SUMMER CAMP PREVIEW – PERFORMANCE ISSUES
Entering the 2004 season, the consensus expectation for Rutgers was seven wins. Not necessarily a bowl bid. But seven wins. A season-opening 19-14 win over Michigan State at Rutgers Stadium demonstrated the Scarlet Knights' potential but also exposed several flaws. As the season progressed, Rutgers struggled with the lightweight portion of its schedule and then collapsed down the stretch. Despite a wide array of talent and experience, Rutgers succumbed to its own flaws as a once-promising season swirled down the drain. This article is the last of a three-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it enters summer camp. The first article reviewed new faces on the roster and the second article identified significant depth chart battles. This last article reviews performance issues. And, as might be expected after such a disappointing season, there are a whole bunch of them.
Since Year One, Schiano has drawn praise for the way he runs his program Sundays through Fridays. Saturdays have been the problem, as the whispers of "can't coach on Saturdays" have grown louder. Rutgers possesses the talent, experience, and depth to win seven games and earn a bowl bid. However, the Scarlet Knights must stop beating themselves before they can start beating the opposition. Rutgers again has a very accommodating schedule that contains only one opponent – Louisville – that the Scarlet Knights cannot beat. The following performance issues that must be addressed if Rutgers is to reach a bowl game:
- Mental/Emotional Preparation: Too often in his first four seasons, Schiano's teams have been flat on game day. After another bad loss, the papers are full of quotes from the players about how they underestimated their opponent or simply weren't ready to play. This nonsense must stop. After a tremendous season-opening victory against Michigan State that garnered national attention, the Scarlet Knights took New Hampshire lightly and sleepwalked through a 35-24 defeat. Their heads still weren't right a week later against Kent State. After a heartbreaking loss at Syracuse, Rutgers dug itself a 24-point hole at Vanderbilt with uninspired play before rallying for a win in the final minute. Rutgers was lifeless the next week against Temple. And the following week at Pittsburgh (although a tragic car accident after the Temple game injured three players and provided mitigating circumstances). Rutgers traveled to Navy with a bowl berth on the line and promptly laid an egg.
This team plays the passion of mercenaries but without their mental discipline. Schiano is not getting 100% commitment from his players. Somewhere in "the process", he is losing their hearts and minds. Has the rigid manner in which Schiano runs the program sucked the life out of his players? Is that why they often aren't mentally or emotionally ready to play? Schiano must address the culture within his program that prompts his players to go through the motions. Is it immaturity from below or a lack of leadership from above? Or a combination of both?
- Big Plays Allowed: For the second consecutive year, the big play was the Achilles heel of the defense. The defense allowed 26 runs and 42 passes of at least 20 yards. That's an average of six big plays yielded per game, compared with 5 big plays per game in 2003. The sequence would be stop, stop, stop, big play, TD. Opponents didn't need sustained execution to negotiate the field when they could exploit a chink in the armor for huge chunks of yardage in a single play. The sequence repeated itself over and over all year long. Michigan State scored both of its TDs on drives exploiting lightning strikes. New Hampshire used big plays on four of its five TD drives. Kent State hit big plays on all three of their TD drives. Big plays led Syracuse to 31 of their 41 points. After methodically driving against Rutgers in the 1st Half, Vanderbilt used big plays to spark both of its 2nd Half TDs. Temple hit a big play on one of its two FG drives. Big plays sparked 28 of Pittsburgh's 34 offensive points. West Virginia used big plays on four of its five TD drives. Boston College hit a big play on one of its two offensive TD drives. Navy struck for big plays on six of its seven offensive TD drives. Connecticut used big plays on four of its six TD drives.
This nonsense must stop. No position is without blame. The DEs lose outside containment. The DTs get pushed around at the point of attack. The LBs are MIA. So are the safeties. And the CBs get beaten deep. The result is a defense that more closely resembles the Keystone Cops. The Scarlet Knights must drastically reduce the blown assignments that result in big plays for the opponents. Forcing the opponent to methodically drive the field will create more opportunities for drive-killing mistakes. It will shorten the game, which plays to Rutgers favor. And it will take pressure off the methodical Scarlet Knight offense to match in 10-15 plays what the opponent accomplishes in 5-10 plays.
- Interceptions: For the second consecutive year, Sr QB Ryan Hart threw 19 INTs, tying an ignominious school record. Ryan threw four pick sixes – against Vanderbilt, Pittsburgh, Boston College, and Navy. Three were short out routes that opposing defenders jumped and took unimpeded to the house. Rutgers lost three of those games and trailed by 24 points in the fourth game. Not blessed with a strong arm, Hart had a knack for underthrowing deep passes, which were intercepted by beaten DBs trailing the Scarlet Knight receivers. Hart had a 17-19 TD-to-INT ratio last year, which is woefully unacceptable for the west coast offense. The west coast offense relies upon a highly accurate short passing game to keep the chains moving. The QB must be efficient, which means a 65+% completion rate and a 2:1 TD-to-INT ratio. Hart completes a high percentage of his passes but he absolutely must reduce his drive killing INTs by half. He must stop forcing throws into coverage and instead must check down to his secondary and tertiary options. He has to play smarter. Much smarter.
- Red Zone Scoring: Fro two consecutive years, Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg's offense has moved the ball methodically between the 20s. And for two consecutive years, Rutgers has struggled once it reached the red zone. Rutgers ranked #40 nationally in total offense but only #66 in scoring offense. Why? Besides committing a ridiculously high number of turnovers, Rutgers couldn't finish in the red zone. So PK Jeremy Ito attempted ten of his 24 FGAs from less than 30 yards. Rutgers' playcalling, already predictable, was moreso in the red zone. RS Jr TB Brian Leonard carried as the TB or caught passes as the FB. Or Hart threw down the middle to the TE on a post route. Most receivers ran decoy routes and the play broke down if the primary receiver was covered. There were too many vertical routes on a short field and not enough crossing or fade routes. RBs not named Leonard didn't get enough touches. With Leonard at TB, RS Sr FB Ishmael Medley should be WAFO on play action drag routes. RS Sr WR Chris Baker, at 6-5, is a big target for fade or slant routes. Rutgers will continue to struggle to put opponents away until the Scarlet Knights get more efficient in the red zone.
- Physical Pass Coverage: Rutgers installed a new video replay scoreboard last year. One of the features of the new scoreboard was bells that sounded when Rutgers was in a 3rd down defensive situation. Rutgers fans grew to dread those bells, especially in long yardage situations. Because the bells invariable announced the Scarlet Knight defense was about to yield a first down. The primary reason for this dread was powder puff pass coverage, especially over the middle. The Scarlet Knights allowed opposing receivers to run unobstructed through the Rutgers secondary. The result was typically a long completion (> 10 yards) for first down yardage. The zone coverage underneath must become more physical. LBs, S/OLB hybrids (dime package), and CBs must hit opposing receivers running through their zones. That will knock the receivers off stride and disrupt the timing between QB and receiver. Against Pittsburgh, So WS Ron Girault leveled a Panther receiver going deep. The play was memorable because it was the rare exception, not the norm. It must become the norm.
Another soft coverage issue was double moves by opposing WRs against Rutgers' CBs on the outside. Receviers would fake a post route and then cut towards the corner (or vice-versa), spinning the Scarlet Knight CB around and gaining separation. The CBs must stop turning away from the double move and instead must step into the move. Once a CB turns on a fake, he is beaten on the double move. Better to step back into the receiver and drill him, knocking him off his route, than letting him run past. The contact will draw a pass interference penalty if the ball is in the air. But pass interference is preferable to an uncontested big gain. Especially one that goes for a TD. Sr CB Corey Barnes provided a good example of this technique on the very first play of the Spring Game. Baker ran a hitch-n-go route. Barnes bit on the hitch but jammed Baker, buying Corey enough time to recover on the go route.
- Defending Misdirection: The Rutgers defense could not defend misdirection last year. And opposing coaches had this deficiency well scouted. New Hampshire used WR middle screens to counter blitzes. Connecticut used counter runs. Boston College, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, and Vanderbilt used bootlegs. Syracuse and Vanderbilt used counter option. West Virginia, Kent State, and New Hampshire used zone options. Syracuse used counter pitch. The Scarlet Knights have a great deal of difficulty finding the football if it isn't where they expect it to be. The defense is all balls, no brains. They are so focused on their primary responsibilities that they neglect their secondary obligations. Many of the big plays allowed occurred on misdirection. The defensive discipline must take a giant leap forward if the defense is to improve. DEs must contain the backside. LBs must flow to the ball and fill the hole. The safeties must be the last line of defense. How many times must the Scarlet Knights get burned before they learn?
- Run Blocking: Rutgers averaged only 2.5 yards per carry last year. The poor rushing average cannot be blamed on sacks, as the OLine yielded only 30 sacks for minus 147 yards. No, the problem was the blocking. Former C Ray Pilch, a converted TE, was a convenient scapegoat for frustrated fans. But Ray was only one weak link in a chain comprised of weak links. Pilch struggled with interior combination blocks – double team the DT with the OG and then pick off a backside LB. Ray too often could not disengage the DT, leaving the LB unblocked at the point of attack on iso runs. But Ray was not the source of breakdowns on other running plays. The TEs were repeatedly beaten at the point of attack on the bread-n-butter Power G (pulling OG and FB leading outside the downblocking TE), allowing penetration that blew up the pulling OG and leaving the MLB unblocked in the hole. OGs were repeatedly beaten at the point of attack on iso runs. OTs were beaten on off-tackle and inside zone runs, losing the edge and forcing the run back into the pursuit. The replacement of OLine Coach Rod Holder with Kyle Flood should be addition by subtraction. However, based upon a review the Spring Game, Flood has his work cut out for him. He has an experienced right side with RS Sr RT Sameeh McDonald and RS Sr RG John Glass. The rest of the unit is green. Bright green. If the OLine can open holes for the running game, it will take the pressure off Hart, whose ability to carry the offense is suspect. The run blocking is the key to the offense this year. Rutgers must increase its rushing average to at least 3.5 yards per carry. Preferably 4.0 yards per carry.
- Blitzing: Schiano has done a poor job of disguising his blitzes. He lines up his OLBs up on the line of scrimmage and they rush the passer. Opponents have plenty of time to audible or check to a hot route. New Hampshire repeatedly audibled into WR middle screens against Rutgers' blitzes. The Wildcats cleared a channel up the middle and gained huge yardage. Schiano never adapted. He kept telegraphing blitz. And kept getting burned with screens. The blitzing must be more sophisticated. Show blitz and drop into coverage. Time the blitz with the snap of the football. Zone blitz, dropping a DL into a zone vacated by a blitzing LB. Force the opposing QB to read the action rather than calmly analyze his options before the snap. Blitzing has been a poor risk-reward affair for Rutgers. With the athleticism Schiano deploys, that is not acceptable.
- Senior Leadership: The 2003 Rutgers team had strong senior leadership from DE Raheem Orr and C Marty P'zmuka. P'zmuka organized off-season workouts for the OLine, which catalyzed a remarkable turnaround for a unit that had been useless the prior year. This leadership helped the Scarlet Knights to shed their losing ways and begin making waves in the Big East. In 2004, the lack of leadership on the team was palpable. Schiano appointed C Ray Pilch, FS Jarvis Johnson, and WR Tres Moses as captains. Pilch struggled after switching to center from TE. Johnson had a terrible year. Moses had a phenomenal year yet seemed reluctant to embrace the responsibility of leadership. After the New Hampshire debacle, Moses told the media that he had noticed a lax attitude in practice the prior week but was reluctant to speak up. A captain who is reluctant to lead might as well carry the bags. This team desperately needs leadership. Schiano's management style does not exactly foster leadership. The players must take leadership upon themselves. Don't ask for permission. Just do it. It's their team as much as it is Schiano's. The captains must lead or step aside in favor of somebody else who will lead.
- Predictable Playcalling: The knock on Ver Steeg at Utah was predictable playcalling. One Ute fan asked Rutgers fans whether Rutgers likes to run up the middle. The offense is too rigid with its play selection. And it's personnel. Ver Steeg has gotten a rap as a "run-run-pass" coach. During the Michigan State broadcast, the ABC announcers ridiculed the predictable playcalling. The problem persisted all season. Personnel often dictated the play. RS Jr TB Brian Leonard and Jr TB Justise Hairston primarily ran inside. Cedric Brown and RS Sr Ishmael Medley were primarily blocking FBs. Backup TB So Dimitri Linton ran primarily outside. Backup FB So Jean Beljour was primarily a receiver. Ver Steeg concedes the opposing defenses too much of the field with his playcalling. Ver Steeg must occasionally run his big TBs outside. And his small TBs inside. He must call passes to all of his FBs. Not just Leonard. Ver Steeg must involve his other RBs as receivers.
- Punting: RS Jr P Joe Radigan averaged 38 gross yards per punt last year. However, he was wildly inconsistent. He would boom one punt and shank the next. He also had a knack for hitting short punts from deep in Rutgers territory – but not so deep as to be in the end zone (where punts are more difficult) – giving the opponents good field position. Radigan must substantially reduce the number of shanks. Cutting down the 30- to 35-yard punts will add a couple of yards to his punting average.
Coming Next: Part 1 of my Big East Preview. I'll begin my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the Louisville Cardinals, preseason favorites in their inaugural Big East season. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and the season schedule.
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