KEYS TO THE NEW HAMPSHIRE GAME
Rutgers' 2004 schedule is ranked as one of the weakest schedules in Division IA. The presence of Division IAA New Hampshire on the schedule contributes in no small part to this perception. Many Rutgers fans were unhappy with the appearance of New Hampshire on the schedule. Who wants to see a Division IAA school? However, the scheduling of a game with New Hampshire was a matter of expediency, not design. New Hampshire is yet another reminder of the painful disintegration of the Big East last year. When Miami and Virginia Tech announced that they were leaving the Big East to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, scheduled league games with the Hurricanes and Hokies suddenly disappeared from the Rutgers schedule. The early addition of Connecticut to the Big East football roster did not mitigate the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech because Rutgers already had a non-conference game scheduled against Connecticut. Rutgers Athletic Director needed to find two non-conference opponents to plug the holes in his schedule. Not an easy task when one realizes that non-conference games are often scheduled years in advance. The result? Beggars can't be choosers. Mulcahy approached New Hampshire last summer about playing Rutgers. New Hampshire accepted the paycheck game in Piscataway.
Rutgers last played New Hampshire in 1939 at the one-year old Rutgers Stadium, recently constructed across the river from campus in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights beat the Wildcats 32-13 in the only encounter between the two schools. If you want the details the game, you'll have to ask one of our older alums. Rutgers last played a Division IAA program in the 2002 season opener – the Villanova Wildcats. Villanova resembled New Hampshire in many ways – an explosive multiple offense with a questionable defense. Year Two of the Greg Schiano Era got off to a rocky start as upstart Villanova thumped Rutgers 37-19 before a stunned crowd. Schiano had said the football program was likely to get worse before it got better. The Villanova game drove home that prediction with a rare Division IAA victory over a Division IA program. What happened?
Rutgers went backwards on the opening possession and Villanova drove 63 yards in six plays to seize a it would not relinquish. Rutgers stalled near midfield but recovered a punt that deflected off an unwitting Wildcat. Rutgers capitalized upon the gift to tie the game 7-7. After an exchange of punts, Villanova mounted a 69-yard TD drive spanning the 1st and 2nd Quarters. Villanova forced another Rutgers punt and drove 81 yards before settling for a 21-yard FG. Villanova intercepted a pass in Rutgers territory but the Scarlet Knight defense stopped the Wildcats on downs. Following yet another Rutgers punt, the Scarlet Knights intercepted a pass and returned the ball to midfield. With only 37 seconds remaining in the half, Rutgers scored in four plays but then botched the XPA. Though being thoroughly dominated in the first half, Rutgers trailed only 17-13 at halftime.
After exchanging punts to open the second half, Villanova quickly stormed 77 yards in five plays. Rutgers responded with its longest drive of the game – 13 plays and 57 yards – but stalled in the red zone and then gacked a 31-yard FGA. The Rutgers defense again intercepted a pass and returned the pick to the Villanova 15-yard line. Rutgers again converted the TO into a short-field TD. Inexplicably, Schiano tried a 2XPA, which failed. Following another exchange of punts, Rutgers pinned Villanova on their 10-yard line but Villanova was in the end zone 10 plays, 90 yards and six minutes. The long drive broke Rutgers' back. Villanova added a 41-yard TD in the closing minutes.
New Hampshire is a rising Division IAA program. New Hampshire won three of their final four games to close the 2003 season, including a convincing win over Division IAA Top 25 Maine. New Hampshire built upon that momentum with a season opening road win at defending Division IAA champion Delaware despite losing their veteran starting QB to a season-ending ACL injury. The Wildcats have an explosive offense but an extremely porous defense. As with most Division IAA programs, the Wildcats lack the size, strength, speed, and depth to compete with a Division IA opponent. Rutgers enters the New Hampshire game off a 19-14 season-opening victory over Michigan State that ranks as the biggest victory of the Schiano era. Bad season-opening losses by Syracuse and Vanderbilt suddenly have Rutgers fans dreaming of a 6-0 start and mid-season bowl eligibility. The win over Michigan State has created plenty of distractions. Both reveling in the big win and looking ahead to Rutgers first bowl game in 26 years. The true test for this team will be its mental discipline and character. Will the Scarlet Knights be focused upon New Hampshire and put the Wildcats away early? Or will Rutgers be overconfident and let the Wildcats hang around? Here are my five keys to the New Hampshire game. I am taking a broader view of the game within the context of Rutgers season. The keys will focus on bigger picture issues since I don't expect the outcome of the game to be in doubt.
1. "It's only Yale, Coach." Words allegedly uttered by former Rutgers basketball player Rashod Kent before an opening round game in the National Invitation Tournament against an Ivy League opponent. Rutgers lost that game. It has become a symbolic phrase for Rutgers fans that epitomizes the incomprehensible overconfidence that seemingly afflicts mediocre Rutgers teams. And it isn't limited to basketball either. Rutgers has lost football games to Connecticut (2001), Villanova (2002), and Buffalo (2002) in which overconfidence was a contributing factor. Schiano constantly preaches about "the process" – doing things the right way, regardless of the opponent or the outcome of the game the previous week. Don't get too high after a win or too low after a loss. Prepare for New Hampshire the same as Miami. Now, the Scarlet Knights must practice what Schiano preaches. Rutgers must win decisively. Such a win will not mean anything in terms of national perception. However, a close win – or, God forbid, a loss – will damage the good will generated by the win over Michigan State.
2. Red Zone Offense. Rutgers entered Michigan State territory on each its six 1st Half possessions and thrice penetrated the 10-yard line. Yet Scarlet Knights managed only five FGAs and six points. Rutgers outgained Michigan State by about 100 yards (roughly 260 yards to 160 yards) yet trailed 7-6 at halftime. In the 2nd Half, Rutgers crossed midfield on four of seven possessions and penetrated the 10-yard line once but only attempted two FGs. Rutgers ran 84 plays to 61 for Michigan State. Rutgers held a 20-minute advantage in time of possession. Yet the Scarlet Knights sweated a five-point lead throughout the 4th Quarter. Michigan State had a chance to steal a game that should have been over by halftime. Rutgers dominated between the 20 yard lines but could not convert that advantage on the scoreboard. Rutgers struggled with its red zone offense last year, too, attempting seven FGs from inside or near the 10 yard line. Reports from one summer camp scrimmage mentioned problems with the red zone offense. The Michigan State game was only the latest example of a continuing trend. Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg must resolve the problems in the red zone. New Hampshire will provide an opportunity to work on that problem. Rutgers must convert red zone opportunities into more TDs.
3. Secondary Coverage. Rutgers employed an atypically conservative Cover 2 zone underneath coverage scheme against Michigan State. It was a shrewd decision because the two deep safeties forced Michigan State to throw underneath and drive the field. Spartan RS Sr QB Damon Dowdell completed 22 of 39 passes for 270 yards. The Rutgers defense was the beneficiary of five dropped passes and many errant throws by Dowdell. Michigan State receivers were open in the Rutgers secondary. Had the Spartans executed better, Michigan State could have shredded the Rutgers secondary for much more yardage. The Scarlet Knight CBs are still giving big cushions to opposing WRs and conceding 10 yard gains. New Hampshire will test the Rutgers secondary although backup QB RS Fr Ricky Santos lacks the experience of injured starter Mike Granieri. The young Scarlet Knight CBs must use the New Hampshire game as an opportunity to sharpen their coverage skills.
4. Garbage Time. If Rutgers brings the proper focus to the game, the Scarlet Knights should win comfortably. While Rutgers has more depth than has been seen in the Banks in over ten years, some of the backups are inexperienced. Schiano needs to use this game as an opportunity to get some real experience for his young backups. Schiano should not wait until the game reaches blowout proportions to play his non-regular backups. Bringing in reserves to run the fetal position offense will not provide any useful experience. To gain meaningful experience, the offensive and defensive backups must operate their standard systems. Therefore, Schiano should substitute his reserves liberally early in the game before the scoring gets out of hand.
5. Backup OLine. Schiano has survived his first three seasons with razor thin depth on his OLine. He has struggled to assemble a seven-man rotation. Injuries thinned the ranks and several hollow recruiting classes failed to replenish the unit. Schiano cobbled together units with veterans, transfers, and converted DL. Schiano now has more depth on his OLine than at any time in his four years at Rutgers. The second team OLine, though promising, is very inexperienced. Only backup C RS So William Vogt has played. RS So LG Randy Boxill, RS Fr RG Mike Fladell, and RS LT Pedro Sosa have never played. JUCO RS So RT Cameron Stephenson was switched from DT in summer camp and has not played on the OLine. Schiano must use New Hampshire as an opportunity to hone his second unit. He must get the unit – or individual backups – into the game early and often. How will the backups perform?
1. So TB Justise Hairston. Against Michigan State, Hairston gained only 30 yards on 15 carries as the backup TB. He was often running behind RS Jr FB Ishmael Medley or Sr FB Cedric Brown so Hairston's struggles it simply can't blamed on RS So FB Brian Leonard's blocking. Too often Hairston hits the wrong hole, especially on the Power G. He kept running the Power G between the guard and center, where two DTs and two unblocked LBs were waiting. Hairston must be patient and hit the OT/TE hole and pull the LBs over to the blockers -- the pulling OG takes the near LB and the OT double taps the backside LB. Missing the hole this way is especially bad because Hairston is running closer to RS Sr C Ray Pilch, who can be manhandled out of the way by much larger DTs. With Leonard's status questionable after he suffered an apparent concussion against Michigan State, Hairston could be the feature TB. He should run roughshod over the smaller Wildcats. However, he must run smarter. Find the right hole instead of battering into the OLine for two or three yards.
2. Sr CB Eddie Grimes. Grimes had a rough game against Michigan State as he whiffed on two open field tackles on short hitch routes. Spartan Jr WR Matt Trannon victimized Grimes both times, including once for a 9-yard TD that gave the Spartans a brief lead. Shoddy tackling was a problem for Grimes much of last year. His technique is not fundamentally sound as he leaps off his feet and lunges at ballcarriers. He must learn to close fast and then break down to either make a sure tackle or delay the ballcarrier until help arrives. Grimes is the only big CB on the roster. He will draw the assignment of covering an opponent's big WR. His tackling must improve because smaller So CBs Joe Porter and Derrick Roberson are not viable alternatives. Grimes must be the strength of the CBs, not the weak link.
3. Jr QB Ryan Hart. Hart completed 20 of 34 passes for 241 yards and an INT. Though solid, Hart still committed too many mistakes. He fumbled outside the pocket when he could have thrown the ball away and only an undeserved bail-out call by the officials spared Rutgers a TO. Hart also cost Rutgers a chance to retake the lead before halftime when he made a bad decision to throw deep into double coverage and then compounded the bad decision with a poor, wounded duck throw that was easily intercepted. Though completing 59% of his passes, Hart struggled with is accuracy. He badly missed several open receivers, including Tres Moses on a slant in the end zone that should have drawn a pass interference penalty if the pass had been catchable. Spartan defenders also dropped two Hart passes that should have been INTs. The overly conservative game plan reflects a lack of confidence in Hart to make plays. With 17 starts, Hart must make better decisions and execute more efficiently. A west coast offense can't operate behind a QB who can't make plays.
4. Jr SLB Berkeley Hutchinson. Hutchinson had another tough game at SLB. He recorded three tackles but again showed a tendency to be out of position. The most glaring example was a 46-yard run by Jr RB Jason Teague though Hutchinson's vacated gap on a counter trey. Hutchinson bit on the counter fake and was easily sealed from the hole by the pulling OG. However, Hutchinson should not be faulted for Sr TE Eric Knott's 54-yard TD reception early in the 4th Quarter. As Jr SB Agin Shabaj did last year, Knott ran a wheel route into zone coverage. Hutchinson passed off Knott to Grimes in the flat but Grimes stayed with the WR on a curl route. Jr WS Jason Nugent, who had deep coverage, also bit on the curl route and let Knott run past him for the TD. New Hampshire likely will be using a lot of misdirection against Rutgers from its multiple formations. It will be interesting to see how Hutchinson responds since reading plays seems to be his biggest weakness.
5. RS So QB Anthony Cali/RS Fr QB Terrence Shawell. Cali emerged from spring camp as the favorite for the backup QB job but failed to secure the job in summer camp. Presently, Cali is listed as a co-backup with Shawell. Since neither QB has played a down of college football, New Hampshire should provide an invaluable opportunity to gain experience. Schiano likely will play both QBs. The only question is whether they will run the offense or merely handoff to milk the clock. Since either is one play away from starting if Hart gets injured, Schiano can't afford to have them run the fetal position offense. The primary backup should see action in the first half so that he can run the offense without any restraints. Schiano should substitute liberally in the second half and continue to run his offense with the backup QBs.
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