Keys to the Connecticut Game

Connecticut was the preseason media darling. Meanwhile, after a season-opening win over Michigan Start, Rutgers was also being hyped in a changing of the guard in the Big East. A game originally hyped as a potential bowl showdown between two rising Big East programs suddenly has less meaning. Rutgers is left playing for pride as it desperately tries to salvage a once-promising season. Here are my five keys to a win over Connecticut that would stop a four-game losing streak.

KEYS TO THE CONNECTICUT GAME


Connecticut appeared on Rutgers schedule in 2001, much to consternation of many Rutgers fans.  After languishing for five years during the debacle that was the Terry Shea era, Rutgers fans were concerned that Rutgers had sunk so far that Connecticut, still transferring to Division IA after being a mediocre Division IAA program, would quickly pass Rutgers and rise to the first division of the Big East.  Connecticut is an aberration in the northeast – a state university that actually has the popular support of the populace of its state.  Such is culture is common across the country but does not exist in the northeast.  Except in Connecticut, where eminently successful men's and women's basketball programs have captured the hearts and souls of the people of Connecticut.  That same passion – and the commitment of an outstanding athletic department – was expected to spark a rapid ascent up the Division IA football ranks.  Connecticut won this first contest, 20-19, at Piscataway.  Rutgers returned the visit last year, determined to avenge the 2001 loss and prove that Connecticut had not passed Rutgers.  Though physically dominating the smaller Huskies, the Scarlet Knights committed five TOs that cost them the game, as Connecticut won 38-31 in a shootout. 

Rutgers took the opening kickoff and drove 65 yards in eleven plays but, true to form, stalled at the UC05 and settled for yet another chip-shot FG by PK Ryan Sands.  The teams both went 3-n-out but a 29-yard punt by P Joe Radigan gave the Huskies a 16-yard gain in field position off the exchange.  Connecticut promptly drive 53 yards in seven plays, scoring on a 3-yard TD run by Husky TB Chris Bellamy to take a 7-3 lead.  QB Ryan Hart threw an INT at the UC42 but the Scarlet Knight defense forced a quick punt, which CB Nate Jones blocked and TB Markis Facyson returned 36 yards for a TD.  Rutgers stopped Connecticut short of midfield to end the 1st Quarter and opened the 2nd Quarter with a drive of their own that stalled just short of midfield.  The teams again exchanged 3-n-outs and Rutgers forced the fourth Husky punt of the half.  Rutgers drove 66 yards in 10 plays and Facyson scored on a 26-yard wheel route to give the Scarlet Knights a 17-7 lead at halftime. 

Connecticut opened the 2nd Half with a seven-play, 68-yard TD drive capped with a 15-yard TD run by Husky TB Cornell Brockington.  Two plays later, WR Shawn Tucker fumbled at the RU30 and the Huskies recovered at the RU43.  Connecticut capitalized with a nine-play, 43-yard drive ending with a 4-yard TD pass from Husky QB Dan Orlovsky to Husky TE Tim Lassen.  Rutgers' 10-point lead disappeared in eight minutes.  However, the Scarlet Knights answered with a 14-play, 74-yard TD drive finished with a one-yard run by TB Brian Leonard to retake the lead, 24-21.  The Huskies pinned Rutgers at the RU02 with a 68-yard punt that PR Tres Moses allowed to bounce about 25 yards.  The Scarlet Knights drove to the UC33 in eight plays behind the running of Leonard, who was wearing down the Connecticut defense, but Hart threw another INT that Husky CB Justin Perkins returned 50 yards to the RU30.  The Scarlet Knight defense held at the RU07 and Connecticut settled for a 25-yard FG to tie the game, 24-24.  Penalties killed the next Rutgers possession and, three plays after a 28-yard punt by Radigan, Orlovsky connected with Husky WR Keron Henry on a 72-yard bomb past a poorly executed blitz and through blown double coverage.  Rutgers answered with a seven-play, 69-yard drive that Leonard finished with a 35-yard TD run through an exhausted Husky defense.  Rutgers forced Connecticut 3-n-out but Moses again let the punt land and compounded his error when he unsuccessfully attempted to field the bouncing ball.  Connecticut recovered the muff at the RU06 with 1:19 remaining.  Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano inexplicably wasted a timeout on the change of possession to console a devastated Moses.  A timeout that his team needed to conserve time.  Brockington ploughed in from the RU01 to score the clinching TD with 0:26 left. 

Rutgers fans spent the off-season wallowing in the mistaken belief that the better team lost.  Yes, Rutgers was physically superior.  But Rutgers was a mistake-prone team and those mistakes cost the Scarlet Knights the game against Connecticut.  Connecticut finished the 2003 season with a 9-3 record but, lacking a conference affiliation, did not receive a bowl bid.  Entering the Big East a year early, the Huskies were the preseason media darling.  An easy schedule and a weakened Big East offered the Huskies a chance to earn a bowl bid in their inaugural Big East season.  Early-season struggles by Big East mainstays Syracuse and Pittsburgh perpetuated the Connecticut hype.  But, once the Huskies got into their Big East schedule, the losses started mounting.  Connecticut (6-4, 2-3) is bowl eligible – and their rabid fan base may earn the Huskies a bowl bid – but has struggled in league games, especially on the road.  Meanwhile, after a season-opening win over Michigan Start, Rutgers was also being hyped in a changing of the guard in the Big East.  Again, it didn't happen.  The Scarlet Knights were winless in league road games – dropping close losses at Syracuse and at Boston College – and could not pull the home upset of West Virginia.  Stunning non-conference losses to New Hampshire and Navy cost Rutgers (4-6, 1-4) bowl eligibility.  A game originally hyped as a potential bowl showdown between two rising Big East programs – and moved to Thanksgiving morning to be showcased nationally on ESPN2 – suddenly has less meaning.  Connecticut will receive a bowl bid in a season low on bowl eligible teams.  The Huskies nonetheless are playing for a chance to draw a bid to the #4 Big East bowl – the Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Rutgers is left playing for pride as it desperately tries to salvage a once-promising season.  Here are my five keys to a win over Connecticut that would stop a four-game losing streak.


TEAM KEYS

1.  Turnovers.  Rutgers has committed 33 TOs this season.  Or over three per game. That ranks #115 (of 117) nationally.  Only Washington, with 43, is worse.  TOs cost Rutgers wins against New Hampshire and Syracuse.  TOs buried Rutgers in a 20-3 halftime hole at Vanderbilt.  TOs let Temple hang around and threaten to steal a win.  TOs resulted in a 38-3 halftime deficit at Pittsburgh.  TOs cost Rutgers a chance to upset 15th-ranked West Virginia and 25th-ranked Boston College.  And TOs contributed to a 40-7 halftime deficit against Navy.  TOs are poison to the west coast offense.  Such a methodical, ball control offense cannot afford so many TOs because it deprives the team of valuable possessions.  The confidence of the Scarlet Knight offense is very fragile right now.  The running game is negligible and TOs have crippled the passing attack.  TOs were the difference in the game with Connecticut last year as the Scarlet Knights committed five TOs to zero for the Huskies.  The Scarlet Knights must not commit more than two TOs on Thanksgiving and none can be allowed to be returned for TDs. 

2.  Ball Control.   Last year against Connecticut, Rutgers controlled the ball for 34 minutes and had a 77-62 advantage in the number of offensive plays.  Rutgers dominated possession in the 1st Half, running 41 plays to only 27 plays for the Huskies.  Despite monopolizing the football, Rutgers needed a blocked punt to dominate the scoring.  Rutgers further dominated possession in the 2nd Half but Scarlet Knight TOs enabled Connecticut to score 17 short field points.  The TOs also cut short Scarlet Knight possessions and spared the exhausted Husky defense from further punishment.  Rutgers ability to control the football disrupted the rhythm of the Husky offense, which experienced four 3-n-outs and seven punts.  The Husky defense was spent after Rutgers mounted a 13-play drive late in the 3rd Quarter.  One possession late, the Scarlet Knights were on their way to a punishing, demoralizing 98-yard TD drive before a TO gave the Huskies a huge break.  Both offensively and defensively.  The Huskies are a fundamentally sound football team.  But they lack size, speed, and depth.  A ball control offense will slowly wear the Connecticut defense and will disrupt the timing of the Husky offense.  Connecticut Head Coach Randy Edsall will likely play an eight-man front to force Rutgers to throw.  The Scarlet Knights will need a balanced attack to execute the ball control offense.  But Rutgers must throw when Edsall is daring them to pass.  Rutgers must control the football for at least 33 minutes and run at least ten more plays than the Huskies. 

3.  Pass Rush.  Orlovsky is the best QB in the Big East and a possible first round NFL draft choice.  He is big and strong.  He makes good decisions.  And he has some mobility.  While Orlovsky can throw on the run, he does not perform well when pressured.  Much like former Miami QB Ken Dorsey, Orlovsky will start dancing if he is pressured.  And he doesn't look downfield when he is dancing.  Rutgers secondary is terrible.  The Scarlet Knights are ranked #99 nationally in pass defense, allowing 249 yards per game.  Edsall will often employ 3WR and 4WR formations.  Depth in the secondary has been limited since an automobile accident over one month ago injured three DBs.  The secondary will need help from the pass rush to take some pressure off it.  Rutgers leads the Big East with 31 sacks.  The DLine has recorded most of those sacks.  The DLine must generate an effective four-man pass rush.  Rutgers has faced many very mobile QBs this year.  Orlovsky is not one such QB.  Whereas the Scarlet Knights needed to contain these mobile QBs in the pocket, Rutgers must flush Orlovsky from the pocket.  If he is moving around, he isn't looking downfield.  The Scarlet Knights must generate at least three sacks and must keep Orlovsky under constant pressure. 

4.  Power Football.  Last year, the Scarlet Knight offense averaged 139 rushing yards per game (#69 nationally).  Rutgers rushed for 244 yards against Connecticut last year, which was key to maintaining possession of the football.  Returning four starters on the OLine and the entire backfield, Rutgers was expected to improve upon those rushing statistics.  However, the OLine has regressed nearly to the futility of Schiano's first two seasons.  Rutgers is averaging only 83 rushing yards per game, ranked #113 nationally.  The Scarlet Knights gained twenty percent of their rushing totals (830 yards) in the first game.  Last week against Navy, Rutgers gained only 33 net yards on 21 carries.  However, TB Brian Leonard gained 44 yards on 11 carries for a respectable average of 4.0 yards per carry.  Rutgers lost 31 yards on a combination of cute plays (reverses, etc) that weren't necessary against a smaller, overmatched Midshipmen defense.  Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg must establish a power football game that will force Edsall to commit an eight-man front.  Then, Ver Steeg must exploit the Husky secondary with play-action passing.  Rutgers must gain at least 175 rushing yards. 

5.  Misdirection.  Connecticut used misdirection successfully against Rutgers last year.  Although the Huskies gained only 99 net rushing yards, nine of 29 designed runs gained at least five yards. Many of these gains came on counters that caught Rutgers failing to maintain backside containment.  Rutgers was also hurt by bootlegs, especially by the Husky TEs.  Rutgers must defend misdirection and force Connecticut to move the ball with strength, not finesse.  Misdirection has been a tremendous problem for the undisciplined Scarlet Knight defense all season.  The Scarlet Knights must not give up any gains of more than 20 yards on misdirection. 


KEY INDIVIDUALS

1.  Jr QB Ryan Hart.  The Rutgers season has crashed with the disintegration of Hart as a passer.  Hart leads the Big East in passing yardage at 288 yards per game.  But he has thrown 19 INTs and only 15 TDs.  This TD-to-INT ratio is simply horrendous for a west coast offense QB, who should have a ratio of at least 2-to-1.  Hart has thrown four "pick sixes" this season.  And each has contributed to putting Rutgers into a first half deficit.  His pick six last week against Navy was the turning point of the game.  With the rushing attack struggling, Rutgers cannot win without efficient performance by Hart.  Ryan must make plays.  He must make good decisions and accurate throws.  He must not force passes into coverage.  He must convert 3rd down passes.  He must complete at least 65% of his passes.  He must throw twice as many TDs as INTs.  He must hit his receivers in stride to maximize yardage after catch against the Huskies' Cover 1 (man-to-man underneath with a single deep safety) scheme.  He must throw for at least 250 yards and cannot throw more than one INT. 

2.  RS So FB Brian Leonard.  Leonard gained 184 yards on 33 carries against Connecticut last year.  He gained another 33 yards on two receptions.  Leonard single-handedly wore down the Husky the defense to the brink of collapse.  Schiano has imperceptibly used Leonard as his feature TB, where Brian's skills are minimized.  Brian lacks the speed to run outside.  And Ver Steeg steadfastly refuses to throw play action drag routes for his other FBs to force opposing OLBs to defend the outside.  That allows opposing defensive coordinators to load their defenses in the middle to stop the burly Leonard.  Brian has been running into stacked defenses behind a line that is not performing.  Leonard should be playing FB.  But Schiano has not given any other TB, besides So Justise Hairston, a fair chance to produce.  After ten games, Schiano is unlikely to change.  Leonard will have to carry the running game. He gained 44 yards on 11 carries last week against Navy.  Leonard was effective but the quick deficit the Scarlet Knights dug effectively eliminated the running game.  Leonard must have a big game against the undersized Connecticut defense.  He must gain at least 150 rushing yards and 200 all-purpose yards. 

3.  RS Jr WR Tres Moses.  Last year, Moses caught six passes for 42 yards.  However, Moses was a disaster as a punt returner.  He returned two punts for minus 4 yards.  He let one punt roll about 25 yards to the RU02.  And he muffed a punt inside the 10-yard line that setup the game winning TD for Connecticut.  Moses has been sensational this season.  Last week, he broke the Rutgers season record for receptions.  With two catches, he will record the second most season receptions in Big East history behind former Pittsburgh Panther WR Larry Fitzgerald.  With seven more receiving yards, Moses will break the Rutgers season record of 894 yards held by TE Marco Battaglia.  Connecticut likely will be using a lot of Cover 1 in the secondary.  That should give Moses plenty of field to use to his advantage.  Both underneath and deep.  Moses must catch at least eight passes for at least 80 yards.  Moses owes Connecticut some payback. 

4.  So CB Derrick Roberson.  Roberson has been the weak link in the second.  A dime CB last season, Roberson was initially unable to secure a starting job despite the departure of the previous two starting CBs.  However, Roberson moved into the starting lineup in the third week of the season, displacing Sr CB Eddie Grimes.  As he as last year, Roberson has been a target of opposing QBs.  Even one-dimensional Navy picked on Roberson.  Orlovsky will likely target Roberson early and often.  The Husky WRs are not that talented.  So Roberson will not be overmatched.  He must play effectively whether in zone or man-to-man coverage.  When in zone, he must funnel receivers inside to the safety. When in man-to-man coverage, he must not be burned on double moves.  Regardless, Derrick must be more physical.  His coverage is too soft and he rarely hits an opposing WR.  Roberson must not allow more than five passes to his receivers for no more than 75 yards.  And he must not get beat for any TDs. 

5.  RS Jr DE Ryan Neill.  Neill is ranked second in the Big East with 8 sacks.  Ryan has recorded 38 tackles and 12 TFLs.  Neill leads Rutgers in both TFLs and sacks.  After a strong start to the season, Neill's play has subsided as Rutgers losing streak has grown.  The Scarlet Knights must pressure Orlovsky in the pocket.  Therefore, Neill must perform well in the role of pass rusher.  He also must provide containment on bootlegs, to prevent Orlovsky from rolling out to exploit the Scarlet Knight secondary on misdirection.  Neill must register at least five tackles and at least 1.5 sacks.  He must be the ringleader on a DLine that controls the line of scrimmage. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net. 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 Connecticut game with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.


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