Rutgers performance this year has been puzzling. They win almost effortlessly over MSU, lose to UNH and then play one great half against Kent State and one dreadful half.
It is puzzling.
Well, maybe it is not so puzzling.
After pondering the first three games, I think that there are some things that Rutgers can do to improve their game, some things that need the aid of another recruiting class and some things that just need a lot of hard work.
I'll show you what I mean.
Hitting the Corners
Brian Leonard is having a fine season. He is averaging 4 yards a carry and is second in the Big East in rushing yards per game.
But he is not having the season he had last year nor is he having the season of which he is capable.
Teams are now looking for Leonard and they are looking for him in one place ... up the middle. Rutgers has a problem because they can't run him anywhere else. Rutgers is running two power backs (Leonard and Hairston) and neither back is capable of hitting the corners with speed. Other coaches are picking up on that problem and are stuffing the middle because they know that by the time a play develops to the outside that their linebackers will have time to adjust to it.
In short, if Rutgers is going to run the ball, opponents know exactly where the Knights are going to run it to. They are setting up not only to defend running plays but they know in advance exactly where the play is headed to. This unfortunate situation is being aggravated by boringly predictable play calling which clues the other coaches in on when a running play is coming.
Most of this can be fixed.
First, this situation will improve a bit when Marcus Facyson returns but what Rutgers really needs is the threat of a true speed runner to the outside. For instance, an end around to Willie Foster would be nice. Running Orlando Kane out of the tailback position would make any defense think twice about loading up the middle.
They don't even have to rely on that. The problem could be attacked in another way entirely. Rutgers' past two opponents have used bubble screens to get the ball to fleet receivers on the corner. Rutgers should consider that option especially since they have athletic receivers (some pretty big) who can both run and block with effectiveness. In fact, Rutgers is so deep in tight ends that they could even split Clark Harris off the line (to be used as a blocker) and no one would think it strange until it was too late.
Get speed on the corner and you can bet the middle will open up. Open up the middle and Leonard and Hairston will be unstoppable. Up till now Leonard and Hairston haven't been able to run full tilt. Open up the middle and watch out.
But that won't solve all RU's problems.
Splits and Speed Rushers
Let's take a look at the first half of the Kent State game. The Kent State game wasn't as quirky as it seemed.
Kent State was using an unusual offensive formation in the first half of that game. It wasn't the backs or ends in the formation that was unusual, it was the splits on the offensive line. On the offensive line there was a wide split between each of KSU's offensive linemen. The idea, undoubtedly, was to spread out the Rutgers defense and make holes for KSU's QB Joshua Cribbs so that he could exploit his running ability. Apparently the Golden Flashes coaching staff felt that their offensive line could handle the RU defensive line one on one. Cribbs, they must have reasoned, would have adequate protection on pass plays and could still scoot through the big open gaps if no one was open downfield.
It didn't work. Rutgers defensive linemen poured through the splits and Cribbs spent the first half running for his life, looking like his pants were on fire.
In the second half KSU abandoned the wide splits and placed their offensive linemen closer together allowing them to pass protect more effectively. That spread the field less but allowed Cribbs more time to throw.
How could Rutgers have adjusted to this?
They couldn't. The Knights needed either a great bull rusher up the middle or a speed rusher on the corner. They had neither. What looked like a Rutgers let down was more likely the lack of a player here or a player there to allow them to adjust to KSU's new formation. This problem is neither fatal nor unfixable. This problem should be solved either by the maturation of some of the talent on hand or the recruitment of a top pass rusher to balance out the line.
Defensive End Eric Foster looked great and could be a few games away from becoming a force. The addition of Piana Lukabu, announced Monday, could help a lot with the rush. No matter what, don't panic, the pass rush is good enough to take us through this season. If we have to add a body there later, we can.
Now let's take a look at a situation that can't wait till the end of the season.
The Defensive Secondary
Rutgers is last in the Big East in pass defense. It isn't even close. The Scarlet give up 322 passing yards a game, that's 90 more passing yards a game than surrendered by Temple. Nationally, we are something like 117th out of 119 and it is not like we are playing BCS teams all lined up in a row.
You can't blame this on the lack of a pass rush, Rutgers leads the Big East in sacks. While part of those sack stats are the result of the field day that RU had against Kent State (noted above) in the first half of that game, the Rutgers pass rush overall has been decent so far this year.
There's really no excuses, our secondary is just plain awful.
And puh-leeeeease don't give me that nonsense about graduating two corners to the NFL. Unless I am very wrong the graduation of Haw and Jones was known to the Rutgers staff before those two grabbed their diplomas. At least, I hope they knew.
The thing that is pitiful about this is that DB is the easiest position to recruit. Terry Shea's teams were loaded with defensive backs. Defensive backs are athletes, plain and simple. There are indeed athletes on this squad, tons of them.
Why RU can't play better pass defense than this is the only true mystery here.
After the Kent State game Greg Schiano said that the team would take time to work on a lot of areas of concern.
One stands out. Defensive back. And if that isn't the major focus of coaching in the next few days you can kiss the Syracuse game good bye.
Which brings us to a happier topic.
Whoa, those tight ends!
What a stable of tight ends Rutgers has. If those guys were race horses we'd win the triple crown. Clark Harris broke a personal record on Saturday. He had six catches for 108 yards. He probably could have had 200 yards if we had made a concerted effort to get him the ball. Which brings me to a question. Why aren't we making a concerted effort to get the ball to Harris, Johnson and Loomis? We've seen our QB stopped at times this season, we've seen our running backs stopped at time this season, we've even seen our wideouts stopped this season at one time or another. But have we ever seen our tight ends stopped in any game this year? No. And when we throw to these guys we absolutely tear up the opposition.
UNH was the game that was hardest to understand. Two of our three touchdowns went to tight ends. That isn't surprising. UNH was blitzing on almost every passing down and leaving the middle of the field wide open. In fact, they left it so open that when Ryan Hart threw a touchdown pass to Chris Loomis in the second quarter there was no one within 20 yards of him.
That play was there all day so why didn't' we keep going to the well until UNH tried to stop us.
I have no idea and that brings us to play calling.
I know that this staff can call plays. I saw them call some beautiful games last year.
I just don't understand what they think they are doing this year.
In the papers Greg Schiano said:
"We're a read away or a helmet on the wrong side of the block away from big runs. We'll get that fixed."
Listen to your fullback. Brian Leonard.
I am sure that "loyal to the core" Brian Leonard wasn't trying to contradict his coach when he said the following, he was just being his usual honest "Brian Leonard" self.
Brian told the Star Ledger:
"The linemen are doing their best. But teams are putting eight men in the box and bringing up a safety and it's making things tough."
Mike and the Big Dog's LLC