KEYS TO THE VILLANOVA GAME
It is Week 2 and the preseason hype has already been irreparably shattered following a shameful 33-30 OT loss to Big 10 cellar dweller Illinois in Champaign. A vastly more talented Rutgers (0-1, 0-0 Big East) team yet again found a way to lose a game it had no business losing. The Scarlet Knights' offense left 18 points on the field in the 1st Half and the Rutgers' defense blew a 20-point lead in the 2nd Half. Tempered enthusiasm for the pending season was justified as the nonsense that has plagued Head Coach Greg Schiano's program for four years continued into the fifth. Rutgers is now left to pick up the pieces after his team dejectedly trudged off the turf at Memorial Stadium. Rutgers now gets Division I-AA Villanova (0-0, 0-0 Atlantic 10) as the tonic for its hangover. Of course, a Division I-AA is not a sure remedy for Rutgers. Greg Schiano is 0-3 versus Division I-AA opponents.
Rutgers last played Villanova in 2002 in the season opener. Villanova stunned Rutgers 37-19 in the first act of a demoralizing 1-11 season. After Rutgers lost 6 yards on the opening possession, Villanova drove 63 yards for a TD in six plays to seize a lead it would not relinquish. Rutgers stalled near midfield but recovered a punt that deflected off an unwitting Wildcat. Rutgers quickly moved 17 yards for a TD to tie the game 7-7. After an exchange of punts, Villanova mounted a 69-yard TD drive spanning the 1st and 2nd Quarters. Villanova forced another Rutgers punt and drove 81 yards before settling for a 21-yard FG. Villanova intercepted a pass in Rutgers territory but the Scarlet Knight defense stopped the Wildcats on downs. Following yet another Rutgers punt, the Scarlet Knights intercepted a pass and returned the ball to midfield. With only 37 seconds remaining in the half, Rutgers scored a TD in four plays but then botched the XPA. Though being thoroughly dominated in the first half, Rutgers trailed only 17-13 at halftime.
After exchanging punts to open the second half, Villanova quickly stormed 77 yards in five plays for a TD. Rutgers responded with its longest drive of the game – 13 plays and 57 yards – but stalled in the red zone and then gacked a 31-yard FGA. The Rutgers defense again intercepted a pass and returned the pick to the Villanova 15-yard line. Rutgers again converted the TO into a short-field TD but failed on a 2XPA and thus trailed 24-19. Following another exchange of punts, Rutgers pinned Villanova on the VU10 but the Wildcats relentlessly marched 80 yards in 13 plays and seven-and-a-half minutes for a TD (less a missed XPA) that broke Rutgers' back. Villanova added a 41-yard TD run in the closing minutes to extend the lead to 37-19.
Villanova is coming off its worst season since a 5-6 finish in 2000. The Wildcats finished solidly in the middle of the pack of the Atlantic 10, winless against their upper division opponents. The typically prolific Wildcat offense was surprisingly pedestrian and the usually porous defense was stout. Villanova is again expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10. The Wildcats return more experience at the skill positions on offense but the aggressive defense, having lost several of its best playmakers, should not be as good. Following the 2002 Villanova debacle, Rutgers subsequently sleepwalked through a 34-11 shellacking at the hands of lowly Buffalo. Following the 2004 New Hampshire disaster, Rutgers was lethargic in a 29-21 win over a bad Kent State team that was in doubt until the final minute. Rutgers is again in a fragile emotional and psychological state. And faces a Villanova team that knows it can beat a physically superior Scarlet Knights squad because the Wildcats did so in 2002. Here are my five keys to the Villanova game. Unlike the past, I'm not assuming that this will be a glorified scrimmage. I think it will be a shootout.
1. Champaign Hangover. Rutgers sustained a debilitating defeat last week at Illinois. Schiano cited the letdown last year against New Hampshire following a big win against Michigan State as evidence that one game has no effect upon subsequent contests. Bah! Schiano's program has developed a culture of losing that showed on the sidelines at Illinois as the players looked unsuccessfully for inspiration. The doubts that contributed to a season-ending five-game losing streak are still entrenched as firmly as ever. No matter how well Rutgers plays, it is still capable of stealing defeat from the jaws of victory. Rutgers cannot just show up against Villanova. Villanova Head Coach Andy Talley provided a $200K coaching clinic to Greg Schiano in 2002. Talley identified and exploited weakness in both the Rutgers offense and defense in a game that Villanova controlled from the opening kickoff. If the Scarlet Knights do not shed the hangover from Illinois, the upstart Wildcats are sufficiently wily, skilled, and aggressive to take the fight to Rutgers. And Rutgers, as history has shown, is likely to play tight. Rutgers must come out ready to bury the physically overmatched Wildcats. Put the game away early and the let the backups play. Don't let Villanova hang around. You'll regret it.
2. Open Field Tackling. Illinois' offense struggled through a nearly fruitless 1st Half. In the 2nd Half, Illini Offensive Coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher tried a different tack against the Rutgers defense. Zaunbrecher relied almost exclusively upon misdirection runs, options, bubble screens, and flares. He put the ball in the hands of his players in space and forced Rutgers to tackle in the open field. Rutgers missed tackles at increasing frequencies as the 2nd Half progressed and the Scarlet Knight defense fatigued. Rutgers has not been a good tackling team under Rutgers. Something that was readily apparent as a I watched a recording of the West Virginia-Syracuse game. The Mountaineers tackle under control in the open field. The Scarlet Knights tackle – or miss – like they were shot out of a cannon. Andy Tally is no fool. I expect Talley will probably run a lot of the plays that worked so well for Illinois. And I'm sure he'll also try the plays that served Villanova so well in 2002. Villanova will spread the Rutgers defense, get the ball to its playmakers in space, and make Rutgers make tackles. If Rutgers cannot tackle in the open field, a less talented Wildcat team will hang around much as did a less talented Illini team. Rutgers must tackle better in the open field or it will see an endless repetition of the Illini horizontal offense.
3. Defending Misdirection. The 2002 Villanova game was one of the early examples of Schiano's defense struggling with misdirection. The Wildcats used a lot of counters against Rutgers and repeatedly caught the Scarlet Knights leaning the wrong way. Something that really became a point of emphasis for opponents last year. I expect that Villanova will run counters with its RBs. Zone options and speed options with RS Jr QB Marvin Burroughs, and reverses with Sr WR J.J. Outlaw. The Scarlet Knights must honor that backside contain responsibilities before pursuing to the ball. And the backside pursuit must stay as deep as the ball, something that was missing on Illini TB E.B. Halsey's backbreaking flare pass broken run in OT. Until Rutgers demonstrates that it can stop misdirection, the Scarlet Knights will be seeing a steady diet of misdirection.
4. Redzonitis. For two years, Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg's offense struggled inside the red zone. Rutgers would mount long, sustained drives only to stall inside the opponent's 20-yard line and settle for a chip shot FGA. Increased red zone efficiency was a key performance issue that had to be addressed during the off-season. Apparently, it wasn't. Rutgers left 28 points on the field against Illinois. Of which 18 occurred in the 1st Half. Rutgers penetrated the red zone on each of its first three possessions and scored only 3 points. After completely dominating the 1st Quarter, Rutgers trailed 7-3 early in the 2nd Quarter. Rutgers' inability to finish in the red zone allowed a badly overmatched Illinois team to hang around in the 2nd Half and eventually steal a game it had no business winning. The playcalling in the redzone is simply imbecilic. On 4th-n-1-foot against a rush defense ranked #94 last year, Schiano settled for the FGA. On 1st-n-goal from the IL03, Ver Steeg called a run for Rice and two passes, both of which were incomplete because his red zone routes are lame. On 3rd-n-2 inside the IL25, Ver Steeg again called pass. The playcalling indicates a severe lack of confidence in the running game. A running game that worked well against Illinois. And features a 240-pound FB with a nose for the goal line (or first down marker). Schiano must stop relying upon his kicking and defense to win games. Neither unit is good enough. He must stop holstering his offense and let it win games.
5. The Backups. Rutgers should have superior talent than Villanova across its two deep. Schiano must use the Villanova game as an opportunity to get experience for his younger players. Especially his OL, DL, and DBs. Schiano failed to use the New Hampshire and Kent State games as tune-ups for his backups last year. And he immediately paid the price as starters were subsequently injured and untested backups were thrown into the breach. Ideally, the second team will play because Rutgers is demolishing the overmatched Wildcats. However, if the starters are not ready to play, Schiano should not hesitate to yank the slackers. Hook the first team and play the second team. Give the second team a chance to win the game and let the first team earn back their jobs. The second team should see action for nearly half the game. The starters should not be allowed to stand in their way.
1. So PK Jeremy Ito. Schiano has developed a mentality that Ito is automatic. The statistics dispute that conclusion. Ito made only 15 of 24 FGAs, including three misses in 12 attempts inside 40 yards. Schiano too readily relies upon his PK to win games and Ito isn't quite that reliable. Against Illinois, Schiano repeatedly cut short drives and settled for FGAs. Ito repeatedly whiffed. Jeremy made only two of six FGAs in regulation. He made two chip shots but missed one attempt of 34 yards and three more beyond 40 yards. Ito's two misses in the 1st Quarter kept Illinois in the game. His two misses in the final 15 minutes failed to shut the door. Ito recovered to make a 40-yard FGA in OT, but that was too late to halt Illinois' offensive momentum. Ito must get back into the saddle and restore his confidence. Even if that means that Schiano deliberately stunts a few drives to give his PK a chance. Just don't rush into the FGA until the game has been decided.
2. RS Fr QB Mike Teel. This is one slot below that typically reserved for the starting QB. But Rutgers should be able to win without a good performance from starting QB Sr Ryan Hart. And I am not, by any means, advocating that Teel should start over Hart. The job is Hart's until Ryan loses it. However, this game presents a perfect opportunity to get Teel, the QB of the future, some seasoning. Teel should play in the 1st Half before the game is out of reach. And should play most, if not all, of the 2nd Half. If Hart if struggling (as he did against New Hampshire last year), hand the ball to Teel and let him win the game. Teel must execute the regular offense. Not simply hand off to the TBs. He must complete at least 60% of his passes for at least 150 yards. And he must not throw more INTs than TDs.
3. RS Jr DT Cameron Stephenson. Schiano has stated that he likes to roll at least eight DL at an opposing offense, to always keep his front four fresh and to wear down the opposing OLine. Schiano apparently forgot that strategy last week as he primarily played his starting unit. Stephenson had been expected to start at DT this year. Sr DT Luis Rivas, who missed much of summer camp with a foot injury, did not start. Yet, with the top DT on the bench at kickoff, Stephenson was there right beside Luis as Schiano started a smaller pair of Jr Rameel Meekins and RS So Eric Foster at DT. Stephenson saw some time as a backup DT, especially once Rivas suffered a hand injury. Cam contributed 2 tackles in limited time. Schiano needs to develop the depth on his DLine. That means he must roll his lines. At least against Villanova. Rivas should be rested until the Pittsburgh game in late September. That should make Stephenson the primary reserve DT. Cam must see time on nearly half of the series. And make at least four tackles.
4. RS Fr DE Jamaal Westerman. Westerman has performed well in each of the past two spring games. A little undersized, he presently has the appearance of a pass rushing specialist. Yet he barely played against an Illinois team that ran a spread offense. Schiano played RS Sr DE Ryan Neill and Sr DE Val Barnaby nearly the entire game. Westerman played sparingly and contributed two tackles. As the DLine fatigued, the pass rush loss its effectiveness and struggled to contain a QB causing more harm with his feet than his arm. With Foster starting at DT, Westerman must assume the role of the third DE. He desperately needs the experience of real game action. Schiano must play Jamaal equally with Neill and Barnaby against Villanova. If Foster is at DE, then Westerman must be on the field for two of every three series. And he must contribute at least four tackles and a sack.
5. RS Fr DT Carl Howard. Howard regrettably did not see action against Illinois until late in the 4th Quarter, after the Scarlet Knight defense was past gassed. Apparently, Howard has been relegated to the fifth DT in the pecking order with Foster starting at DT. With Rivas recovering from a hand injury, Howard should fill a vacancy on the two deep. Schiano must roll his line. Therefore, Howard should see the field on every other possession. He will be playing against a comparably inexperienced DLine in Villanova. So, this is a perfect opportunity to get Howard some experience. He needs to make at least two tackles.
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