rumors of nepotism engulfed Cubit's handling of three QBs, one of whom was his son Ryan Cubit. Meanwhile, the Rutgers defense was worn down from a season of overwork and wasted efforts.
Boston College drove 54 yards on the opening possession and Eagle PK Sandro Sciortino kicked a 28-yard FG. The Eagle defense forced a Rutgers punt and the teams then exchanged three 3-n-outs. Following a shanked Eagle punt, WR Corey Barnes threw a 36-yard TD pass to WR Shawn Tucker on a reverse pass. CB Brandon Haw blunted the next Eagle drive with an INT of Eagle QB Brian St. Pierre at the RU06. However, Hart returned the favor with an INT at midfield. Three plays later, Boston College took the lead for good, at 10-7, on a 6-yard TD run by TB Brandon Brokaw. P Mike Barr pinned Boston College at the BC01 to open the 2nd Quarter and CB Nate Jones intercepted St. Pierre at the BC14. However, Rutgers could not punch it in and PK Ryan Sands missed a 23-yard FGA. WLB Brian Bender recorded the third INT of St. Pierre at the BC49 but Sands missed another FGA, this time from 41 yards. Boston College went 3-n-out but Hart threw his second INT near midfield. Three plays later, TB Derrick Knight scored a 52-yard TD off a flare pass. The teams exchanged 3-n-outs before Boston College forced another Rutgers punt. However, the punt snap sailed over Barr's head and Sciortino kicked a 37-yard FG on the final play of the 1st Half to give Boston College a commanding 20-7 lead.
Eagle DT Tim Bulman sacked Hart on the opening possession of the 2nd Half, forcing a fumble that Boston College recovered at the RU19. Four plays later, Knight scored on a 3-yard TD run. Rutgers went 3-n-out and Sciortino kicked a 23-yard FGA to cap a 71-yard drive to extend the Eagle lead to 30-7. Rutgers again went 3-n-out and Boston College drove 51 yards in 5 plays, scoring on a 35-yard TD pass to WR Grant Adams. Rutgers reached midfield on its next possession but Eagle DE Mathias Kiwanuka stripped Barnes on a reverse and returned the fumble 49 yards for a TD. Rutgers drove 54 yards in 15 plays and scored on a 2-yard TD run by TB Jason Nugent to close out the scoring. Boston College drove 72 yards but Eagle Head Coach Tom O'Brien shunned a FG and turned the ball over on downs in the final two minutes.
Boston College is in a rebuilding year. Heavy losses off the OLine and inexperience at QB were expected to force O'Brien into a more conservative offensive posture. Departures at MLB and safety left the Eagle defense vulnerable up the middle. However, moves off the field by the Boston College administration have overshadowed the performance of the football team on the field. In mid-April, reports first emerged that the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) was courting Miami, Boston College, and Syracuse to leave the Big East for Tobacco Road. As the saga unfolded, an eager Boston College was pushing a reluctant Syracuse into a bad move for both schools. Boston College was spared from self-mutilation by a political power play orchestrated by Virginia Tech that eventually resulted in only Miami and unlikely (yet intuitively obvious) Virginia Tech leaving for southern pastures. Though essential to the restoration of the Big East, Boston College was nonetheless viewed as a pariah by the other surviving Big East members.
Once the season started, rumors again emerged that the ACC was still courting Boston College. This time, the deal was quickly struck and the ACC offered – and Boston College accepted – an invitation to join the southern league. Since that announcement, Boston College has faced three of the programs it twice betrayed. Syracuse bludgeoned the Eagles in the Carrier Dome while Pittsburgh and West Virginia got their licks in at Chestnut Hill. Boston College finishes the Treason Tour with a visit to Piscataway. Already struggling through a rebuilding season, the Eagles have painted a giant bulls eye on themselves. In games with Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh, Rutgers has demonstrated that it has narrowed the talent chasm that once separated the Scarlet Knights from the middle of the conference. Can a hostile home crowd rattle a demoralized Boston College team and enable Rutgers to rectally deliver a goodbye gift to the wannabe Confederates? Here are my five keys to the biggest opportunity of the season.
1. Trench Warfare. Boston College's offense and defense are both predicated upon controlling the line of scrimmage. The offense relies upon a power running game and ball control. The defense is designed to limit the opposing running game, deploying two-deep zone coverage by the safeties and zone coverage underneath by the CBs and LBs to keep the passing game in front of them. O'Brien counts on being able to muster more sustained drives than his opponent and wearing down the opposing defense in the 2nd Half. The play of the OLines and DLines will be the single most determining factor in the game. The Eagle rushing offense is about 40 yards per game better than that of Rutgers. The Eagle rush defense is likewise about 40 yards better. Rutgers must close that 80-yard gap on the field. If Boston College outrushes Rutgers by 80 yards, then either Rutgers offense isn't balanced or the Eagle ground attack is dominating the game. Boston College has not seen a Rutgers team that will stand up to them in the trenches, much less bust them in the mouth. Whether through a stellar rushing attack, a stingy rush defense, or a good blend of both, Rutgers must keep the rushing yardage margin under 40 yards.
As he did against Temple, Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg must stick with the running game even if it is struggling. If Rutgers can average at least 2 yards per carry on its power running plays – the Power G, isolation plays, and runs off tackle – the Boston College defense will still have to honor their run defense assignments and won't be able to tee off on Hart without reservations. A viable, if not dominating, power running game will set up the play action passing game, which will mitigate a struggling running game.
2. Deep Passing. Rutgers has a better passing game than does Boston College. Rutgers will have to compensate for a relatively weaker running game with a stronger passing game, which has been 30 yards per game better than that of Boston College. Eagle Defensive Coordinator Frank Spaziani employs a Cover 2 (two deep safeties) zone under (CBs and LBs in zone coverage underneath) package almost exclusively in his base defense. Spaziani's defense is designed to bend but not break. The Eagles deny the deep pass and force the opponent to work its way downfield patiently and methodically. Ver Steeg's offense is perfectly conceived to attack a bend but don't break defense. Rutgers' short passing game has complimented a vastly improved running game to enable the Scarlet Knights to sustain long, time-consuming drives. However, Rutgers has struggled with INTs into zone defenses.
The surest way to create gaps in a zone defense is to stretch it vertically. Rutgers will not be able to throw deep at will against the Eagle Cover 2 defense. But the Scarlet Knights must throw deep often enough to push the Eagle safeties back and force the underneath defenders to cover deeper zones. The most effective way to throw deep on a Cover 2 scheme is to target the deep gaps in the middle and along the sidelines. Ver Steeg must send his TEs up the middle on seam and post routes. And his WRs on fade, corner, and skinny post routes. Rutgers must throw deep at least twice a quarter and must complete at least three deep balls for at least 75 yards.
3. TO Margin. Rutgers' turnover margin this season is negative after the Scarlet Knights committed five TOs against Connecticut. Rutgers has thrown 15 INTs and lost 10 fumbles while the Scarlet Knight defense has intercepted 9 passes and recovered 11 fumbles. Rutgers is averaging nearly 3 TOs per game and has committed 18 TOs in its five losses – 12 INTs and 6 fumbles. INTs were the primary problem until the last three games, when Rutgers committed eight fumbles after coughing up the football only twice in the first six games. Boston College has a positive TO margin at +2 despite committing four TOs against West Virginia last week. A conservative ball control offense cannot afford excessive TOs and the Eagles generally don't, averaging less than two per game.
Rutgers must finish +2 in TO margin against Boston College to even the playing field with an Eagle team that is still slightly superior physically. Since the Eagles don't commit a lot of TOs, which means Rutgers cannot commit any TOs. That's a tall order for a team averaging nearly 3 per game. Furthermore, the defense will have to make some big plays. Since the Rutgers CBs do not look back for incoming passes, those TOs must be forced elsewhere. The defense will have to force a fumbles and pounce on the ball once it is on the ground. The Scarlet Knight defense has forced quite a few fumbles this year on TFLs. Such a play is needed against Knight. If the defense can pressure former backup QB JUCO Jr Paul Peterson – starting his first game this week – into some bad throws, the safeties or LBs can get a pick. A blocked punt could be another source of a momentum changing TO.
4. Home Field Advantage. Rutgers has recorded few sellouts since Rutgers Stadium was rebuilt in 1992. The Texas game in 1999 was close. The Notre Dame game in 2000 was sold out. However, the crowds dwindled during the first two years of Schiano's regime because the product was terrible. However, improved performance in Year 3 has renewed interest in Rutgers football and attendance has improved. Over the years, glimpses into the potential home field advantage have been seen. But only glimpses. Now is the time to finally establish a home field advantage translates onto the field. The loss to Connecticut was a blow to Rutgers' bowl hopes but Rutgers' most direct path to a bowl bid lies through its fellow Big East members.
Boston College received a rude welcome in the Carrier Dome after announcing their planned defection. Pittsburgh and West Virginia fans were denied a proper sendoff. At least this year. That burden now falls to Rutgers. The Eagles have been somewhat shaken by the animosity directed towards them by those that they betrayed. A 2-2 record in October, with two crucial losses at home, has put Boston College in jeopardy of spending the holidays in Chestnut Hill. With only a season finale at Virginia Tech otherwise awaiting, this is an elimination game for Boston College as well as Rutgers. Having pushed around Rutgers like patsies for years, Boston College likely will be caught off guard by the new, more physical Rutgers. Enthusiastic support from the home crowd can add to the surprise and might enable Rutgers to jump out to an early lead. Man for man, Boston College is still better and more experienced. The Rutgers crowd must provide the intangible that will enable the Scarlet Knights to play above themselves and take the game to Boston College. If Rutgers can get Boston College down, the crowd must help keep the Eagles down. The Rutgers fans must be a vocal, effective, and intimidating 12th man.
5. Lead Draw. Rutgers will struggle to run inside against Boston College. The Eagles are allowing only 122 rushing yards per game. Syracuse's Walter Reyes gained only 55 yards. Notre Dame's Julius Jones gained only 40 yards. West Virginia's Quincy Wilson gained only 75 yards. These three backs each rely upon a power running game to earn their yardage. And the Eagle defense shut them down. Rutgers will similarly struggle to run inside on Boston College. Ver Steeg must keep pounding at Boston College to preserve the effectiveness of play action passing. Rutgers will need to throw well to beat Boston College. Stubborn running will set up play action passing. And effective passing, in turn, will create opportunities to run against the tough Eagle defense. As such, the lead draw will be the key to the Rutgers running game.
The lead draw is another staple in the Rutgers rushing offense. The lead draw is typically executed from a one back set -- 2TEs, 3WR, or 4WR. The OTs release as if to pass block and seal the DEs outside. The OGs block down on the DTs, pushing them inside and creating a big opening in the guard-tackle gap. The center blocks the MLB and the TEs/WRs block the OLBs. The RB takes a delayed handoff and picks his hole.
The lead draw has been especially effective in long yardage situations – especially on 2nd down – when the defense is expecting a pass. With a big RB like Leonard, the lead draw is a good downhill running play. If sold, the lead draw gives Leonard a big hole through which to burst and Leonard is not easily arm-tackled. With Fr TB Justise Hairston still nursing a hyper-extended knee, Ver Steeg may occasionally use Fr TB Markis Facyson in one back sets. Facyson could be equally explosive in the lead draw. Rutgers must run the lead draw at least 10 times and must gain at least 60 yards.
1. Fr MLB DeVraun Thompson. Thompson made his first career start against Connecticut and recorded a team-leading 7 tackles. Thomson was often at the bottom of the pile but struggled in pass coverage, especially against play-action. Connecticut threw effectively to its RBs in the flats and its TEs over the middle. Areas and players for which the MLB is often responsible for defending. Boston College likely will provide a much greater run stopping challenge than did the pass-oriented Huskies. Boston College will run for 60 minutes if they can. Inside or outside. Right or left. And when they aren't handing to the TB, the Eagles throw to them. Or to the TEs. Both positions are key components of the Eagle's short, ball control passing game.
The Scarlet Knight LB corps will have a busy day. The Rutgers LBs must play well at the point of attack to limit the Eagle offense, especially the running game. That performance must start in the middle with Thompson. He must find the ball, shed the block, and make the tackle. Boston College is used to pounding on Rutgers LBs. Thompson must hit back. Thompson needs a 10-tackle effort. Plus a few TFLs. A forced fumble or INT would be terrific. If Rutgers will stop Boston College from pushing around the Scarlet Knights, Thompson will be essential in making that statement.
2. So QB Ryan Hart. Hart's performance has been both Jekyll and Hyde this season. Often in the same game. The cost of doing business with a young QB learning on the job. Hart has executed Ver Steeg's west coast offense efficiently, completing 59% of his passes and enabling the Scarlet Knights to convert drive-sustaining first downs. Hart has also been mistake prone, with a 12:15 TD-to-INT ratio. He is on pace to break Rutgers' single season passing yardage record – and INT record as well.
The passing game must carry the Rutgers offense against Boston College. Therefore, must Hart must play well for Rutgers to beat the Eagles. He must make sound reads and good decisions. He must throw accurately downfield to stretch the Eagle secondary. He must not force passes over the crowded middle of the Eagle zone defense. Or into tight situations. 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 any INTs.
3. RS Fr FB Brian Leonard. Leonard has shined in the absence of the injured Hairston. Leonard powered Rutgers' comeback bid against Pittsburgh with four TDs and 79 yards rushing. He scored three TDs and gained 152 yards of total offense against Temple. He overpowered Connecticut with 217 yards of total offense and two TDs. He has added "workhorse" to the impressive collection of descriptive labels that he has earned. Leonard is going to have to tote the mail again this week. Boston College has a physical run defense, having throttled the best RBs in the Big East. Finesse won't carry the day against the Eagles. Power running is the order of the day. Therefore, Leonard should see more action at TB or RB (one-back) than at FB. He must get at least 25 carries and must gain at least 100 yards. While not likely to wear down the Eagle defense, Leonard must gain their respect and attention to allow Hart to operate the passing attack. Leonard will be less of a receiving threat as the TB than he typically is at FB. However, Hart can throw to Leonard on screen passes and safety valve flare routes. Leonard must catch at least four passes for at least 30 yards receiving.
4. RS So WLB Brad Cunningham. As a true freshman, Cunningham started four games at WLB and immediately demonstrated that Schiano was recruiting a better breed of athlete. A neck injury suffered against Navy in 2001 shook Cunningham and he quit the program that summer, citing lost enthusiasm for the game. Cunningham rejoined the program in Spring 2003 and returned to WLB after a brief audition at FB. Cunningham earned the backup job behind So William Beckford but has seen former backup SLB So Berkeley Hutchinson and former starting MLB So Will Gilkison start ahead of him at WLB in place of the injured Beckford. Gilkison replaced the injured Hutchinson against Connecticut and was the weak link in the defense. Connecticut, which generally struggled with its running game, found yardage on counters to the weak side at Gilkison. Too often, Husky TBs broke outside containment for nice gains as Gilkison was missing at the point of attack. Gilkison reads plays poorly, gets caught out of position too frequently, and can't get off blocks.
Cunningham can make plays. He made plays as a true freshman playing through a variety of injuries. Cunningham has played well as a backup. It is time for Cunningham to see more action at the position to which he brings the best combination of experience and talent. Boston College has seen the Connecticut tape and will run outside at Gilkison – counters, stretch plays, and off-tackle. Schiano needs a playmaker at WLB. That's Cunningham. Cunningham needs an 8-tackle game with a few TFLs. He must plug holes inside and contain runs outside. But he can't do that from the bench.
5. RS So PR Tres Moses. Moses played well at WR against Connecticut, converting several key first downs. However, Moses was awful at PR. Against a terrible Husky punt coverage team, Moses lost 4 yards on two returns. Furthermore, he allowed one punt to bounce 60 yards to the RU02 and muffed another bouncing punt at the RU06 in final minutes of a tie game. Moses must not press against Boston College to make restitution for last week. He won't get those mistakes back. He must make big plays but only when the opportunities present themselves.
Moses has a good 11-yard average per punt return, including one TD. However, his mistakes have outweighed his contributions on punt returns. Too many muffed punts and too many unfielded punts rolling for big gains. I thought Fr PR Willie Foster should have played against Connecticut but Schiano played the injured (sprained ankle) Moses instead. I expect Schiano to stick with Moses this week, for better or worse. Boston College's punt return team is allowing 13 yards per return. Rutgers is overmatched on the line of scrimmage against Boston College. The Scarlet Knights will need an edge in big plays to overcome that disadvantage. Two ball control offenses will minimize the number of possessions to about eight per team. Moses may only get four or five opportunities to return punts. He must exercise better judgment and better fundamentals when returning punts. First, Moses must field the punts and not let them bounce. Second, Moses must make the catch. Third, Moses must improve Rutgers field position with big returns. Moses must average 15 yards per punt return.
Moses will also be a valuable weapon against the Boston College zone coverage. Moses has a knack for finding holes in the zones and gaining crucial, if not prolific, yards after the catch. Moses will be valuable underneath on crossing and curl routes. He will also be crucial in stretching the Boston College zone vertically with fade, corner, and skinny post routes. Moses must catch at least 6 passes for at least 75 yards.
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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