KEYS TO THE PITTSBURGH GAME
Last year, a week before the Pitt game, and only hours after the Temple game, three Rutgers football players were injured in a car accident. Backup FS Dondre Asberry, backup CB Eddie Grimes, and backup CB Manny Collins suffered season-ending injuries. Asberry spent several weeks in intensive care. One hoped that Rutgers would have rallied around their fallen teammates and played inspired football the following week. But that is not a realistic expectation in the real world. These are 18-22 year old kids. In this particular case, Rutgers trudged flatly out to Pittsburgh and received a 41-17 beating that was not nearly as close as the final score indicated. For the second year in a row, Pittsburgh put the game away in the 1st Half.
Pittsburgh took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in seven plays, capped by an 18-yard TD pass to WR Joe Delsardo. Rutgers went 3-n-out and Pittsburgh took possession at midfield in a theme to be repeated often. Scarlet Knight FS Jarvis Johnson intercepted Panther QB Tyler Palko and returned the pick to midfield. Rutgers stalled at the fringe of scoring position but PK Jeremy Ito drilled a 48-yard FG to bring the Scarlet Knights to within 7-3. They would get no closer. Rutgers forced a 3-n-out and drove to midfield but QB Ryan Hart killed the drive with an INT. Pittsburgh drove 61 yards in eight plays, capped by a 17-yard TD pass to Delsardo. Rutgers ended the 1st Quarter with a 3-n-out and Pittsburgh again got the ball at midfield. Nine plays and 54 yards later, TB Raymond Kirkley scored on a 1-yard TD run to extend the Panther lead to 21-3. On the next play, Pittsburgh sacked Hart, forced a fumble, and recovered the ball at the RU14. Palko returned the favor with a fumble on the goal line. Rutgers drove across midfield but Panther CB Josh Lay intercepted an underthrown fade pass and weaved through the Rutgers defense for an 82-yard INT return for a TD. Pittsburgh forced another 3-n-out and again took possession at midfield. The Panthers stalled just inside scoring position but PK Josh Cummings made a 47-yard FG to give Pittsburgh a 31-3 lead. Hart threw an INT – his third INT and fourth TO of the half – at midfield. Pittsburgh scored in four plays on a 5-yard TD pass to TE Erik Gill with 0:29 remaining. In shades of 2003, Pittsburgh led by five TDs at halftime.
Rutgers finally showed up in the 2nd Half. The Scarlet Knights took the opening kickoff and drove to midfield before stalling. Pittsburgh also drove to midfield and stalled. Rutgers then drove 92 yards in 10 plays, scoring on a 13-yard TD pass to WR Tres Moses. Rutgers forced Pittsburgh to punt quickly and promptly drove 77 yards in five plays, capped by a 1-yard TD run by TB Brian Leonard to narrow the deficit to 38-17. Rutgers again forced a quick Pittsburgh punt but killed their budding momentum with a 3-n-out. Pittsburgh spanned the quarters with a drive that produced a 40-yard FG by Cummings. Rutgers mounted a drive that ended with Hart's fourth INT of the day, at the goal line. The teams again swapped 3-n-outs. From the shadows of its goal posts, Pittsburgh earned two first downs before stalling. Rutgers blocked the Panther punt but promptly turned the ball over on downs. Pittsburgh ran out the clock to end the game.
After encouraging former Head Coach Walt Harris to leave last year, Pittsburgh hired former Miami Dolphins Head Coach – and former Panther – Dave Wannstedt. Wannstedt was expected to bring a tougher brand of football back to Pittsburgh. While Harris' defenses generally were strong, his offenses relied upon a finesse passing game. Harris' recruiting also suffered in his later years, undoubtedly damaged by the ACC raid that crippled the Big East. Wannstedt has stumbled badly out of the gate. Notre Dame embarrassed Pittsburgh on national TV (ABC in prime time) in the opener. Then Pittsburgh sustained a humiliating OT loss to MAC lightweight Ohio – again on national TV (ESPN2 on Friday night). An ugly loss to downtrodden Nebraska – on ABC regional TV – continued the slide. Although Pittsburgh rebounded to demolish Division I-AA Youngstown State last week, questions remain. Pittsburgh travels to Rutgers with its season on the brink.
Rutgers is likewise struggling. The Scarlet Knights blew a 20-point 2nd Half lead to a bad Illinois team. Though Rutgers responded with a decisive win over Division I-AA Villanova, the Scarlet Knights defense allowed nearly 450 yards of total offense. Rutgers then sleepwalked through a desultory win over punchless Buffalo, which nonetheless substantially outgained the allegedly superior Scarlet Knights. Rutgers enters the Pittsburgh game with many unsolved problems from one year ago – anemic red zone scoring, inability to stretch the field offensively, sloppy tackling, and an inability to defend misdirection. Already behind pace for a seven-win season and facing increasing doubts, Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano has been given a golden opportunity in the form of a struggling Panther team. This is the second most important game in his five-year tenure on the Banks. Here are my five keys to a mandatory win over Pittsburgh.
1. Pressure and Contain Tyler Palko. Last year, Palko completed 27 of 43 passes for 318 yards and 3 TDs. Palko also demonstrated escapability, as he repeatedly scrambled away from the pass rush, bought his receivers more time to get open, and completed key passes to move the chains. Or simply ran (37 yards). Palko has been under heavy pressure this year. He has been sacked 14 times and has thrown more INTs (5) than TDs (4). The Panther OLine has not done a good job of protecting their marquee QB. Rutgers must keep Palko under pressure but also must contain Tyler inside the pocket. Palko will again riddle the Scarlet Knight defense if he escapes the pocket. Or simply has time to scan the field. But if pressure can force Palko to pull the ball down and look for an escape route that doesn't exist, he cannot find his receivers. Rutgers must sack Palko at least four times and hurry him as many times. He must be knocked down early and often. His confidence may be a little shaky after a slow start to the season. Rutgers must not allow Palko to regain his composure. Otherwise, he will shred a porous Scarlet Knight secondary.
2. Tackling. Rutgers is allowing an average of 410 yards per game of total offense through three games but only 14 points per game. The notion that Rutgers is allowing yardage but not points must be put into the perspective of the poor caliber of opponents that Rutgers has faced. While Rutgers only allowed nine points combined to Villanova and Buffalo, Rutgers yielded 27 points in regulation to Illinois – the best of the three. And 20 of those points were allowed in only one half. Rutgers cannot afford to keep yielding such excessive amounts of yardage. Better opponents will convert that yardage into points. Opposing offenses will keep the Rutgers defense on the field, which will fatigue the defense. And the Rutgers offense will struggle to find and maintain a rhythm for its ball-control, short passing attack if it spends a disproportionate amount of time on the bench.
Sloppy tackling has been the biggest contributing factor in the total yardage allowed by the defense. Opponents are spreading the Rutgers defense and forcing the Scarlet Knights to tackle in the open field. The results have been ugly. The Scarlet Knights repeatedly whiff on tackles or the ballcarrier breaks the tackle. Sloppy tackling has been a problem for five years with Schiano's teams. And it's not a talent issue. Watch the West Virginia defense. The Mountaineers are a fundamentally sound tackling defense. And West Virginia routinely has former walk-ons in their starting lineup. The Scarlet Knight LBs must show more toughness in fighting off blocks and plugging holes. The defenders must be more disciplined in their pursuit, running under control so as to be able to react to cut back moves – rather than overrunning them and falling down. The tackling must be more fundamentally sound. Instead of going for the kill shot, how about hit, wrap, and tackle? If Rutgers can improve its tackling, that will force opponents to more methodically drive the length of the field, allowing more opportunities for penalties or big plays to short-circuit drives and get the Scarlet Knights off the field.
3. Powder Puff Pass Coverage. Last year, the Scarlet Knights mixed the coverage between the Cover 2 zone underneath and Cover 1 man-to-man underneath schemes. Rutgers was not very good in its zone defense. The CBs and LBs underneath were not physical with opposing receivers and allowed those receivers to run their routes unmolested. There was also confusion about coverage responsibilities, with frequent blown assignments. As poor as the man-to-man defense was, it was better than the zone defense. For a reason that I cannot fathom, Rutgers has primarily been playing a vanilla 4-3 Cover 2 zone underneath defense this year. The results have been brutal.
The Scarlet Knights are yielding 273 passing yards per game. Opponents are picking Rutgers apart underneath with 3WR formations. Schiano is putting an OLB over the slot WR. Opponents are throwing bubble screens and forcing the OLBs to make open field tackles. Or the WRs are driving the underneath defenders back with deeper routes and then RBs are catching passes on drag routes into the flats, again forcing the Scarlet Knights to come up and make and open field tackle. In long yardage, obvious passing situations, Schiano is blitzing OLBs. But the safeties are playing deep and the CBs are allowing inside releases. The result is pitch-n-catch on in and slant routes into the gaps in the defense.
The pass defense must start being more physical. It's a tired refrain but it needs to be repeated until the problem is fixed. CBs must sit down in the flats, jam the receivers inside, and then drop into deeper coverage. LBs must hit anybody crossing the middle of the field. Or TEs running up the middle of the field. The safeties must not play so deep, where they are out of position to break up passes or make jarring tackles as the receivers catch the ball. The purpose of a Cover 2 scheme is to funnel the receivers towards the safeties and punishing the receivers on every catch. That isn't happening. This week, the Scarlet Knights were quoted about "hitting opponents". Let's see of that in the secondary. Put the powder puffs away. For good.
4. Fast Start. Over 35,000 tickets have been sold already. The game may be a sellout. A national audience will be watching on ESPN2. Under similar circumstances, the RAC is raucous and the Rutgers basketball team plays like supermen in the frenzied environment. Rutgers Stadium is ripe for a similar atmosphere. And the Scarlet Knights are going to be extremely energized. It is crucial that Rutgers gets off to a fast start. Similar to the Michigan State game last year. Except finishing in the red zone. If Rutgers can jump on Pittsburgh early, the doubts that have afflicted the defending Big East champs could re-emerge. And could fuel a Rutgers blowout should the coaching staff go for the jugular. Rutgers cannot afford to let Pittsburgh get off to a fast start. As has happened each of the past two years. The Panthers have a much better defense than does Rutgers. I don't think that Rutgers can win a shootout. Rutgers must seize the lead early and control the clock and the scoreboard. Rutgers must score at least 14 points in the 1st Quarter and 24 points by halftime.
5. Line of Scrimmage. Harris did not leave Wannstedt a roster well stocked on the OLine and DLine. The OLine had only 39 combined starts entering the 2004 season and only one experienced backup. The OLine suffered three injuries in the Ohio game. And one of the new starters has been replaced. Meanwhile, the DLine lost two three-year starters at DT, which was essentially one-deep. Wannstedt has moved one of his returning starters at DE inside to fill the void at DT. Opponents are averaging 163 rushing yards per game against the Panthers while the Pittsburgh defense has recorded only six sacks. The Rutgers OLine has two three-years starters anchoring the right side but the rest of the unit consists of first-year starters. And the backups are very inexperienced. Rutgers has lost four DTs off the 2004 team and a starting DT has already been lost for the season to injury. The Scarlet Knights have two veteran DEs but only one experienced backup. The Scarlet Knight DLine is undersized. With both teams sporting questionable lines, control of the line of scrimmage will be tremendously important. At home, in front of a packed house, the Scarlet Knights must control the line of scrimmage and be the more physical team. Impose a power running attack that will pound on the Panthers and control the clock. And blow-up the Panther zone blocking schemes and force Pittsburgh to be one-dimensional. The team that controls the line of scrimmage will control the tempo of the game. That team must be Rutgers.
1. Sr QB Ryan Hart. Hart has completed 60% of his passes for 240 passing yards per game and five TDs. Hart has not thrown any INTs, either. He has drawn accolades for his performance so far. But look a little deeper. Hart has had several sure INTs dropped by opponents – two at Illinois and three at Buffalo. He has not completed at least 65% of his passes. He has been inconsistent – good in the 1st Half at Illinois and poor in the 2nd; poor in the 1st Half at Buffalo and better in the 2nd. He is also leaving too much run-after-catch yardage on the field with inaccurate throws. His receivers are contorting themselves to make terrific catches but, in doing so, lose the chance to gain more yardage. I think Rutgers is going to need to score 35 points to win. That means that Hart must have a very good game. He must complete at least 65% of his passes for at least 250 yards. And he must throw twice as many TDs as INTs. He must stretch the field vertically with accurate deep passes and he must hit his receivers in stride to allow them to gain more yardage after running through the catch.
2. RS Sr DE Ryan Neill. Yes, this is a big game and the best players must step up. That list could not go far without a mention of Neill, perhaps Rutgers best defensive player. Neill leads the team with 8 TFLs (second in the Big East) and is fifth overall in tackles (20). The pass blocking of the Pittsburgh OLine has been terrible. Especially on the outside. Neill must bring the heat from the edge early and often. He must be a menace in the Panther backfield. If Palko is dodging Neill, he won't be picking apart the Rutgers secondary. Rutgers needs a big game out of Neill. Ryan must record at least six tackles and two sacks.
3. RS Jr FB Brian Leonard. The A list continues with First Team All-Big East FB Brian Leonard. Usually, Leonard is not a key to a game because his performance is reliable as the rising sun. Keys often focus on problems and Leonard is a solution, not a problem. But Rutgers' best players must lead the way. Rutgers doesn't need Leonard's ordinary brilliance. The Scarlet Knights need an extraordinary game from their star RB. Brian must collect at least 175 yards of all-purpose yardage. He must rush for at least 100 yards and catch passes for another 75 yards. And the kid with the nose for the goal line must score at least two TDs. This is a week for Leonard to earn Big East Offensive Player of the Week honors.
4. So FS Ron Girault. Girault has been the leader of a young secondary. He is third on the team with 27 tackles (19 solo). With Neill, Girault is Rutgers' best defensive player. Like Neill, he must make a big impact Friday night. Schiano has been playing his secondary primarily in a two deep zone. Keeping the ball in front of the safeties. Girault likely will be deployed in a similar role against Pittsburgh. He must bring the lumber. If Pittsburgh runs slant, in, and crossing routes, Girault must come forward and drill the Panther receivers. He must make at least 8 tackles and force at least one TO – fumble or INT.
5. RS Jr TE Clark Harris. Pittsburgh has two very good CBs in Sr Josh Lay and So Darrelle Revis. Rutgers WRs RS Sr Tres Moses and RS Jr Shawn Tucker will be pressed to have dominating games. However, Rutgers may have a better matchup in the middle with All-Big East TE RS Jr Clark Harris. Harris has gotten off to a slow start. Though he leads Big East TEs in receptions and receiving yardage, he has so far been notorious for dropped passes than famous for catches. That must change this week. Harris caught five passes for 100 yards against Pittsburgh last year. He must have a comparable day again this year, with a TD catch for good measure.
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