KEYS TO THE BUFFALO GAME
I coined the term "Buffanova" five years ago. Sure, it was a dismissive term. It reflected the ease with which Rutgers should – and did – beat them. Villanova and Buffalo. Buffalo and Villanova. It didn't matter. They were interchangeable as cannon fodder. Even for Terry Shea's abysmal Scarlet Knight teams. Fast forward two years. Rutgers again did the Buffanova. But, in a foreshadowing of the future under Head Coach Greg Schiano, where Rutgers repeatedly blows games it has no business losing, Rutgers lost first to Villanova and subsequently to Buffalo. The Bulls' only win that season. Rutgers quickly avenged the loss to Buffalo in 2003 with a 24-10 win to open the 2003 season.
On the opening possession, Rutgers drove to midfield pinned Buffalo at the UB08 with a punt. Rutgers quickly forced a punt. After an illegal procedure penalty against Buffalo nullified a 42-yard net punt and forced another punt, PR Tres Moses broke the return for a 66-yard TD. Buffalo penetrated the RU10 on the ensuing drive but a costly offensive pass interference penalty pushed the Bulls backwards, from where they missed a 38-yard FGA. The Scarlet Knights promptly drove 80 yards in nine plays, scoring on a 15-yard pass from QB Ryan Hart to Moses near the end of the 1st Quarter to give Rutgers a 14-0 lead. The 2nd Quarter opened with three brief possessions that culminated with a Buffalo punt pinning Rutgers at the RU09. Thirteen plays and 91 yards later, TB Justise Hairston scored on a 6-yard TD run. After a series of punts, PK Michael Cortese missed a 54-yard FGA as the 1st Half ended with Rutgers holding a commanding 21-0 lead.
Buffalo opened the 2nd Half with a 75-yard drive before settling for a 30-yard FG. Rutgers answered with a 54-yard drive but PK Ryan Sands gacked a 35-yard FGA. Three plays later, Bulls TB Dave Dawson burst through the middle of the Scarlet Knight defense for 76-yard TD run and suddenly Buffalo was back in the game midway through the 3rd Quarter, trailing 21-10. Buffalo forced a Rutgers 3-n-out and returned the punt to midfield. But the Rutgers defense kept the Bulls out of scoring position and forced a punt, which Buffalo downed at the RU05. Pinned deep, Rutgers gained two critical first downs and then punted at the start of the 4th Quarter. Holding a 24-10 lead, the defense again answered the challenge as DT David Harley forced and recovered a Dawson fumble at the UB33. However, the Scarlet Knights couldn't capitalize and Sands was short on a 45-yard FGA. The Rutgers defense again stoned the Bulls and the Rutgers offense finally reemerged with a 13-play, 62-yard, 6:30 minute drive that culminated in a 20-yard FG, padding the Rutgers lead to 24-10. Forced to pass with only 2:35 remaining and unable to do so effectively, Buffalo punted and Rutgers ran out the clock.
It's 2005 and Rutgers is doing the Buffanova again. Rutgers rebounded from a devastating season-opening loss at Illinois with a decisive 38-6 win over Division I-AA Villanova, sparked by Jr KOR Willie Fosters' 93-yard kickoff return TD to open the game. Meanwhile, Buffalo has won only three games since upsetting Rutgers in 2002. The Bulls has languished as one of the worst Division IA programs. Buffalo severely lacks talent, as the program does not have fertile local recruiting ground upon which to draw and, furthermore, is a tough sell to out-of-state kids. "Come play in the Great White North for the worst team in the country." Some sales pitch, huh? Buffalo Head Coach Jim Hofher is on the hot seat for failing in an impossible situation. The Bulls roster is loaded with marginal kids – athletically and academically. The two conspire to keep the depth chart in a constant state of flux that will remind Rutgers fans of the Shea era. Buffalo lost its first two games against Big East opponents Connecticut and Syracuse by a combined score of 69-0. And onto the shores of Lake Erie rolls Rutgers, with quite possibly the most prolific offense in the Big East. It could be really ugly for Buffalo. Schiano must use this game as a learning tool. A different learning tool than was Illinois. Rutgers must learn how to prepare for an overmatched opponent. And learn how to bury said opponent early and often. And get the backups some much-needed experience. Despite Rutgers history of overlooking any remotely inferior opponent, I think this game will be over early. Buffalo is not as good as is Villanova. This is a game for the future. Not the past. Here are my five keys to the Buffalo game.
1. Mental Focus. Complacency has been an ongoing problem in Schiano's program. The record is filled with WTF losses to opponents who had no business winning. Rutgers cadilacced through the 3rd Quarter of the Illinois game. And drove the caddy into a wall in the 4th Quarter. Rutgers was focused against Villanova. How much of that intensity was directly attributed to Fosters' KOR? Who knows? But Rutgers was prepared to play. And the defense, while struggling to contain another spread offense, stopped Villanova in scoring position five times on downs and a sixth on a TO. Rutgers must bring similar focus to Buffalo. Put the game away early. And play the backups. Rutgers is vastly more talented than Buffalo. If any Rutgers starters don't have the proper focus, Schiano must pull them and play their backups. Send the message that slacking won't be tolerated.
2. Open Field Tackling. Rutgers has allowed over 400 yards of total offense in each of its first two games. Against opponents vastly inferior to Rutgers in talent. Opponents have found a glaring weakness in the Scarlet Knight defense – make the LBs play in space. Get the ball to skill players and force Rutgers to make open field tackles. For five years, Schiano's teams have not tackled well. They are not fundamentally sound. The players are so focused on making big hits that they fail to wrap the ballcarrier or, worse, simply whiff. Opponents – especially those operating spread offenses – will continue to exploit this weakness until Schiano, the defensive coordinator, remedies the affliction. Buffalo employs a spread offense with lots of screens and draws. Exactly the same diet Rutgers has seen for two weeks. The Scarlet Knights must do a better of tackling. Period. Speed means nothing if it is misapplied at the point of attack. Buffalo has gained 260 total yards in both games. Not an average. A total. Rutgers must limit Buffalo to no more than 200 total yards of offense.
3. Play the Backups. Rutgers led Villanova 24-6 at halftime. After backup QB RS Fr Mike Teel led a TD drive on Rutgers' final full possession of the half. So FS Ron Girault knocked Villanova QB RS Jr Marvin Burroughs out of the game on the opening possession of the 2nd Half. And Sr QB Ryan Hart quickly led another TD drive to extend the lead to 31-6. Yet Schiano inexplicably failed to use the opportunity to get his young backups experience. Teel only played one set of downs on Rutgers final possession and attempted only one more pass. Backup DT RS Fr Carl Howard only contributed one tackle. Backup LB RS Fr Chenry Lewis contributed one tackle. Backup LB RS So Kenny Gillespie contributed two tackles. Backup DT RS Jr Cameron Stephenson contributed nothing statistically. Backup LG RS Fr Mike Gilmartin only saw three snaps. Simply inexcusable. Last year, Schiano failed to get his young backups experience in the New Hampshire and Kent State games. And paid dearly later when injuries on the OLine forced Schiano to play inexperienced backups in important situations. Schiano must play his backups for at least one quarter. If not an entire half.
4. Rushing Attack. The Scarlet Knight RBs averaged only 3.4 yards per carry last season. There were many problems. The OLine and TEs blocked poorly. The RBs ran to the wrong holes. The QB's inability to throw deep allowed opposing defensive coordinators to deploy eight-man defensive fronts virtually risk free. And the offensive playcalling was predicable based upon down, distance, and personnel. Given all that, the rushing problems were not a surprise. Schiano replaced former OLine Coach Rod Holder with new OLine Coach Kyle Flood. Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg is calling plays more aggressively. The result is RBs averaging 147 yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry behind a younger but more athletic OLine. The Buffalo defense has allowed 638 yards in two games (319 yards per game). This is a week for Rutgers to polish its rushing attack. The Scarlet Knights must gain at least 200 rushing yards.
5. Stay Healthy. Rutgers has not sustained a lot of injuries since summer camp opened a little over a month ago. However, the Scarlet Knights have suffered injuries at the positions with the least amount of depth. Three DTs departed from the 2004 team and a fourth was dismissed during spring camp. Sr DT Luis Rivas has suffered foot and hand injuries since summer camp opened. And starting DT RS So Eric Foster suffered a season-ending ACL injury early in the 2nd Half against Villanova. That's a three-deep missing or hobbled. Two safeties departed from the 2004 team, a third suffered a career ending injury, and a fourth transferred. RS Fr SS Robert Baham suffered a season-ending hip injury early in summer camp after an impressive start. And starting FS So Ron Girault missed most of summer camp with a hamstring injury. That's another three-deep. Backup LB RS Sr Brad Cunningham suffered a knee injury during the off-season and has yet to return. Starting WLB Sr Will Gilkison suffered a knee injury against Illinois but played through it last week against Villanova. Backup WLB Sr William Beckford suffered an ankle injury against Illinois and did not play against Villanova. The injury bug has hit these three units – two of which were already depleted – heavily. Rutgers needs to get through the Buffalo game with no injuries. Especially at DT, safety, and LB. The Scarlet Knights will have two weeks to rest before playing Pittsburgh.
1. RS Fr QB Mike Teel. Teel entered the Villanova game at 6:30 of the 2nd Quarter, with Rutgers at the RU12 and leading 17-6. A perfect situation in which to challenge the rookie QB. The lead was comfortable and could not be lost by a rookie mistake. But Teel needed to produce because a short possession could give Villanova good field position and allow the Wildcats back into the game. Teel nervously bounced his first pass to RS Sr WR Tres Moses on his first pass attempt. Then calmly completed 3 of 4 passes for 42 yards as he led the Scarlet Knights on an eleven play, 88-yard, two-and-a-half minute TD drive to extend the Rutgers lead to 24-6. Rutgers did not get the ball back until only 33 seconds remained in the 1st Half. Given that performance, Schiano should have let Teel start the 2nd Half and play the 3rd Quarter. Given the kid a chance to put the game away. Instead, Schiano waited until less than six minutes remained in the game to re-insert Teel, in the middle of a Rutgers possession. Teel missed his only pass attempt on 2nd-n-2 and a subsequent TFL promptly ended the possession. Villanova ran out the clock and thus ended Teel's day.
The decision to play Teel early was a good one. The failure to play Teel meaningfully in the 2nd Half was simply stupid. Teel needed as much experience as possible in the first three games. And has seen one meaningful series in through the first two games. Mike again should play in the 1st Half before the game is out of reach. If Teel again performs well on his first series, Schiano should leave him in the game. And let him play the 3rd Quarter. If Teel struggles on that first series, Schiano should let him play the 4th Quarter. If Hart inexplicably struggles, 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 125 yards. And he must not throw more INTs than TDs.
2. RS Jr DT Cameron Stephenson. Stephenson does not appear on the participation report for the Villanova game. A report that is notoriously inaccurate. Nonetheless, if Stephenson did indeed play against Villanova, he failed to produce statistically. No tackles. No QB hurries. No pass deflections. Nothing. With the departure of four experienced DTs, Stephenson was being counted upon to fill void at DT. So far, he has contributed two tackles and a TFL against two inferior opponents. This forecasts an insignificant contribution to the DLine this season. Something that Schiano cannot afford from one of his most experienced DTs. Especially after the loss of Foster to an injury. Stephenson will not start against unless Rivas is not yet ready for that role. However, Stephenson should play significantly in a four-man rotation at DT. Cam must see time on nearly half of the series. And make at least three tackles.
3. RS Fr DT Carl Howard. Howard has seen limited action against Illinois and Villanova. He has contributed one TFL in two games. He saw negligible time against Illinois very late in the game. I'm not sure how much Carl played against Villanova but his TFL occurred late in the 3rd Quarter, after Foster was injured. The injury to Foster has moved Howard up in the depth chart into the two-deep. Howard should see the field on every other possession if Schiano is rolling his DLine. He will be playing against a relatively inexperienced Buffalo OLine – only two-year starter RS Sr LG Mike Schifano is experienced. RS So C Jamey Richard and RS Jr RG Gerry Weissinger are first year starters. Howard needs to make at least three tackles.
4. RS Fr LG Mike Gilmartin. Starting RG RS Sr John Glass is suspended from the Buffalo game for a violation of team rules. As Glass' backup, Gilmartin will get his first career start. As noted above, Gilmartin only took three snaps last week against Villanova. The only three snaps of his young career. Gilmartin will obviously be the target of the Buffalo defense. The Bulls have two experienced DTs in RS Sr Rob Schroeder and RS SR Kirk Berry. Schroeder is the playmaker of the two. Gilmartin will be challenged by these two veterans. Mike will have to execute his assignments. Pull and lead on Power G Left. Drive the DT inside on Power G Right. Turn the DT out of the hole on iso, either alone or in combination with the center. And execute the combination blocks on inside zone runs to either side. On pass protection, he will be responsible for the DT, with some help inside from the center. Against a better team, Gilmartin would simply be expected not to compromise the OLine. Against Buffalo, Gilmartin must allow Ver Steeg to call the offense as if Glass were playing.
4. So PK Jeremy Ito. After missing four FGAs against Illinois, including one inside 40 yards, Ito rebounded to make his only attempt against Villanova – a 44-yard FGA. One kick does not constitute a fix to a problem. Ito needs to have another good game. He must make all of his FGAs inside 40 yards and half of his attempts from beyond 40 yards.
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