As the wind blew through the open end of Rutgers Stadium during last month's coming out party against Syracuse, the last vestiges remaining from the past were cleansed from the stadium dissipating into the wintry afternoon. After a couple of teasers against Connecticut and Boston College, everything came together and a glimpse of the future appeared on that wind swept field.

As the wind blew through the open end of Rutgers Stadium during last month's coming out party against Syracuse, the last vesti


By Art Stein

As the wind blew through the open end of Rutgers Stadium during last month's coming out party against Syracuse, the last vestiges remaining from the past were cleansed from the stadium dissipating into the wintry afternoon. After a couple of teasers against Connecticut and Boston College, everything came together and a glimpse of the future appeared on that wind swept field. And though you would have thought from reading the Syracuse newspapers and internet web-sites that the Orangeman lost in a highly contested down-to-the-wire nail-biter only decided by divine intervention, the truth is that the game stopped being competitive from the middle of the first quarter on. Still, at 5-7, many bemoan the Connecticut and Boston College games, shouting to the Gods how close we came to being "bowl eligible." However, that old axiom in football, that you are what your record is holds true for the 2003 Scarlet Knights which in reflection is not such a bad thing.

Looking back on the 2003 season, most fans will acknowledge that we ended up right where we thought we would, somewhere between 4 and 6 wins. Although clearly, the Connecticut and Boston College games were both winnable, the team for a number of reasons was not quite ready to make the necessary leap to seven victories. Still, many believe that we will be "bowling" next year and are content with the advice of that eminent supporter of Rutgers football William Dowling, who has been heard to say, "God's delays are not necessarily God's denials."

So what can we glean from this past season and what bodes for 2004?


As opposed to a season ago, we beat the teams we were supposed to beat. Buffalo, Army, Navy and Temple all represented games that were considered "must wins" prior to the beginning of the season. Equally important, all four wins were relatively convincing indicating that the continued efforts of recruiting, coaching and strength and conditioning were putting separation between RU and the schools it traditionally shared a home with at the bottom of the Division 1-A ratings.


Although there was talk during the first two years regarding the collective fat turned into muscle of the team, nothing can compensate for pure genetics. This year the combination of three years of recruiting classes began to pay dividends. Ron Green and John Glass helped bring the offensive line to the next level and although Brian Leonard and Justice Hairston are both superb runners, everything starts with the big guys up front. For the first time in years, we were getting consistent movement off the line of scrimmage. On the negative side, when our offensive line could not get movement off the line such as in the Boston College game, Brian Leonard looked like an ordinary runner. In the Syracuse game, the offensive line was knocking Syracuse's defensive lineman 3-4 yards off the line and by the fourth quarter, Brian Leonard was slicing through the line at will.

On the defensive side of the ball, added depth along the defensive line allowed the linemen to remain fresh throughout the game and more importantly overcome injuries as the season wore on. Overall sacks increased from 15 in 2002 to 27 in 2003 and opponents scored 124 points in the fourth quarter in 2002 while scoring only 79 points in the fourth quarter in 2003.  


Two years of successful recruiting has produced improved overall team speed that is evident on both sides of the ball. On offense, Marcus Facyson appeared at times to be shot through holes and served as a perfect complement to the running of Brian Leonard and Justice Hairston. Tres Moses, Shawn Tucker, Marcus Daniels and Jerry Andre continually stretched the defense with their big play ability and all of them showed a willingness to run crossing patterns without regard to life or limb. Despite some lapses in judgment, Tres Moses still averaged 11.4 yards per return with 1 TD. Although Willie Foster only returned 4 punts, he averaged 13.5 yards per return. On kick-offs, Nate Jones was, well, Nate Jones. Nineteen returns, averaging 25.7 yards with an 81-yard TD. On much more subtle levels, however, team speed had a lot to do with the ebb and flow of many games last season. For example, in the past, against our defense, a back or receiver would consistently turn an 8-10 yard gain into a 40-yard touchdown. This season, countless times, a back would start to turn the corner or break through the first wave of defenders only to be dragged down from behind for either no gain or a small 2-3 yard gain. Receivers would catch slant patterns that in the past would mean an automatic six, to be dragged down out of nowhere. Now some of this was schemes and positioning, but mostly it was pure speed and recovery time. Everywhere on the team there is now speed, at the wideouts, on special teams, at running back, all across the defense. Big, strong and fast allows you to compete on the playing field with anybody.  


The team went from 107 penalties for 810 yards in 2002 down to 82 penalties for 641 yards in 2003. In addition, the team lost five less fumbles from 2003 to 2002. Team discipline was apparent in all aspects of the 2003 Scarlet Knights and a lot of this can be directly attributable to game preparation and coaching. However, the fruits of labor yielded in 2003 were planted two years ago through a strict program of academic and athletic regimentation. Weight training, film study, practice are all important, but probably the single greatest accomplishment of this coaching staff next to recruiting, is the fact that the team has yet to suffer a single academic casualty. Contrary to what the Rutgers 1000 believe, most supporters of Rutgers football understand that just a few players each year will play in the NFL and as Rutgers alumni, we all want to see our student athletes graduate and have a future away from football.         


The old saying, that numbers don't lie tell you everything you need to know about the 2003 Scarlet Knights offense:

-------------------------------------------------------2002                            2003

Total Points Scored             -----------------167                              329

Average Points Per Game                     -13.9                             27.4

First Downs                                          ----168                              237

Total Rushing Yardage              ------------620                              1,666

Total Passing Yardage              -----------1,948                           2,757

Third Down Conversion (%)                 --29%                             42%

A number of factors came together in 2003 that turned the 2003 Scarlet Knight offense into an equal partner with its defensive partners. No longer did the defense run off the field screaming to the offense; "Just hold them till we get back." First and foremost, Craig Ver Steeg developed an offense that played to the strength of its players. It took advantage of a developing offensive line and running game and equally important didn't require Ryan Hart to always make the big play. The offense relied on a balanced running and short passing game with the occasional deep passes to keep the defense honest. The increase in first downs and third down conversions kept the defense off the field longer and not withstanding victories, kept us in the games we lost.        



Ryan Hart in his first full season as the Scarlet Knights QB set single season records for both attempts and completions. Hart threw for 15 touchdowns and 2,714 yards (also a school record). Hart's continued grasp of the offense improved as he completed 59% of his passes. However, compared to 15 touchdowns were 19 interceptions. The good news is that Hart was just a sophomore playing in his first full season. Overall, his performance was extremely promising. Experience will result in more balls being thrown away and less balls thrown into double coverage.     


As a work in progress, there were still a few head scratches in 2003. The last two minutes of the first half of the West Virginia game defied anything I have ever seen on a football field, oops, I forgot I am also a New York Giants fan. I will never understand why we didn't mix up the running game with more passing against Boston College. This was a team that was literally begging for a stake to be driven through its heart. I also question going for field goals of 40+ yards on 4th and short yardage situations, given our performance in that area (2 out of 10). Moving into 2004, there needs to be improvement in the defensive backfield, where a DB looking back at the ball was a rare occurrence in 2003 and the tight ends while very talented and productive, too often disappeared for large periods of games.           


The strength of this program, recruiting, offers every indication of producing a banner crop in 2004. The continued maturing of the freshman and sophomores coupled with the infusion of red shirt freshmen will produce dividends on the field in 2004. The linebackers while young and of superior talent must translate that talent into the overall efficiency of the 2002 unit. The feeling here is that Joe Radigan despite his inconsistency will eventually make people forget about Mike Barr. It remains to be seen whether there is a kicker on the roster who can hit field goals in the 40-45 yard range and hit kick-offs into the end zone. Nate Jones, Marty Pyszczymuka and Raheem Orr served as exceptional role models and leaders to the team. This void will have to be filled in 2004. The coaching which made significant improvement from 2002 will continue to learn from its mistakes and improve in 2004. The weaker schedule should produce between 7 and 9 wins and a trip to a bowl game. 

Art Stein
Mike and the Big Dog LLC

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