KEYS TO THE KENT STATE GAME
In 2002, Rutgers played host to Division IAA Villanova. Although the Wildcats were one of the better programs in the Atlantic 10, Villanova had not beaten a Division IA program since competing as a Division IA program in 1980. Rutgers was coming off a disappointing 2-9 season in Head Coach Greg Schiano's inaugural season but Scarlet Knight fans were anxious to see the strides that had been made in one year. Nobody was prepared for the 37-19 whipping that Villanova handed the overconfident Scarlet Knights. The defeat crushed all the enthusiasm that had been building for the season. Not only for the fans but for the players as well. Division IA bottom feeder Buffalo, likely a worse team than Villanova, rolled into Piscataway the following week. Rutgers fans greeting the team as it arrived at the stadium for the Scarlet Walk encountered a team that still looked hungover from the previous week. Rutgers muddled through the opening quarter and gave the Bulls hope. Buffalo, so used to being manhandled, grew confident and relished a rare opportunity to kick an opponent around. When the final whistle blew, Rutgers was on the losing end of a 34-11 romp. Rutgers had done the impossible, losing to a Division IAA program and the worst team in Division IA at home in consecutive weeks. Only a win over hapless Army spared Rutgers the ignominy of a winless season.
Looking ahead at the Rutgers schedule, most fans penciled New Hampshire and
Kent State as two of three automatic wins for the Scarlet Knights. Schiano
had put the debacle that was the 2002 long behind him and his program. The
roster was loaded with his recruits. Developed in his strength and
conditioning program. Maintained courtesy of his academic
discipline. Rutgers was looking to crack the upper division of the
reorganized – and weakened – Big East Conference. New Hampshire and Kent
State were going to be glorified scrimmages – a chance to work on problems, iron
wrinkles, and play inexperienced backups. Well, New Hampshire never got
the memo. And Rutgers forgot the lessons of 2002, when it presumed to show
up overconfident. The result was a humbling 35-24 loss that obliterated
all the momentum gained from – and the national goodwill generated by – the
season opening win over Michigan State. Now, here comes Mid America
Conference also-ran Kent State into Rutgers Stadium to face a Scarlet Knight
team still coping with the incomprehensible loss to New Hampshire.
Rutgers last played Kent State in 1994 in the debut of the new Rutgers Stadium. The Scarlet Knights beat the Golden Flashes 28-6 in the only encounter between the two schools. QB Ray Lucas led the Scarlet Knights, completing 9 of 16 passes for 155 yards and a TD pass to WR Steven Harper. Lucas also rushed for a TD, as did TB Bruce Presley. TB Terrell Willis gained 86 yards on 19 carries. Although Kent State RB Ashton Whatley gained 106 yards 31 carries, the Scarlet Knight defense limited Golden Flash QB Mike Challenger to 73 yards on 7 completions in 19 attempts. Rutgers won five of six home games in the new stadium – losing only to Miami – but a winless road record (04-1) cost the Scarlet Knights any chance at a bowl bid.
Rutgers faces an eerily similar situation to 2002 this weekend. Kent State is striving for relevancy in the suddenly competitive MAC. The Golden Flashes have had only one winning season (6-5 in 2001) in the past sixteen years. Kent State has a 34-game losing streak to non-conference Division IA opponents, dating back to 1988. Head Coach Doug Martin, hired as the offensive coordinator last season and promoted to head coach after Dean Pees resigned to accept a position with the New England Patriots as LB Coach, installed the spread offense that he had used at East Carolina. The passing offense improved by 100 yards per game while the scoring offense increased by a margin of 10 points per game. The new offense hits its stride by midseason and scored at least 30 points in each of Kent State's final six games. Only a porous defense prevented breakout from the depths of anonymity. A previously terrible New Hampshire defense stuffed the Rutgers offense in the second half last week while the Wildcat offense blistered the Scarlet Knight defense for 385 passing yards. Kent State's spread offense poses a similar threat. How will the Scarlet Knights bounce back from the humbling defeat to New Hampshire? Here are my five keys to the Kent State game.
1. The Hangover. Schiano implemented a "24-hour" rule when he arrived at Rutgers. Win or lose, his players were not allowed to dwell on the previous game longer than 24 hours. The policy is designed to minimize the emotional swings and keep the focus on the upcoming opponent. The 24-hour rule has been tested severely this week. Shock. Disappointment. Frustration. These emotions have plagued the team this week as it attempts to prepare for Kent State. Last week, Rutgers showed that it wasn't good enough to merely show up and win. Kent State has an offense that will test the Scarlet Knight defense and pressure the Rutgers offense to keep pace. Rutgers must shed the New Hampshire hangover and arrive mentally focused and emotionally prepared to dominate an opponent who lacks their talent, depth, and experience. Rutgers must put Kent State away early and, in doing so, bury the doubts and uncertainty created by the mass brain fart against New Hampshire. Rutgers cannot wallow in self-pity or else the Scarlet Knights will find themselves in a close game against a confident, hungry opponent. Or worse, on the wrong end of a blowout. Let's not do the Buffanova again.
2. Secondary Coverage. Rutgers employed an atypically conservative Cover 2 zone underneath coverage scheme against both Michigan State and New Hampshire. The scheme worked against Michigan State but failed catastrophically against New Hampshire. However, the results were more of a reflection of the opponents' execution rather than Rutgers performance. The Spartans, who dropped five passes and missed numerous open receivers, completed barely 50% of their passes. The Wildcats completed 75% of their passes. The difference was over 100 yards (270 yards versus 385 yards).
New Hampshire moved the football through the air, while Michigan State could not, because the Wildcats were able to play pitch and catch. The Scarlet Knight CBs gave big cushions that gave New Hampshire easy yardage underneath. The Rutgers LBs did not drop deep enough in their zones and gave New Hampshire big gaps to exploit in the middle of the field. The open-field tackling was terrible, too. Rutgers struggled defending against screen passes. The Wildcats would overload one side of the field with trips and throw bubble screens against the outnumbered CB and SLB. The WR middle screen was also effective against Rutgers' blitzing.
The Cover 2 zone underneath scheme cannot be effective if the defenders do not make quick tackles and punish the opposing WRs. There are not broad tactical answers to Rutgers' pass defense problems. The Scarlet Knight CBs struggle to cover man-to-man and to tackle in zone coverage. Schiano must vary his defensive schemes and disguise his coverages. Schiano must make Kent State QB Joshua Harris make good reads, good decisions, and accurate throws. The Scarlet Knight DBs also must tackle better.
3. Ball Control. Rutgers successfully employed a ball control offensive strategy against both Michigan State and New Hampshire. The Scarlet Knights built a 20-minute edge in time of possession against Michigan State, keeping the Spartan spread offense off the field and out of sync. Rutgers had a five-minute edge against New Hampshire in building a 24-14 halftime lead. While the running game was important in eating the clock, the key to the offensive success was balanced playcalling. The offense functioned best when it mixed the run and pass on 1st down. After dominating Michigan State through three quarters with a balanced offense, the Scarlet Knights sputtered in the 4th Quarter – and nearly blew a 12-point lead – behind predictable playcalling (run, run, pass, punt). At one point, Rutgers ran six consecutive times on 1st down for zero net yardage. After gaining 275 yards with a balanced offense in the 1st Half against New Hampshire, the Scarlet Knights gained only 75 yards and failed to score in the 2nd Half with a predictable offense that ran on six of eight 1st down plays.
Kent State also features a potent spread offense. With a shaky secondary, a ball control offense may be Schiano's best defensive strategy. The Scarlet Knight offense must monopolize the football against a weak Kent State defense. The OLine must control the line of scrimmage and drive the Golden Flashes off the ball. Rutgers must gain at least three yards on 80% of its running plays from scrimmage. Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg must balance his first down playcalling with equal runs and passes. If Kent State Defensive Coordinator Pete Reksits employs eight- or nine-man fronts, Ver Steeg must allow Sr QB Ryan Hart to throw deep to punish the defense. Rutgers needs a ten-minute edge in time of possession.
4. Red Zone Offense. The Rutgers offense failed to score an offensive touchdown against Michigan State despite four trips inside the 10-yard line. Rutgers fixed its red zone problems against Kent State, scoring on all three possessions in which it penetrated the red zone. Rutgers will need to continue its red zone turnaround against Kent State. After shaky performances against the spread offenses of both Michigan State and New Hampshire, there are grave concerns about the prospects of the Scarlet Knight defense against Kent State's balanced spread offense. The Golden Flashes are equally adept at running and throwing from their spread formation. Furthermore, Sr QB Joshua Cribbs is a dual threat QB and will force the Scarlet Knights to defend all eleven Kent State offensive players. This game is likely to be an offensive shootout as neither defense can stop the opposing offenses. Therefore, Rutgers cannot afford to settle for FGs inside the red zone. The Scarlet Knights must score at least 30 points and must convert every trip inside the red zone into TDs against the suspect Golden Flash defense.
5. Adjustments. Schiano criticized his players for not being mentally focused to play New Hampshire. But were the players following the staff's lead? After all, Schiano tried to beat New Hampshire using very vanilla offensive and defensive strategies. Then Schiano froze when these strategies did not work against the aggressive Wildcat schemes. Just as his players froze once they realized that New Hampshire came into Rutgers Stadium ready to win. Schiano played his defense primarily in a base 4-3 Cover 2 zone underneath scheme against New Hampshire's 3WR and 4WR formations. The Wildcats used motion and overloads to exploit seams and gaps in the Scarlet Knight defense. Yet Schiano refused to make any adjustments to his defense in the face of futility. Rutgers used very little man-to-man coverage. The nickel and dime packages were equally rare even though New Hampshire abandoned its running game. The Scarlet Knights made little attempt to disguise their defensive alignments or their coverage. It was just as bad on offense. New Hampshire stacked the line of scrimmage with eight- and nine-man fronts on 1st/2nd downs to stop the Scarlet Knight running game. And Ver Steeg continued running at the Wildcat defense behind an uninspired OLine rather than throw, as he did in the 1st Half. Ver Steeg waited to throw until Rutgers faced 3rd–n-long situations, when New Hampshire dropped eight men into zone coverage.
1. Jr QB Ryan Hart. Schiano suddenly has a rehabilitation project on his hands. The player that is central to his offense suddenly needs to be handled with kid gloves. Hart had a very good 1st Half against New Hampshire, completing 19 of 28 passes for about 225 yards. However, when the offense went fetal in the 2nd Half, Hart completed only 50% of his passes. And the yardage was terrible, too. He was throwing wildly. And he kept checking too quickly to his safety valves, constantly throwing short of the first down marker. Some have observed that Hart has appeared gun shy since the Connecticut game, when he threw that devastating INT late in the game . The staff isn't showing confidence in him by taking the ball out of his hands in the 2nd Half. As a result, Hart is showing a lack of confidence in himself on the field. Rutgers isn't going to have a winning season without a reliable performance from Hart. He doesn't have to carry the offense by himself. But he does have to make plays. Especially when the defense is daring him to throw. Ver Steeg must tailor the playcalling to Hart's strengths. Mix passes and runs on first down. Throw at eight-man fronts to loosen the defense. Get the TEs more involved in the offense.
2. So CB Joe Porter. Porter's performance against Michigan State went relatively unnoticed. He broke up a long fade route. But his performance was overshadowed by that of fellow CB Sr Eddie Grimes, who missed several tackles. However, Porter had the spotlight solely to himself against New Hampshire, as the Wildcats repeatedly picked on him. Porter retorted with a 4th Quarter INT. Kent State will likely target Porter early and often. Porter is going to struggle this season. It wouldn't be realistic to expect a kid who played special teams last season to step seamlessly into a starting CB role. However, Porter can't play the victim. He must battle every game, every series, every play. Porter must hold the opposition to less than 10 yards per catch and less than 75 yards total.
3. Sr WR Chris Baker. Baker was a forgotten man last season. After switching to WR as a sophomore, the converted QB unsuccessfully competed for the open QB job in spring camp 2003. Switched back to WR again last season, a disinterested Baker never cracked the playing the rotation. Written off behind the next class of recruits, Baker suddenly re-emerged during summer camp. Having rededicated himself to playing WR, Baker climbed the depth chart and entered the season as the primary backup to Jr WR Shawn Tucker. Tucker reinjured his groin during the New Hampshire game and will miss the game against Kent State. Baker likely will assume Tucker's starting job. The recipe for defending Rutgers so far this season has been to put eight men the box and dare the Scarlet Knights to throw. I would not be surprised to see Kent State adopt that tactic, too. Rutgers will need its WR to make plays. At 6-5, Baker poses a physical mismatch for many CBs. Baker must use his size and strength. Against New Hampshire, Baker allowed a Wildcat CB to make an uncontested INT late in the 4th Quarter without fighting for the ball. Baker must exhibit more desire. Unless he would rather return to the bench. Baker must catch at least three passes for at least 50 yards.
4. So TB Justise Hairston. Against Michigan State, Hairston gained only 30 yards on 15 carries as the backup TB. He received only five carries against New Hampshire and gained only 14 yards. Hairston was expected to be the feature back this season. Instead, he looks lost in the backfield. He is not running into the proper holes but instead is battering into the line of scrimmage every play and gaining minimal yardage on sheer physical power. Hairston has been running these plays for a year now. He must start executing the plays correctly. Or Schiano must replace Hairston with somebody who will. What was one of the deepest units on the team entering summer camp has become the Brian Leonard Show. The offense will function better with Leonard as a playmaking FB. Hairston must answer the bell. He must have approximately the same amount of carries as Leonard and must gain at least 4 yards per carry.
5. RS So P Joe Radigan. Inconsistency was the biggest issue with Radigan last season. He would boom one kick 50 yards and bounce the next kick 25 yards. After a solid season-opening performance against Michigan State, Radigan stumbled against New Hampshire. He averaged 39.5 yards on eight punts. Radigan placed two short punts inside the NH20 but only two of the other six punts were longer than 40 yards. New Hampshire scored TDs on two drives set up by short punts. Radigan also committed the momentum-changing mistake when he kneeled to field a low snap and was whistled down for a 14 yard loss at the RU21. Radigan must improve his consistency. He has the leg strength to punt 50 yards. But too many of his punts are less than 40 yards. With Schiano likely to continue is 4-3 Cover 2 zone underneath defensive scheme, Rutgers must force Kent State to patiently drive the length of the field. Radigan is a key weapon in that philosophy because his kicking can push Kent State deep into their end of the field. Radigan must average at least 45 yards per punt. And must not have any punts, other than pooch attempts towards the goal line, less than 40 yards.
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