KEYS TO THE SYRACUSE GAME
Once-lowly Rutgers has been nipping at the heels of once-mighty Syracuse in recent years as the Scarlet Knights have won two of the last five meetings. Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano has built a program that can compete with Syracuse for talent, especially in New Jersey, which used to be a core recruiting area for the Orange. Rutgers has built some of the best facilities in the northeast. However, Rutgers has yet to pass Syracuse on the field. The Scarlet Knights have not won at the Carrier Dome since 1986 and has not really threatened the Orange since 1996. However, last year, the Scarlet Knights physically dominated Syracuse in a 24-7 win on a blustery day in Piscataway – controlling both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Syracuse held Rutgers to three-n-out on the opening possession and FS Anthony Smith blocked the ensuing punt, which CB Steve Gregory returned for a TD for an early 7-0 lead. The teams exchanged three-n-outs but the Orange, with the formidable wind at their backs, pinned Rutgers in the shadows of its goalposts. Rutgers drove across midfield but Syracuse stopped the Scarlet Knights and DE Josh Smith blocked another punt. The Orange drove into scoring range but the Scarlet Knights held and Syracuse PK Collin Barber missed a 47-yard FGA. Rutgers again went three-n-out to end the 1st Quarter but, with the wind now at their back, pinned Syracuse deep. Syracuse gained only one first down and Rutgers then repaid the favor when CB Derrick Roberson blocked the Orange punt. However, Rutgers could not capitalize on the field position and botched the snap on a 23-yard FGA. The teams exchanged three punts with only a single Orange FD breaking the monotony. A 28-yard punt put Rutgers in business in Syracuse territory but Orange CB Thomas Whitfield halted the threat with an INT. Syracuse drove across midfield but was stopped outside scoring position, from where the Orange pinned Rutgers deep with a punt. Syracuse forced the sixth Rutgers three-n-out of the half but muffed a 52-yard punt. With only a minute remaining in the half, Rutgers drove 42-yard in five plays and tied the game on a 19-yard TD pass to WR Tres Moses. Rutgers survived the 1st Quarter (against the wind) despite special teams breakdowns and emerged from an anemic 2nd Quarter (with the wind) fortunate to be tied 7-7.
After a sloppy 1st Half, Rutgers dominated the 2nd Half. Rutgers ended the opening drive of the 2nd Half when CB Eddie Grimes returned an INT 51 yards to the SU03. Three plays later, QB Ryan Hart scrambled three yards for a TD. Kicker Mike Cortese pooched the ensuing KO into the wind and Rutgers recovered at the SU33. Four carries later, TB Brian Leonard scored on a 2-yard run to extend the Rutgers lead to 21-7. Cortese again pooched the kickoff and Rutgers recovered again at the SU30. Rutgers eschewed a 42-yard FGA into the wind and Syracuse stopped Rutgers on 4th-n-4. Rutgers forced Syracuse three-n-out. The Scarlet Knights mounted a 10-play, 4-minute, 50-yard drive but Syracuse held at the SU01 and Gregory blocked the subsequent FGA. The Orange went three-n-out again (for the fourth time). Rutgers spanned the quarters with an 11-play, 40-yard, 4-minute drive that ended when PK Ryan Sands missed a wind-aided 50-yard FGA. Rutgers forced a third consecutive three-n-out and Moses returned a wind-shortened 27-yard punt 25 yards. Rutgers again stalled inside the 10-yard line and settled for a 23-yard Sands FG that completed the scoring. Syracuse finally mounted a drive but turned the ball over down in their own territory. Rutgers ran down the clock and the final Orange possession ended on the RU07.
This year finds both programs at a crossroads. Rutgers must win at the Carrier Dome for the first time since 1986 if the Scarlet Knights are to earn a bowl bid. Syracuse, with a favorable home schedule, could likely secure a third place finish in the Big East if it holds serve at home. Syracuse has often overlooked Rutgers in recent years. No more. Rutgers caught Syracuse's attention with a physically dominating win last year. The Orange will be looking for revenge in a must-win conference game. A win could propel the Orange to an upper division finish yet again, sparing Head Coach Paul Pasqualoni from the chopping block. A loss could signal the end of the Pasqualoni era. Rutgers is looking to shake the malaise triggered by the incomprehensible loss to Division IAA New Hampshire. A road win against a legitimate opponent – the first such win as Schiano's tenure – would offset the damage done by the loss to New Hampshire. With its confidence staggered by New Hampshire and Kent State, a loss to Syracuse could devastate a precarious team. Here are my five keys to the Syracuse game.
1. R&R. Syracuse TB RS Sr Walter Reyes entered the season as the leading returning rusher in the Big East with 1,347 yards and 20 TDs. Backup TB Jr Damien Rhodes missed much of last season with an ankle injury but showed the potential to be the better back as a true freshman. Perennial problems at QB – Pasqualoni has yet to find a productive replacement in five years for Donovan McNabb – and a severe shortage of WRs have rendered the Syracuse offense one-dimensional. The offense rests with Reyes and Rhodes. Both have struggled to get untracked this season as the focus of opposing defenses, averaging a combined 125 rushing yards per game. However, they combined for 199 rushing yards and 85 receiving yards in Syracuse's only quality win – over Cincinnati. At home in the Carrier Dome, Pasqualoni will attempt to ride Reyes and Rhodes to victory. Rutgers must contain Reyes and Rhodes and force RS So QB Perry Patterson to beat the Scarlet Knights with his arm. Last year, Rutgers held Reyes to 40 yards rushing on 18 carries but yielded 52 yards receiving on 4 catches; Rhodes did not play. The Scarlet Knights will need a comparably effort. Rutgers must limit Reyes and Rhodes to less than 100 yards rushing and less than 150 total yards (rushing and receiving).
2. Special Teams. Two years ago, Syracuse blocked a Rutgers punt and returned it for a TD. Last year, the Orange blocked three Rutgers kicks – two punts and a FGA – and returned one for a TD. Syracuse has blocked four kicks this season – three by Jr FS Anthony Smith. Earlier this season, Smith blocked a Buffalo punt and recovered it for a TD, padding the margin in an otherwise unimpressive 37-17 win. For years, Virginia Tech was the special teams gold standard in the Big East. The Hokies were renowned for their kick blocking and returning prowess. However, Pasqualoni has very quietly accumulated a very impressive special teams record in recent years. Whether blocking or returning kicks, the Orange have shown an unheralded big play ability. Given the struggles of the Orange offense in recent years, the special teams contributions cannot be underestimated. Special teams play can often decide a close game. This will be a close game. Although Rutgers has more talent, more depth, and more experience than Syracuse, Rutgers has lacked the confidence on the road. The Scarlet Knights cannot afford to let the Orange special teams decide the game. Rutgers doesn't need to win the special teams battle. A draw will suffice. Rutgers cannot give up any blocked kicks.
3. Big Plays. Big plays were a nemesis for Rutgers last year, especially on defense where the Scarlet Knights yielded 59 plays of 20 yards or more (five per game). The problem has continued into 2004. The Scarlet Knights have yielded 20 plays of at least 20 yards while recording only 12 of their own. This game features two offenses that struggle to score. While Syracuse's struggles are traceable to a one-dimensional offense, Rutgers problems are less discernable. The Scarlet Knights can move the football between the 20-yard lines but then struggle in the red zone. Or demonstrate firepower in the 1st Half while sputtering in the 2nd Half. Rutgers must gain more yardage off big plays than it allows. The Orange defense has proven vulnerable to big plays. Rutgers will need TDs, not FGs, to win. Syracuse will struggle to drive the length of the field. Rutgers must force the Orange to methodically drive the length of the field while victimizing the Syracuse defense with big plays of its own.
4. Turnovers. Rutgers cannot afford to commit TOs on the road. The Scarlet Knights have lacked the firepower and character to overcome crippling TOs. Rutgers folded against New Hampshire after a TO keep in Scarlet Knight territory gave New Hampshire a short field. Rutgers has struggled to score points. The Scarlet Knights cannot afford red zone TOs that will cost them points. Also, since the Orange offense struggles to score, Rutgers cannot give Syracuse short fields to work. Rutgers must not commit more than one TO.
5. Fast Start. Rutgers has been a fast starting team this season. The Scarlet Knights gained 260 yards against Michigan State, scored 24 points against New Hampshire, and scored 23 points against Kent State in the first halves of these games. Rutgers must continue that trend at the Carrier Dome. The Scarlet Knights have not fared well in the Dome, losing by an average score of 51-12 since 1998, although the 2000 match was tied 21-21 late in the 3rd Quarter. The Orange stomped Rutgers 45-14 in Schiano's first visit as the Scarlet Knights head coach. A fast start will foster confidence that Rutgers can win in the Dome. Syracuse is not an explosive team. Pasqualoni does not want to get into a shootout since he lacks ammunition. If Rutgers starts fast, Schiano can force Syracuse away from its ground game in favor of its shaky passing game – or simply watch the clock melt away. Furthermore, Syracuse is a fragile program, with a coach on death row. Pasqualoni must beat Rutgers to earn a bowl bid. If Syracuse is behind big at halftime, the broader gloom surrounding the program and the larger implications of another loss to Rutgers could combine to demoralize the Orange.
1. Jr QB Ryan Hart. Hart is the second leading passer in the Big East at 262 yards per game. However, his completion percentage (61) and TD-to-INT ratio (4:4) have not improved appreciably over last year. Hart has been erratic this season. He has looked marvelous at times, completely in control of the west coast offense. Other times, he has lacked poise, confidence, and accuracy. The west coast offense can't operate with a QB playing not to lose the game. The offense is predicated on using a short passing game to control the ball and the clock. And mixing the pass with the run regardless of down or distance to keep the defense off balance. With the rushing attack struggling, Schiano needs Hart to lead his offense now more than ever. That cannot happen if Schiano isn't letting Hart throw on the early downs. Limiting Hart to third down throws is putting too much pressure on a QB with too many limitations. Syracuse has a suspect pass defense. Schiano must let Hart attack it. Hart must complete at least 65% of his passes, throw for at least 250 yards, and throw no more than one INT.
2. So TB Justise Hairston. Hairston has been the invisible man in the Scarlet Knight offense this season. Expected to be the starting TB, Hairston has been displaced by RS So FB Brian Leonard. 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 re-emerged in the 1st Half of the Kent State game, gaining 47 yards on eight carries while Leonard was limited to only 5 yards on ten carries and gained little yardage. Hairston then disappeared again in the 2nd Half as Leonard received the bulk of the carries. With Leonard playing well at TB, Hairston's relative absence, though a concern, was not crucial. However, Leonard suffered a deep thigh bruise against Kent State. His status is questionable for the Syracuse game. Hairston is no longer a luxury with whom Schiano can be patient. Hairston must be prepared to carry the burden of the ground game at Syracuse. If Leonard isn't available at full effectiveness, Hairston must get at least 25 carries and gain at least 100 yards. He also must be a factor as a receiver, whether on screen passes or simple safety valve catches. He must have at least four receptions for at least 30 yards.
3. So MLB DeVraun Thompson. Thompson is the man in the middle for Rutgers. He is the leader of the linebacker unit and the anchor of the defense. Rutgers has faced three pass-oriented teams so far. As such, the Scarlet Knights rush defense really has not been challenged. It will be this week. If Rutgers is going to keep Reyes and Rhodes under control, Thompson must have a big game. Rutgers controlled the defensive line of scrimmage last year. The Scarlet Knights must do so again this year, allowing the LBs to run to the ball. Thompson must roam sideline to sideline making tackles. He will also be responsible for defending Reyes or Rhodes when Rutgers use man-to-man coverage. Thompson must make at least 8 tackles and must not yield any big pass plays to the Orange TBs.
4. Sr FS Jarvis Johnson. Syracuse lacks depth and talent at WR. Pasqualoni possesses plenty of both at TB and will use them to the fullest extent possible. Schiano has employed a 4-3 Cover 2 defensive scheme against spread offenses in the first three games. I suspect that Schiano will switch to a 4-3 Cover 1 alignment against Syracuse with the WS – either Jr Jason Nugent or RS Sr Jason Grant – just shy of LB depth in an eight-man front. This will put an extra defender in the tackle box and will leave one of the eight unblocked every play. In the Cover 1 package, Johnson is the deep centerfielder responsible for deep double coverage. Johnson is also the last line of defense against the run. Since Rutgers cannot afford to give up long TDs, Johnson must excel as the FS first and foremost. He must provide run support without getting beat deep. Johnson must record 8 tackles and must not give up any TDs.
5. Fr PK Jeremy Ito. Ito's first four FGs – including two beyond 40 yards – were tremendous contributions in the season-opening 19-14 win over Michigan State. Ito's two 2nd Half FGAs against Kent State helped thwart the Golden Flash comeback bid in a 29-21 Rutgers victory. In between, Ito made one of two FGAs from beyond 40 yards in the 35-24 loss to New Hampshire. The red zone problems that plagued the Rutgers offense have continued into this season. Too many long drives stall inside the 10-yard line. This inability to score TDs – the offense has no second half TDs this season – has put huge pressure on Ito to compensate. Rutgers will need every point it can muster against Syracuse. Ito will be kicking indoors on artificial turf – perfect conditions for a kicker. He must convert every opportunity inside 50 yards into points.
Please send any comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome and appreciate your feedback. And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam. In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the Syracuse game with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.