KEYS TO THE WEST VIRGINIA GAME
The 2003 West Virginia game was an appropriate metaphor for the 2003 Scarlet Knight season. Having lost their previous six games in Morgantown by an average score of 56-12, Rutgers was finally competitive with the Mountaineers last season. And not after spotting West Virginia a big 1st Half lead, as Rutgers had done against Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. No, Rutgers went toe-to-toe with West Virginia in the 1st Half and dominated the 2nd Quarter after the Mountaineers dominated the 1st Quarter. However, a brain fart of epic proportions and an inability to close in the red zone enabled the Mountaineers to withstand the challenge of the pesky young Scarlet Knights, 34-19.
West Virginia took the opening possession and drove 70 yards in seven plays for an opening score on RB Quincy Wilson's 20-yard TD run. Rutgers drove to the WV37, from where P Joe Radigan pinned West Virginia at the WV04. The Scarlet Knight defense forced a 3-n-out but Mountaineer P Todd James pushed Rutgers back to the RU30 with a 64-yard punt that PR Tres Moses let go over his head. QB Ryan Hart immediately threw an INT that Mountaineer SLB Grant Wiley returned to the RU26. The Scarlet Knight defense held at the RU10 and West Virginia settled for a 27-yard Brad Cooper FG and a 10-0 lead. Rutgers answered with another nice drive to the WV38 before Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano risked – and realized – a paltry 18-yard gain in field position when Radigan punted for a touchback on 4th-n-2 from the WV38. West Virginia started the 2nd Quarter with a 63-yard drive to the RU17 but Cooper missed a 34-yard FGA. After the teams exchanged four consecutive 3-n-outs, Rutgers drove 50 yards in six plays for a 37-yard FG by PK Ryan Sands. West Virginia drove to the RU37 but Rutgers dodged a bullet when FS Jarvis Johnson intercepted Mountaineer QB Rasheed Marshall at the RU18. Radigan punted 66-yards for a touchback and an illegal block penalty on the resulting possession pushed West Virginia further back. Schiano called timeout on 4th down with 00:04 remaining and sent his punt block team onto the field. However, West Virginia Head Coach Rich Rodriguez did not oblige Schiano and instead sent his offense onto the field to run out the clock with a long pass. When Rutgers didn't call timeout and didn't cover all four Mountaineer WRs, Marshall threw an 83-yard TD pass to uncovered Mountaineer WR Chris Henry to end the half and extinguish Rutgers' growing confidence.
Rutgers started the 2nd Half still in shock from the blocked punt that wasn't. The Scarlet Knight offense went 3-n-out on the opening possession. West Virginia capitalized with a five-play, 52-yard TD drive capped by a 4-yard run by Wilson up the middle for a 24-1 lead. Rutgers shook off its malaise with a ten-play, 80-yard TD drive that ended with ah 1-yard isolation run by TB Justise Hairston. SLB Brian Bender forced a fumble that DT David Harley recovered at the WV10. Rutgers settled for a 22-yard FG by Sands, narrowing the West Virginia lead to 24-13. West Virginia answered with a 12-play, 77-yard TD drive – extended by a 12-man penalty against Rutgers on a West Virginia punt – culminating with a 4-yard run inside by Wilson to open the 4th Quarter. An 85-yard TD drive, encompassing ten plays and ending with an 11-yard drag route to FB Brian Leonard brought Rutgers to within 31-19 but the 2XPA failed, putting West Virginia in a position to take a two TD lead with a FG. Which West Virginia did on its following possession – a 13-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 27-yard Cooper FG. Two plays later, Mountaineer WS Mike Lorello intercepted Hart to end the game as West Virginia subsequently ran out the clock.
Rodriguez assumed the West Virginia job in 2001, the same year that Schiano arrived at Rutgers. Rodriguez inherited an established program that he completely overhauled. He replaced the plodding, methodical offense with his spread offense and the bend –but-don't break defense with a 4-4 attack scheme. After a disappointing first season that witnessed a lot of roster turnover, Rodriguez tweaked his systems. He placed more of a running emphasis on his spread offense – even adding FBs and TEs – and replaced the 4-4 scheme a 3-3 stack alignment that could better capitalize upon the smaller, quicker players on his defense. The results were back-to-back 6-1 Big East seasons with losses only to Miami ruining an otherwise perfect record. Rodriguez is generally acknowledged as the best coach in the Big East. Not surprisingly, West Virginia (5-1, 2-0 Big East) is the favorite to win the Big East this season and enters Piscataway atop the league standings. Meanwhile, at Rutgers, Schiano stumbled to a 3-20 record in his first two seasons. However, Schiano posted five wins in his third season and, with the first two-win Big East season since 1998, appeared to have Rutgers on an upward track. Something a season-opening win over Michigan State seemed to confirm. However, Rutgers (4-3, 1-2 Big East) has sleepwalked ever since, displaying occasional flashes, and only has a winning record thanks to a schedule stacked with one-win opponents and rated among the weakest in the nation. A team that many thought would rise into the upper division of the Big East instead is on the brink of a meltdown amid cries of "same old Rutgers." A game that looked winnable in August suddenly looks like another disappointment. Here are my five keys to a huge upset over West Virginia.
1. Deep Passing. West Virginia's 3-3 stack defense uses an eight-man front to compensate for the lack of bulk in the front six. Two safeties align as additional OLBs up near the line of scrimmage. As with any eight-man front, the Mountaineers are susceptible to deep passes. Especially so since West Virginia lacks a formidable pass rush. Two CBs and a single deep safety must cover a lot of real estate. Unfortunately, Rutgers has not been very proficient in its deep passing game. Last week, Pittsburgh employed an eight-man front to stuff the running game and pressure Hart. Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg shortened his pass selections in response and the result was a series of drives that ended with completions short of the first down marker on 3rd-n-short. When Ver Steeg called deep plays, the result was incompletions or interceptions. Rutgers must throw downfield against the Mountaineer secondary. On skinny post and corner routes to the WRs. And on seam and corner routes to the TEs. If Rutgers can complete passes downfield, that will force West Virginia to loosen the screws on its 3-3 stack. Which will create more openings underneath for the short passing game and will take pressure off the running game. Rutgers must throw downfield five times in each half. And must complete at least four deep passes for at least 100 yards.
2. Minimize Big Pass Plays Allowed. The big play has been the nemesis for the Scarlet Knight defense for two years now. Last week, against Pittsburgh, was the first game this season in which Rutgers did not allow the opponent more than five gains of at least 20 yards. Pittsburgh recorded four. However, the Panthers scored on TD passes of 17 and 18 yards over a beaten Scarlet Knight secondary. Pittsburgh lacks the athleticism at WR for which it drew the notoriety of Wide Receiver University. Nonetheless, the Panther WRs were able to get open downfield against the Scarlet Knights. West Virginia is a home-run hitting team. Jr WR Chris Henry, Sr TB Kay-Jay Harris, and RS Sr QB Rasheed Marshall each have the ability to take a play to the house. West Virginia has developed a formidable rushing attack under Rodriguez. The fleet-footed Marshall gives West Virginia and additional threat to occupy defenses. The Mountaineers monopolize the football and rarely throw. But, when they do, it is often deep on a defense cheating up to stop the vaunted Mountaineer game. Marshall has improved as a passer but still has limitations. Marshall uses good judgment and doesn't make many mistakes. However, his accuracy on short and intermediate passes is suspect. Rutgers cannot afford to yield deep passes to West Virginia. The Scarlet Knights must force Marshall to drive the field and complete passes into the teeth of pass coverage. Rutgers must not allow more than two passes of at least 20 yards. And no more than one 20+ yard TD pass.
3. Misdirection. The Rutgers defense struggles badly with misdirection plays. Misdirection is the basis of the running game from the spread offense. Draws, counters, QB options. A heavy sprinkling of such misdirection plays complements the inside zone and stretch plays. And such is the case with the West Virginia offense. Rodriguez has undoubtedly noticed Rutgers' susceptibility to misdirection. Rutgers faced spread offenses early in the season – Michigan State, New Hampshire, and Kent State. The Spartans gained 46-yard on a counter trey. New Hampshire repeatedly burned Rutgers with WR middle screens and QB draws. Kent State used QB options effectively off a zone run, in which the QB kept the ball and ran around the uncovered end if the DE pinched hard in pursuit of the RB. I would imagine that West Virginia will use the QB option early and often. The Scarlet Knight defenders must honor their backside responsibilities before committing to pursue a play. The backside DEs must maintain containment and the backside OLB cannot get sucked inside. The DEs must not allow Marshall to get outside the pocket and gain the edge. And the OLBs must not broadcast blitz, allowing WVU to counter with a WR middle screen as did New Hampshire. Rutgers must not allow more than one big play off misdirection. And that play must not be allowed to be a TD. Furthermore, the Scarlet Knights must limit Marshall to 50 yards rushing.
4. Turnovers. Last season, Rutgers and West Virginia were comparably ranked in both total offense and total defense. Yet West Virginia was much superior in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The reason? Turnovers were certainly a prime contributor. West Virginia was ranked #4 nationally in TO margin at plus 16 while the Scarlet Knights were ranked #92 at minus 6. This season, Rutgers is among the nations leaders (#5t) in TOs forced but is still minus 2 in TO margin as a result of 22 TOs committed (#112 nationally). The Scarlet Knights have committed ten TOs in their past two games alone. Rutgers cannot beat a better team while giving up TOs. The Scarlet Knight defense is too fragile and the offense struggles too much inside the red zone. Rutgers cannot afford to finish possessions prematurely. The Scarlet Knights must not commit more than one TO. And not in either red zone.
5. Iso. West Virginia's defense is undersized but quick. Running outside on a fast eight-man front is a difficult challenge. More so when the OLine is not very athletic, as is the case with Rutgers. The most effective way to run at an undersized eight-man front is not outside but rather straight ahead. With only a single deep safety, a quick hitting inside run can yield big yardage if the RB can break into the secondary. The isolation run is one of two bread-n-butter running plays in the Scarlet Knight playbook. Whereas the Power G (the other mainstay), run between the OT and TE with a pulling OG leading through the hole, will be less effective against the 3-3 stack due to the alignment, iso can capitalize on the alignment. Iso will be run between the C and OG against the 3-3 stack. The C will turn the NT away from the hole. The playside OT will seal the DE outside. The playside OG will combination block first the DT (with the OT) and then the OLB. The FB must clear the MLB out of the hole. If the OLine can clear the A gap, the TB will be into the secondary very quickly with only the FS to beat. Rutgers has struggled with iso this year as repeated blocking breakdowns have blown up plays in the backfield or simply plugged the intended hole. The Scarlet Knights must gain at least 4 yards per carry on iso runs. And must gain at least 125 rushing yards overall.
1. Jr QB Ryan Hart. Hart had has experienced the worse two-game stretch of his career in the past two games. Hart has completed 49 of 87 passes for 544 yards and 2 TDs but he also threw 7 INTs and committed two fumbles. Almost half of his passing yardage was achieved during the 2nd Half against Pittsburgh, which Rutgers started trailing 38-3. The Scarlet Knight offense goes as Hart goes. The running game has struggled and has placed Hart in the undesirable situation of being the primary offensive weapon. Hart lacks the arm strength and athleticism to carry an offense. He is a system QB. Physically limited to primarily a short passing game, Hart must be extremely efficient to carry the offense on his back. He must complete at least 65% of his passes. He must throw twice as many TDs as INTs. And he must hit enough deep passes to at least keep opposing defenses honest. Hart will be under tremendous heat against West Virginia. He must not settle for the easy – but ineffective – safety valve pass. Rather he must stand in and find receivers downfield. He must throw for at least 300 yards and cannot throw more than one INT.
2. RS So TE Clark Harris. Harris has more receptions and more receiving yardage than any TE in the Big East. He is ranked second nationally in receiving yardage among TEs. Last week, Harris was not targeted once in a disastrous 1st Half at Pittsburgh. Not surprisingly, the passing game struggled with a slew of 2-yard completions. Harris must be a frequent target this week. The Mountaineer's 3-3 stack defense will provide Harris opportunities to get open downfield off play action fakes. Hart must throw to Harris on seam, corner, and crossing routes. Harris must catch at least six passes for at least 100 yards.
3. So CB Derrick Roberson. Roberson saw action as a CB in the dime defense as a true freshman last year. He received a baptism by fire and was often burned, earning his experience the hard way. Roberson entered the season as the third CB and entered the starting lineup in the third game but has continued to struggle as the weakest link in a weak secondary. Opposing QBs often target Roberson, as Pittsburgh did last week. Roberson aligns as the RCB. Therefore, Schiano's defensive scheme does not attempt to camouflage Roberson by assigning to him the lesser threat. Which allows opponents to pick on Roberson with their best WR. Saturday, that will be Henry. Roberson likely will play a lot of man-to-man coverage as Schiano uses an eight-man front to slow the Mountaineer rushing attack. Roberson must play well. He cannot beaten like a scout team CB in practice. Roberson must limit his assigned receivers to less than 75 receiving yards and no more than one TD.
4. RS Sr C Ray Pilch. The success of isolation runs will largely be dependent upon the ability of the center to turn the NT out of the hole. Last year, departed C Marty P'zmuka performed exceptionally in this role. But P'zmuka was a three-year starter and one of the strongest players on the team. Pilch is a converted TE who has been playing center for only a few months. He is both undersized and inexperienced. He has struggled this season with the nuances of the position. Especially combination blocks typically required of the center on iso runs. This week, Pilch will be solely responsible for the Mountaineer NG on iso runs. Pilch must turn and neutralize 280-pound NT Ben Lynch.
5. Sr FS Jarvis Johnson. Rutgers has been promoting Johnson as a Bronco Nagurski Award candidate as the defensive player of the year. Please. He's not even the best defensive player on the team. Johnson is likely the most experienced defender on the roster. However, he continues to play like a rookie. His tackling prowess is touted while his horrendous pass coverage is overlooked. Johnson is, first and foremost, the FS on a team that frequently employs an eight-man front backstopped by man-to-man coverage with a single deep safety. Yet Johnson is frequently missing-in-action as opponents complete deep passes in the middle of the field. Last week, Johnson missed two INTs, one of which Pittsburgh WR Greg Lee caught on the RU01. Pittsburgh completed several other long passes in the middle where Johnson was nowhere to be found. Run support is nice. But his first priority is the last line of defense. No opposing receiver should get behind him. Especially in the middle of the field. He must honor his pass coverage responsibilities first before rushing up to provide run support or to jump an underneath route. Johnson must record at least eight tackles and one INT. And he must not get beaten deep in the middle of the field.
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