KEYS TO THE SYRACUSE GAME
Some could argue that the Rutgers and Syracuse football programs are headed in opposite directions. In the third year under Head Coach Greg Schiano, Rutgers is on the verge of turning the corner to respectability. Rutgers has passed Temple and is no longer the Big East cellar dweller (although the Big East will evict Temple from the cellar after the 2004 season). Heartbreaking losses to Connecticut and Boston College have kept Rutgers from turning the corner this season. However, Rutgers is poised to continue its advance next season. On the other hand, Syracuse is on the verge of mediocrity for the fourth time in the last five seasons under Head Coach Paul Pasqualoni. Once the standard bearer of the Big East, Syracuse has been passed not only by Virginia Tech but also by Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Syracuse, whose success will be crucial to the survival of the reconstituted Big East, has become a middling program. A loss to improved Rutgers puts Syracuse at risk of a losing season. And puts Pasqualoni's job security in grave danger. However, a downtrodden Syracuse program beat Rutgers last year in the Carrier Dome 45-14 in a game that wasn't even that close.
Rutgers seized a 7-0 lead in the opening minutes by a circuitous strategy. Syracuse recovered a fumble by QB Ryan Cubit on the RU20 and quickly drove to the RU01 before stalling. Pasqualoni eschewed a 4th down attempt in favor of an 18-yd FGA, which CB Nate Jones blocked and CB Brandon Haw returned 90 yards for a TD. Syracuse returned the ensuing kickoff to the SU40 and drove 37 yards before PK Collin Barber missed a 40-yard FGA. Then Rutgers' luck ran out. Rutgers went 3-n-out and Orangemen QB Troy Nunes threw a 5-yard TD pass to TB Damien Rhodes on a flare route to cap a 10-play, 57-yard drive to tie the game. Cubit again fumbled deep in Rutgers territory on a sack by DE Josh Thomas and Nunes tossed a 30-yard TD pass to WR Jamel Riddle on a 3rd-n-12 corner route. Backup QB Ted Trump replaced an injured Cubit at the end of the 1st Quarter and promptly drove Rutgers 68 yards in 17 plays but a holding penalty killed the drive and PK Ryan Sands missed a 39-yard FGA. TB Walter Reyes broke a 79-yard TD run on the next play to open a 21-7 Syracuse lead. Trump engineered a 12-play drive that stalled just outside of FG range. The teams traded 3-n-outs to close the half.
The 2nd Half was an offensive meltdown. Rutgers forced a Syracuse punt. Then, the TO spree began. WR Josh Hobbs fumbled at midfield after a 25-yard gain. The Scarlet Knight defense forced Syracuse 3-n-out but Trump fumbled at the RU26 on a sack by WLB Rich Scanlon. The Rutgers defense again held Syracuse to a 33-yard FG by Barber. Jones returned the kickoff 100 yards for a TD and narrowed the lead 24-14 in a game that Rutgers had no business being in but for the effort of its special teams. The Rutgers defense forced another Syracuse punt that pinned Rutgers at the RU8. The Scarlet Knights wasted a 40-yard run by TB Markis Facyson and Syracuse and blocked the Scarlet Knights' punt for a TD. Trump threw an INT at the RU26 that was returned to the RU02, from where Reyes scored on the next play to extend the lead to 38-14. Schiano replaced Trump with QB Ryan Hart, burning his redshirt but Rutgers went 3-n-out on each of its final four possessions under Hart. Syracuse closed the scoring with a 7-play, 57-yard TD drive capped with a 5-yard run by Rhodes.
Syracuse has struggled outside the cozy confines of the Carrier Dome. The Orangemen are 1-3 on the road this season, with only a double OT win at 2-10 North Carolina. However, that record is deceiving because Syracuse was expected to lose at Virginia Tech, at Pittsburgh, and at Miami. Nonetheless, the road struggles have been chronic. Syracuse won only one of six road games in 2002, losing at Brigham Young, Auburn, Temple, West Virginia, and Boston College. Syracuse lost at Rutgers 24-21 in OT in 1999. Syracuse escaped Rutgers Stadium with a 24-17 win in 2001 after Rutgers missed three FGA inside 40 yards (and a fourth of 46-yards) and an XPA. Syracuse is only 2-4 in the Big East. Rutgers has shown that it can compete with teams in the Big East. Not just in the middle of the standings but at the top, too. Rutgers has closed the talent gap with its peers in the Big East but has proven to be its own worse enemy in losses to West Virginia, Connecticut, and Boston College. I expect another close game in Piscataway. A game that Rutgers can win if it doesn't self-destruct. Here are my five keys to the last chance for respectability this season.
1. Turnovers. Rutgers is matched very evenly with Syracuse both offensively and defensively. In such a game, the TO battle can be decisive. Rutgers' turnover margin this season is minus seven after the Scarlet Knights committed three TOs against Miami. Rutgers has thrown 18 INTs and lost 10 fumbles while the Scarlet Knight defense has intercepted 9 passes and recovered 12 fumbles. Syracuse has a positive TO margin at +8, which is second best in the Big East. While Rutgers doesn't need to win the TO battle, it cannot afford to lose the battle either. Rutgers must finish even in TO margin against Syracuse to force Syracuse to play on a level field with an offense, excluding Temple, that is the least prolific Rutgers will face in conference play. The Orangemen average barely one TO per game. Since the Orangemen don't commit a lot of TOs, Rutgers cannot afford to commit more than one TO.
2. Rush Defense. The Syracuse rush offense is ranked #21 nationally at 199 yards allowed per game while the pass offense is gaining only 179 yards per game (#89 nationally). While not entirely one dimensional, Syracuse relies very heavily upon its rushing offense, running on at least 63% of the plays from scrimmage. The Orangemen have an experienced OLine that played well last year as an inexperienced unit in a one-dimensional offense. The offense is slightly more versatile this year and the OLine has matured. A broken foot has sidelined promising backup TB Damien Rhodes since Game 5, costing Syracuse its depth at tailback. Starting TB RS Jr Walter Reyes has carried the Syracuse ground game, averaging 112 yards per game. But Reyes suffered a bruised knee in the first half against West Virginia. Though expected to play, Reyes may not be 100%.
Syracuse ran for 289 yards against Rutgers last year and 354 yards in 2001. If the Scarlet Knight defense is going to control the Syracuse offense, Rutgers must limit the Orangemen rushing offense. The Scarlet Knight DLine must control the line of scrimmage and occupy the Orange OLine, allowing the LBs to flow freely to the ballcarrier and make tackles. Schiano must commit his defense to stopping the Syracuse ground attack. If the Orangemen can run on Rutgers, they likely will win. Rutgers must limit Syracuse to 175 yards rushing.
3. Minimize Big Plays Allowed. The Rutgers defense is ranked #81 nationally in total yardage at 396 yards allowed per game while the scoring defense is ranked #91 at 32 points per game. The disproportionately lower ranking of the Scarlet Knight scoring defense partially reflects the propensity of the Rutgers to yield big plays. The Scarlet Knight defense has repeatedly been burned for big plays – eleven TD passes and eight TD runs of at least 20 yards. Rutgers has yielded at least 20 yards on 38 additional pass plays (12 runs and 26 passes).
If the Scarlet Knight defensive front seven cannot stop the Orange rush offense, Schiano must resist the urge to commit So WS Jason Nugent as an eight man on the line of scrimmage. Rather, Schiano must deploy both safeties in a shallow Cover 2 scheme to provide run support without compromising the second line of defense. If Schiano employs an eight-man front with only a single deep safety playing centerfield, Syracuse is much more likely to break a long run if a back breaks through the line of scrimmage because the one deep safety must cover a lot of real estate. The Scarlet Knights must not allow any more than one long run but not a home run TD run.
Schiano must force Syracuse to beat Rutgers with the passing of RS Sr QB RJ Anderson. Anderson has improved his accuracy (62% completion rate) and TD-to-INT ratio (10:4) this season, which is a primary reason that Syracuse has improved upon last season's dismal offensive performance. Although Anderson primarily throws short to move the chains, he will occasionally throw the deep ball to keep the defense honest. Sr WR Johnnie Morant is Syracuse' big play receiver, averaging five catches per game and 18 yards per catch. Whether in zone or man-to-man coverage, the Rutgers secondary has been especially vulnerable to big plays. Rutgers must not allow Morant to beat them. The deep safeties must always be aware of Morant's presence and must not allow Morant to get behind them. Morant must not catch more than one long pass and no home run TD catches.
4. Vertical Passing. The weakness of the Syracuse defense is its pass coverage. Pasqualoni had to replace two starting LBs and two starting DBs with former reserves who lacked significant experience. RS Sr MLB Rich Scanlon, RS Jr SS Diamond Ferri, and So FS Anthony Smith are the top three tacklers for Pasqualoni. The strength of the Rutgers offense is its passing game. Rutgers will have to compensate for a relatively weaker running game with a stronger passing game, which has been 60 yards per game better than that of Syracuse. Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg must attack the middle of the Orangemen defense to punish Scanlon, Ferri, and Smith for over-aggressive run support. Ver Steeg must call enough deep passes off play action to push the Orange safeties back and force them to honor the deep pass. Fade and corner routes to the WRs when the safeties are line up deep (12 yards) and post routes to the WRs when the safeties are cheating up. Also, the TEs have been missing from the offense since midseason, after a flurry of INTs off passes intended for the TEs. Ver Steeg must run his TEs vertically on seam and post routes to force the LBs into deeper drops and the safeties to cover the middle of the field. Rutgers must throw deep at least twice a quarter and must complete at least three deep balls for at least 75 yards.
5. 3rd Down Defense. Syracuse ranks last in the Big East in first downs converted. If the Scarlet Knights can avoid yielding big plays and TOs, the Orangemen will be forced to drive the length of the field to score. The methodical nature of the Syracuse offense will frequently put them into 3rd down situations. The Orangemen convert 36% of their 3rd down situations. Rutgers allows 3rd down conversions at a frequency of 34%. The Scarlet Knight defense must get off the field when it faces 3rd down situations. The 3-2 Cover 2 dime is Rutgers standard 3rd down defense in obvious passing situations. The dime must stop running plays and must tackle the receivers short of the sticks. Reyes is a favorite target for Anderson out of the backfield. Scarlet Knight LBs/safeties must find Reyes in the flats and make the open field tackles. Rutgers must also identify and defuse screen passes to Reyes. Rutgers must limit Syracuse to fewer than 33% conversions on 3rd down. An effective 3rd down defense will limit Syracuse's time of possession, will rest the defense, and will limit the damage that the Orange ground attack can inflict.
1. So TB Markis Facyson. Since Fr TB Justise Hairston suffered a hyper-extended knee against Pittsburgh in Game 7, versatile RS Fr FB Brian Leonard has replaced Hairston as the starting TB. However, the use of Leonard at TB has cost Ver Steeg a valuable weapon at FB. Neither backup FB Jr Cedric Brown or RS So Ishmael Medley is the receiving threat that Leonard is out of the backfield. While Leonard has 47 receptions, Medley has two and Brown none. Furthermore, while Leonard is a shifty runner with a knack for making the first tackler miss as well as the strength to break tackles and move the pile, he lacks the breakaway speed to pop big gains. As a backup, Facyson has seen limited carries behind Hairston and Leonard but has emerged as the change-of-pace TB behind Leonard after Hairston was injured.
Facyson has gained 166 yards on 33 carries this season. Most of those carries (29) have occurred since Game 7. Facyson had a strong showing alongside Leonard against Connecticut, gaining 43 yards on 9 carries. In limited carries against Boston College, Facyson had a better yard per carry average than did Leonard (4.0 yards per carry versus 3.1 yards per carry). Facyson was the leading rusher against Miami, gaining 72 yards on only 9 carries. Facyson is not the bruising inside runner that is either Hairston or Leonard. The smaller, faster Facyson is more suited to run outside than inside and will stretch the Syracuse rush defense horizontally to cover the corners. Facyson must more evenly split the carries with Leonard. This will allow Ver Steeg to team Leonard and Facyson together on the field and will restore the FB as a viable weapon in the offense. Facyson must gain 75 yards rushing and must catch at least three passes for 40 yards.
2. So QB Ryan Hart. Hart's performance has been the barometer for the Rutgers offense all season. When Hart has played well, Rutgers' offense has run smoothly and effectively. When Hart has struggled, the offense has sputtered to a standstill. Hart must perform exceptionally against Syracuse because the passing game will be the key to the Rutgers offense. Hart must not throw more than one INT. And it can't occur in either red zone. Hart must complete at least 60% of his passes. He must throw for at least 275 yards. Hart must spread the ball around among all his receivers – WRs, TEs, and RBs. He must make sound reads and good decisions. He must throw accurately downfield to stretch the Orange secondary. Hart must throw deep at least twice a quarter and must complete at least 3 for at least 75 yards. He must not force passes over the middle of the Orange defense. Or into tight situations. Hart must find his RBs as safety valves when the pocket begins to collapse instead of scrambling into bad sacks or poor throws.
3. Fr MLB DeVraun Thompson. Thompson started the season on special teams and made his first appearance at backup LB against Virginia Tech in Game 5. By Game 9 against Connecticut, Thompson had worked his way into the starting lineup.
Despite his limited playing time this season, Thompson is fifth on the team with 50 tackles. Thompson lead the team in tackles against Connecticut but struggled against Boston College. However, he bounced back with a strong performance against Miami. Syracuse will try to control the game with their power running game. Syracuse will run inside or outside. And when they aren't handing to Reyes, Anderson will throw to him. The Scarlet Knight LB corps will have a busy day. The Rutgers LBs must play well at the point of attack to limit the Orange 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. Syracuse is used to running roughshod over the Scarlet Knight defense. That must stop for Rutgers to win. And those stops will begin with Thompson in the middle. Thompson needs a 10-tackle effort. Plus a few TFLs. A forced fumble or INT would be terrific.
4. RS So WLB Brad Cunningham. So WLB Will Gilkison had a poor game against Connecticut after switching from MLB. I identified Cunningham as one of my key players the following week against Boston College. My conclusions were based upon the performances from Cunningham as a true freshman in 2001 when he brought playmaking to the Rutgers LB corps. Playmaking that has been noticeably absent from Gilkison. Unfortunately, Schiano did not share that perspective and Gilkison again started at WLB while Cunningham didn't play. Gilkison had another poor game and suddenly Cunningham saw action early at Miami the following week. Though still backing up Gilkison, Cunningham recorded five tackles to two for Gilkison. Thompson displaced Gilkison as the starting MLB after outperforming Gilkison as the backup for several weeks. The same situation quite possibly has occurred at WLB with Cunningham. Cunningham can make plays. He made plays as a true freshman playing through a variety of injuries. Cunningham has played well as a backup. Cunningham must continue to see increased playing time at Gilkison's expense. Schiano must reinforce the message to his players that production matters. Cunningham needs an 8-tackle game with a few TFLs. He must plug holes inside and contain runs outside.
5. RS Jr PK Ryan Sands. Sands is among the leading Big East PKs with a 61% conversion rate on FGAs. However, statistics can be deceiving. The Rutgers offense has frequently stalled inside the red zone and given Sands chip shot opportunities to score. Sands has made 11 of 18 FGAs this season. Twelve of those FGAs have been less than 40 yards. Sands has made all five attempts inside 30 yards but has made only four of seven attempts between 30 and 39 yards. Furthermore, Sands has only made two of six FGA from beyond 40 yards. Two of his 40+ misses have failed to reach the goal posts. Two missed FGAs cost Rutgers dearly against Boston College. Placekicking will be crucial against Syracuse because I expect a close game. Rutgers will need to capitalize on every scoring opportunity it gets. Sands must make every FGA under 40 yards. And he needs to make a long range FG if given the opportunity. Rutgers can not afford to leave points on the field.
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