KEYS TO THE PITTSBURGH GAME
Last year, the Pittsburgh game epitomized the best and worst of the 2003 Scarlet Knights. The Panthers, with an outside chance at the national championship, had already stumbled badly in losses to Toledo and Notre Dame. Rutgers, trying to break its reputation as a Big East doormat, had put in more competitive efforts against Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Rutgers was expected to struggle with the explosive Panther offense. And struggle they did in double covering Biletnikoff Award WR Larry Fitzgerald behind an eight-man front. Badly. For a half. But the 2nd Half was dominated by Rutgers as Pittsburgh went into a shell. The Panthers were fortunate to escape with a 42-32 victory.
The Panthers rode Fitzgerald for 57 yards on an 80-yard drive to open the game, capped by TB Jawan Walker's 6-yard TD run. Rutgers drove to the UP32, where TB Justise Hairston fumbled. Pittsburgh stalled at the RU21 after a 47-yard completion to Fitzgerald and PK David Abdul missed a 39-yard FGA. The Panthers forced Rutgers 3-n-out and then mounted a 10-play, 4-minute, 57-yard finished with an 11-yard TD pass from QB Rod Rutherford to TE Kris Wilson. Rutgers closed the quarter with a 66-yard completion from QB Ryan Hart to TE Ray Pilch and FB Brian Leonard scored on a one-yard TD pass to open the 2nd Quarter and narrow the Pittsburgh lead to 14-7. Pittsburgh went 3-n-out. Then, the Rutgers meltdown began as PR Tres Moses muffed the ensuing punt and Pittsburgh recovered at the RU32. Seven plays later, Rutherford scored on a 5-yard TD run. Rutgers went 3-n-out and Pittsburgh drove 77 yards, scoring on a 43-yard TD pass to Fitzgerald for a commanding 28-7 lead. It would get worse. Rutgers again went 3-n-out and, four plays later, Fitzgerald caught a 26-yard TD pass. Rutgers went 3-n-out for the third consecutive possession and Walker scored two plays later on a 55-yard TD run. Rutgers drove across midfield but failed to convert on 4th down. Pittsburgh went 3-n-out to close the half with a 42-7 lead over the blitzkrieged Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers opened the 2nd Half with its fifth 3-n-out of the game. Pittsburgh drove into scoring position but Abdul missed a 40-yard FGA. Rutgers finally awoke with a 10-play, 77-yard drive that Hairston finished with a 4-yard TD run. However, Pittsburgh blocked the XPA. Rutgers forced a Panther 3-n-out and drove 70-yards in 13 plays, with Leonard catching a 5-yard TD pass to narrow the lead to 42-20. Rutherford fumbled on the UP24 and DT David Harley recovered for Rutgers. Four plays later, Leonard blasted into the end zone from the UP07 but Hart threw incomplete on the 2XPA. Pittsburgh again went 3-n-out on its next two possessions, sandwiched around a Rutgers punt to start the 4th Quarter. Rutgers drove across midfield but Leonard fumbled at the UP41 and Pittsburgh recovered. The Scarlet Knights forced the fourth Pittsburgh 3-n-out of the half and Leonard capped a 12-play, 90-yard drive a one-yard TD plunge. Pittsburgh stopped a scrambling Hart on the 2XP and Rutgers trailed by two scores, 42-32, with 4.5 minutes remaining. Rutgers pinned Pittsburgh at the UP11 with the kickoff but the Panthers converted two first downs. Rutgers regained possession with 2:20 remaining but Hart, pressed for time, forced a pass into tight coverage that Panther FS Tez Morris intercepted to seal the game as Pittsburgh ran out the clock.
Much has changed in a year. Pittsburgh lost twice in the Big East and finished a disappointing third behind West Virginia. Pittsburgh lost to Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl. Head Coach Walt Harris' recruiting class fell apart amidst a horde of decommitments. And injuries decimated an offense that already lost heavily. A team positioned as a dark horse national championship candidate one year ago staggered into the 2004 season with an unimpressive win over Ohio, a TO-plagued loss to suddenly-mediocre Nebraska, a panicky 41-38 OT win over Division IAA Furman, and a nationally-televised whipping at Connecticut. The Panthers halted the slide with a shocking 20-17 victory over Boston College in which Pittsburgh won a weakness-versus-strength battle on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano turned around the season – and the program – thereafter. The Scarlet Knights ended a 26-game Big East losing streak at Temple. Near misses at Connecticut and against Boston College preceded a tough showing against Miami and a season-ending win over Syracuse. Rutgers opened the season with a trumpeted win over Michigan State but stumbled afterwards. With each team sporting one loss to a fellow middling Big East team, this game is a bowl game elimination match for Rutgers (4-2, 1-1) and Pittsburgh (4-2, 2-1). Here are my five keys to eliminating Pittsburgh.
1. Big Plays Allowed. No statistics better illustrate the performance of the Rutgers defense that those characterizing big plays. An aggressive, swarming unit, the Scarlet Knights defense often stuffs running plays for loss or pressures/hurries/hurries opposing QBs. However, defense also lacks discipline. Players often neglect assignments and the result is a Scarlet Knight DB chasing an opponent downfield in hot pursuit. The drill is often stop, stop, big gain. One moment of carelessness undoes en entire defensive series of otherwise solid play. The Scarlet Knights allowed almost five big plays (i.e., >20 yards) per game last season. Rutgers has yielded at least five big plays in each of its first six games, against the weakest part of its schedule. Rutgers allowed five big plays each to Michigan State, Kent State, and Temple, who averaged only 14 points per game against Rutgers. Rutgers also allowed "only" five big plays against Vanderbilt, who scored 27 points against the Rutgers defense. New Hampshire converted 10 big plays into 35 points and Syracuse recorded eight big plays and 41 points. Pittsburgh's offense has been anemic this season, as an injury-riddled OLine could neither open holes for the RBs or protect the QB. The Panther's offensive strategy could best be described as "keep throwing deep." Pittsburgh lacks the firepower to methodically drive the field. Rutgers' ability to limit big plays by the Panthers will dictate whether the inefficient Scarlet Knight offense can score enough points to win the game. Rutgers must not allow more than five gains of 20 yards. And no more than one 20+ yard TD.
2. Red Zone Offense. Last season, Rutgers attempted too many FGs from inside the 10-yard line as an offense that could smoothly drive the length of the field suddenly sputtered in sight of paydirt. Chip shot FGs, rather than TDs, left crucial points on the field in close losses to West Virginia, Connecticut, and Boston College. After one summer camp scrimmage, the press reported that the Scarlet Knight offense struggled inside the red zone. I commented, on a message board, "This shite has gotta stop." A comment that, though not terribly popular at the time, proved prescient. This season, Rutgers has scored on 23 of 29 trips inside the red zone (20-yard line). But only 15 of those 23 red zone scores were TDs. Worse yet, Rutgers has scored TDs on only 11 of 20 trips inside the opponent's 10-yard line. In a league road game, of which Rutgers has won only once since 1998, the Scarlet Knights cannot afford to leave points on the field. Rutgers must score on every red zone trip and must score TDs every time they penetrate the UP10.
3. Set Up the Run With the Pass. Last year, the once-tough Panther defense was suddenly soft. A formerly impenetrable rushing defense ranked in the lower third of Division IA programs. The Scarlet Knight RBs gained 159 yards on 36 carries as first TB Justise Hairston and then FB Brian Leonard pounded the Panther defense. Only a 35-point halftime deficit – and 54 designed pass plays – kept the ulcer under control. Pittsburgh's defense has bounced back this season and is yielding only 113 rushing yards per game through six games. Last week, against the physical Boston College Eagles, Panther defensive coordinator Paul Rhodes deployed an eight-man front and limited Boston College to 74 rushing yards 29 carries. I expect Rhodes to apply the pressure to Rutgers, too, with an eight-man front to stuff the Scarlet Knight running game and blitz QB Ryan Hart. When Schiano got conservative against Temple last week and tried to grind a win with the running game against Temple's eight-man front, the offense sputtered with only two drives exceeding 50 yards and none exceeding 10 plays. Schiano cannot afford to try to establish the running game against an eight-man front. Schiano must put the ball in the hands of his QB and let him win the game with the head coach's full support and confidence. Hart must come out throwing and use the passing attack to set up the running game. Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg must call designed passes on at least half of Rutgers first down plays. And he should mix plenty of draws and screen passes to keep the Panther pass rush off balance.
4. Defensive Line of Scrimmage. The Pittsburgh OLine has been the weak link in a very fragile offense this season. Injuries and a lack of depth had significantly compromised the performance of the unit earlier in the year. Last week, the slated starting OLine started its first game as an intact unit. The Panther RBs gained 117 yards on 28 carries and the OLine did not yield a sack against perhaps the best DLine in the Big East. The Rutgers DLine has recorded 20 sacks this season. No other team in the Big East has more than 12. However, the Scarlet Knight DLine struggled against the only two opponents that employ a two-back set as their base running formation (as does Pittsburgh) – Syracuse and Vanderbilt – allowing 545 rushing yards combined. The Scarlet Knight DLine must control the line of scrimmage. They must not allow the Panther RBs to gain more than 3 yards per carry. They also must pressure Panther QB Tyler Palko, who is yet another mobile QB. The DLine must flush Palko from the pocket, contain him, and tackle him. If Rutgers can force Palko to take his eyes off his receivers, Palko will struggle. Rutgers must sack Palko four times and limit him to 50 yards rushing.
5. Carpe Diem. Rutgers has played tight in every game this season. The Scarlet Knights squandered four trips inside the 10-yard line against Michigan State in scoring only six points. Rutgers froze in 2nd Half collapses against New Hampshire and Kent State that cost them a humiliating loss. The Scarlet Knights blew a 4-point lead to Syracuse with four minutes remaining and possession on the SU21. Rutgers spotted Vanderbilt a 27-3 lead with a sloppy 1st Half. And Rutgers bumbled its way to a thoroughly unimpressive 16-6 win over Temple that was decided in the final four minutes. Rutgers has yet to play a complete game this season. This inconsistency has been compounded by the willingness of the coaching staff to sit on a lead rather than to go for the kill. The result is two come-from-ahead losses and three wins that were much closer than necessary. On the road, in conference, Schiano cannot afford to coach tight. His team mirrors that tightness and doesn't play well when tight. Schiano must coach this game to win. Be aggressive. Be patient. Be confident. Inspire your kids. Do not undermine them. Put them in a position to make plays and then let them make the plays.
1. Jr QB Ryan Hart. The Scarlet Knight offense typically mirrors the performance of its triggerman. Hart has shined in Rutgers best offensive efforts against Syracuse and Vanderbilt, throwing for over 300 yards in each. And Rutgers has struggled when Hart has struggled. Like his team, Hart has yet to play a complete game. He could not engineer a TD drive against Michigan State and was shut out of the end zone by Temple for 57 minutes. Hart has improved his completion rate to 63% this season but his 10-8 TD-to-INT is unacceptable for the west coast offense. Accuracy and decision-making are still chronic problems. And deep passing is still a weakness that opponents can exploit with tight coverage underneath. As noted above, Pittsburgh will likely deploy an eight-man front and dare Hart to beat the blitz. Hart must dissect the Panther secondary and attack all areas of the field. While the Panther CBs spotted Connecticut WRs 10-15 yard cushions earlier in the season, I expect Rhodes to use tighter cushions and press coverage against Hart, who lacks Dan Orlovsky's cannon. Hart must find his open receivers and not force or telegraph throws. Ryan must complete his short passes quickly and accurately before the heat arrives. And he must stand in long enough to complete the deeper passes needed to stretch the Pittsburgh defense vertically. Hart must complete at least 65% of his passes for at least 250 yards. He must throw at least 2 TD passes and no INTs. He as a narrow margin of error in this game.
2. So CB Joe Porter. Last year, Schiano tended to deploy his CBs to one side of the field – Nate Jones was the LCB and Brandon Haw was the RCB. I am uncertain how Schiano has aligned his CBs this season. Pittsburgh – WRU under Harris – lacks its usual firepower in its receiving corps. Fitzgerald and Wilson departed. RS Sr WR Princell Brockenbrough and So WR Terrell Allen, two expected key contributors, will miss the entire season with injuries. So WR Greg Lee is the only appreciable threat in once-fearsome Panther receiving corps. Harris has not found any suitable replacements among his JUCO or freshmen recruits, relying upon walk-on Joe Delsardo as his second receiver. Schiano must align Joe Porter – his best cover CB – over Lee. So CB Derrick Roberson has been a bonfire in pass coverage. Schiano must not risk big plays by matching Roberson on Lee. Porter must limit Lee to no more than four catches for no more than 80 yards. Joe must not give up any long TD receptions.
3. RS Fr LT Pedro Sosa. Sosa is the fifth OT on the depth chart. Knee injuries have sidelined starting RT RS Jr Sameeh McDonald and backup RT true Fr Jeremy Zuttah while a high ankle sprain has sidelined backup RT RS So Cameron Stephenson. Sosa briefly saw action against Syracuse in relief of McDonald but two quick illegal procedure penalties ended his day. Sosa was expected to split time at LT with starter Ron Green last week, which would have allowed Green to spell Stephenson at RT. However, Stephenson played the entire game until injured in the 4th Quarter. Sosa finished the game at LT. McDonald may return this week but his availability is uncertain. McDonald's usage may reflect Sosa's performance. If Sosa plays well, McDonald may simply spell the rookie. If Sosa struggles, McDonald may be forced to play, gimpy or not. Pittsburgh will likely try to exploit Sosa, who must battle and must hold his own against more experienced Panther DEs and OLBs. Ver Steeg must assist his rookie with his playcalling. Draw plays are easily blocked by OTs, who allow an outside upfield rush by the DEs, and will also serve to slow down the pass rush. Screen passes will also slow the pass rush but will not necessarily help Sosa because he must hold his block and cut the DE to open a passing lane. Ver Steeg can also run the Power G behind him (where he briefly double teams the DT and then blocks the backside the LB) or away from him (where he seals the backside DE). Running inside zone or off-tackle plays behind Sosa could prove more challenging. Sosa must not allow/commit more than three of the following - sacks, holding penalties, or illegal procedure penalties.
4. Fr WS Ron Girault. Last week, I said that Jr WS Jason Nugent must play better to keep his starting job. Too late. Girault started at WS in place of Nugent and earned Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors with 13 tackles and an INT. Girault is big and a little slow to play safety. However, he has great instincts and tackles well. Two things severely lacking in the Scarlet Knight secondary. Pittsburgh's receiving corps is no longer the dominating unit of recent years. The Panthers are more dependent upon a balanced offense. Girault likely align in an eight-man front, on the weak side. He must provide strong run support without getting burned in pass coverage. He must be careful not to get out of position on bootlegs, which have been successful against the undisciplined Scarlet Knight defense. Lacking receiving options for a rookie QB, Harris has Palko throwing much more frequently to his TBs. Or scrambling with his feet. Girault will be responsible for covering backs out of the backfield. Or tackling a scrambling Palko. When in a Cover 2 assignment (two deep zone), Girault must not let opposing receivers get behind him. Girault must make 8 tackles and not get beat deep.
5. Jr FS Dondre Asberry. Asberry had a pretty uneventful game against Temple. Although he played, he didn't record any defensive statistics. However, he later became the story that dominated the headlines when he was involved in an automobile accident hours after the game. An innocent victim of a drunken moron driving on the wrong side of a divided highway, Asberry reportedly suffered spine and neck injuries in the crash. Privacy issues have kept the full extent of his injuries out of the news. But he has reportedly undergone a few surgical procedures. His season is, without a doubt, over. Dondre will be in the hearts and on the minds of his teammates in Pittsburgh. Get well soon, young man.
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