KEYS TO THE CONNECTICUT GAME
Last summer, I finally – and begrudgingly – acknowledged that Connecticut had passed Rutgers on the football field. After only three years in Division IA. One could rationalize losses to the Huskies in 2001 (fake punt) and 2003 (TOs). But one could not ignore the body of evidence. Wins at Iowa State, against Indiana, and at Wake Forest. And no losses to teams the Huskies should beat. Connecticut reaffirmed that conclusion by beating Rutgers 41-35 in a game the Huskies controlled from midway in the 1st Quarter. The Huskies also upset eventual Big East BCS representative Pittsburgh. Sure, one could argue that Connecticut had less talent that Rutgers. But the Huskies were tougher, more fundamentally sound, better prepared, and better led. Rutgers versus Connecticut was supposed to be the first of a new Thanksgiving rivalry. A sparse turnout at Rutgers Stadium killed that idea by the time dinner was served.
Rutgers took the opening kickoff and drove 81 yards in 12 plays (and five minutes), scoring on a 1-yard TD Power G run by TB Brian Leonard. FS Ron Girault ended Connecticut's first drive with an INT of Husky QB Dan Orlovsky at the RU26. However, Leonard fumbled the ball back to Connecticut three plays later at the RU42. Connecticut capitalized with an 8-play, 42-yard drive capped by a 1-yard Power G TD run by TB Cornell Brockington to tie the score at 7-7. Connecticut stopped Rutgers at midfield and a shanked punt by P Joe Radigan gave the Huskies good field position. Connecticut marched 64 yards in 6 plays, scoring on a 5-yard Power G TD run by Brockington to take a lead they would never lose. Rutgers gained nothing on its next possession and punted again to open the 2nd Quarter. After the teams exchanged 3-n-outs, Connecticut orchestrated a 10-play, 55-yard drive ending with a 16-yard screen pass TD to Brockington to extend the Husky lead to 21-7. Backup QB Terrence Shawell quickly connected with WR Tres Moses on an 87-yard TD pass. Connecticut drove across midfield but CB Joe Porter blunted the drive with an INT at the RU34. Rutgers quickly drove 59 yards in 6 plays, tying the game at 21-21 o a 13-yard sideline TD pass from Hart to WR Marcus Daniels to end the half.
After blowing a 14-point 1st Half lead, Connecticut opened the 2nd Half with a 12-play, 81-yard, 5-minute drive, capped by a 2-yard TD run by TB Chris Bellamy. Rutgers answered with a 7-play, 76-ayrd drive finished with a 16-yard TD pass from Hart to Moses on a deep crossing route to tie the score at 28-28. Three plays following a 43-yard return by Husky KOR Larry Taylor, Orlovsky connected with Husky TE Dan Murray on a 32-yard post TD pass against a 10-man front. Rutgers drove into the red zone but Hart fumbled on a bad sack. Connecticut drove into scoring position but PK Matt Nuzie missed a 44-yard FGA. Rutgers opened the 4th Quarter with a 14-play, 47-yard drive but PK Jeremy Ito missed a 45-yard FGA. Rutgers forced a Husky 3-n-out but punted in kind. Connecticut methodically marched 80 yards in 10 plays (and four minutes) and scored on a 3-yard TD pass to Murray on a corner route; Nuzie missed the XPA, keeping the lead at 41-28 with 2:28 remaining. KOR Willie Foster returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a TD but Connecticut recovered the onsides kickoff at midfield. Rutgers forced a 3-n-out but four straight incompletions ended the game.
Connecticut was not expected to be a factor in the Big East this year after losing a four-year starter at QB and an experienced OLine. Husky Head Coach Randy Edsall retooled his team around his defense, kicking game, and running game. New starting QB RS Jr Matt Bonislawski, who barely played behind Orlovsky last year, was more of threat to run than throw. Connecticut navigated an easy non-conference schedule as predicted, giving Georgia Tech a tougher game than expected. In its first true test of the season, Connecticut humiliated Syracuse on ESPN2 on Friday night, making a bid to contend in the upper half of a Big East in turmoil with three new teams, two fading powers, and two upstarts. However, Connecticut lost Bonislawski to a broken collarbone against Syracuse and backup QB RS Fr D.J. Hernandez, another running QB, finished the game. Connecticut lost Hernandez to a broken wrist in an uncharacteristically sloppy loss at Cincinnati. Connecticut has been riddled with injuries. The decimated Huskies host Rutgers in a contest that once loomed as a showdown between two aspiring programs – one new and one old. Rutgers has yet to beat a good team. And has lost a game it had no business losing. This game was shaping up be perhaps be Rutgers' best win of the season. Now, it has been dumbed down to a near certain win. I would have preferred a test (win or loss) to a sure thing. Nonetheless, Schiano has a bad knack for losing sure things. Connecticut has demonstrated three times that talent alone is insufficient to achieve victory. Sometimes a team is more than the sum of its components. And sometimes less. Here are my five keys to a redeeming road win at Connecticut.
1. Defending Misdirection. For the second time in two years, Connecticut exploited Rutgers inability to defend misdirection with a variety of plays – TB counters, inside zone, power G, FB traps, FB counters, RB screens, and WR middle screens. The Scarlet Knights tend to overpursue and then get caught out of position. That is one way that seemingly the less-talented Huskies have moved the football so effortlessly on Rutgers (487 yards last year). And, with the departure of classic dropback passer Orlovsky, Edsall has added an option element to the offense. The Scarlet Knights must be more aware of the field around them. DL must read and disrupt screen passes. DEs must maintain backside containment against misdirection. DEs and OLBs must maintain outside leverage (without creating gaping holes inside them). The Scarlet Knights must not let Connecticut run and pass freely into vacated areas. Rutgers must make Connecticut beat the Scarlet Knights at the point of attack. Rutgers must limit Connecticut to no more than 175 yards rushing.
2. Open Field Tackling. Connecticut operates a spread offense, typically with 3WR and a single RB. Connecticut has resembled West Virginia as a run-oriented spread. However, with the loss of two QBs, the Husky offense now reminds me of the Illinois offense – rookie QB, good RBs, shaky OLine, solid TE, and weak receivers. Recall that the Fighting Illini gained 412 yards and scored 27 points in regulation against Rutgers. Rutgers struggled against spread offenses in Games 1-3. After a three game respite, the Scarlet Knights are again faced with a spread offense. I full expect Edsall to employ the strategy that allowed Illinois, Villanova, and Buffalo to move the ball so effectively against Rutgers – get the ball to their skill players in space and force Rutgers to make open field tackles. I anticipate a lot of bubble screens, hitch/out routes, slants, and RB/TE drag routes. Schiano has yet to demonstrate that he has corrected this deficiency. I'm certain Connecticut will test it. Rutgers must limit Connecticut to no more than 150 passing yards.
3. Cover the Husky TE. In a game between to evenly matched teams last Thanksgiving, RS Jr TE Dan Murray was the difference-maker. He caught 6 passes for 135 yards and two TDs. He averaged a whopping 22 yards per catch, two of which were limited by the goal line. Rutgers could not cover the nimble Husky TE. In zone coverage, the Scarlet Knight LBs allowed Murray a free release than enabled Dan to get behind these same LBs on post routes. In man-to-man coverage, the Scarlet Knights brought a safety over Murray but still allowed a free release into vertical routes, creating space into which Orlovsky could lob passes. Schiano must devise a better scheme to cover Murray. RS Fr SLB Chenry Lewis must jam Murray at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of his routes. Rutgers should not have to press the Husky receivers with a 10-man front. The green true Fr QB Dennis Brown has replaced the proficient Orlovsky. So FS Ron Girault and Fr WS Courtney Greene must stay behind Murray and punish him after the catch. Rutgers must limit Murray to no more than four catches for no more than 60 yards. He must be just another guy. Not SuperDan.
4. Pressure the Husky QB. Hernandez played the entire game against Cincinnati with a broken wrist. Brown replaces Hernandez with little playing experience. And one week of practice as the backup and another as the starter. Already down two QBs, Edsall may be reluctant to call designed runs for his third string QB and expose him to a greater risk of injury. Therefore, Brown may be more of a passing threat than either Bonislawski or Hernandez. However, I cannot believe that Edsall won't test Rutgers with the option since Rutgers has struggled to stop the option. Rutgers has effectively pressured opposing QBs all year. The Husky OLine features three first year starters and has had trouble protecting the QB, which has further skewed the rushing emphasis as the Husky QBs have scrambled quite a bit. The Scarlet Knights must put the heat on Brown. If he is dodging the pass rush, he won't be looking downfield for his receivers. Rutgers must record at least 4 sacks and 10 hurries. And knock Brown down consistently. The Scarlet Knights must limit Brown to no more than 25 rushing yards, including sacks and scrambles.
5. Field Position. Rookie QBs make mistakes. It's part of the growing process. Each team is playing a rookie QB. Rutgers must force Brown to negotiate the full length of the field without making drive killing mistakes, while overcoming penalties. Rutgers must win the field position battle and make Connecticut play on a long field. That means no TOs on Rutgers side of the field. And much better performance by the punt and kickoff teams to keep Connecticut pinned deep in Husky territory. Rutgers must not give Connecticut an average starting position better than the UC35.
1. RS Fr QB Mike Teel. In his first career starter, Teel completed 13 of 27 passes for 203 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs. One of the two INTs was not Teel's fault; it was deflected by his WR. Teel made a lot of rookie mistakes in his first career start. He threw a bad INT and made several more bad decisions that should have resulted in INTs. He forced deep throws instead of checking down to open receivers underneath. However, he showed his potential, too. He hit the crossing routes accurately, something with which former starting QB Sr Ryan Hart has struggled. And Teel showed the ability to check to his #2 and #3 options, which is excellent for a rookie. And Mike's deep throws were terrific when his targets were open. He showed nice touch on a TD pass to Jr TE Sam Johnson and a dropped pass to RS Jr TE Clark Harris. Mike started the game 6 of 8 for 89 yards and then finished 7 of 19 for 114 yards. What happened? Syracuse started blitzing. And Teel adapted poorly. He kept throwing downfield rather than finding the holes left open by blitzers. Or his safety valves. Connecticut will likely blitz Teel early and often to rattle the rookie. Teel must be prepared to counter the blitz and make the Huskies pay. He must make the hot reads and quick throws. He must identify unblocked blitzers and make the right decisions. He must not be too eager to hit the home run. Especially if the deep safety is double covering his receiver. His arm strength alone will be enough to push the Husky safeties back. That will open the middle for crossing routes. Teel must complete at least 55% of his passes for at least 225 yards and 2 TDs. He must not throw more INTs than TDs.
2. Fr TB Ray Rice. To date, Rice has gained 325 yards on 66 carries (4.9 yards per carry). He has run well in four of Rutgers' six games. Not coincidentally, the Scarlet Knight offense performed well in three of those four games, with Syracuse the exception. Rice has demonstrated a knack for finding seams in the inside zone play that has become the staple of the Scarlet Knight running game. Rice's success allows Schiano to play Leonard at the FB position, which forces the defense to simultaneously respect the threat of Rice running and Leonard receiving. Defense can no longer focus on Leonard. Connecticut is allowing only 117 yards per game (#34 nationally of 117 Division IA teams). However, the Huskies have not been tested by a strong rushing attack. Cincinnati, ranked #54 nationally at 152 rushing yards per game, gained 223 yards on 40 carries (5.6 yards per carry) last week. Rice must draw the attention of the Husky defense, which has two injured LBs – RS Sr MLB Taurien Sowell (ankle) and RS So WLB Danny Lansanah (neck). Ray must get at least 15 carries and must gain at least 60 rushing yards. He also must protect Teel against blitzing LBs and safeties.
3. RS Jr TE Clark Harris. In a recent newspaper article, Harris took exception to an allegation that the First Team All-Big East TE had dropped eight passes through six games this season. That doesn't strike me as an overestimate. But regardless of whether the amount is accurate, it points to the problem with Harris this year. It's not the plays that he's making. It's the ones he isn't. A dropped TD pass at Illinois; one of three that day. Another dropped TD pass against Syracuse that would have given Rutgers a fast start it desperately needed on the road. Clark leads all Big East TEs in receptions (19) and receiving yards (244) but has caught only one TD. Last year against Connecticut, Harris caught four passes for 61 yards. The Huskies, who mostly played a Cover 2 zone under scheme, struggled to cover Harris across the middle on crossing routes. With the Husky safeties expected to play deeper against Teel (rather than Hart), there will be bigger gaps in the intermediate and short zones. Harris must work the underneath routes where he can either sit down in a hole or cross the LBs into the flat. If Harris can pull the LBs closer to the line of scrimmage, the will open bigger gaps between the LBs and safeties for the WRs to exploit on deeper crossing routes. Harris must catch at least five passes for at least 75 yards and a TD.
4. RS Sr DE Ryan Neill. The fifth year senior has been Rutgers defensive playmaker. For the season, Neill has 36 tackles (second in the Big East among DL), 15 TFLs (second in the Big East), and 6 sacks (again, second in the Big East). He has played at a consistently high level. He led the charge against Illinois rookie QB Tim Brasic. Ryan was one of the few players to show up at Buffalo. Neill preserved the win over Pittsburgh with a crucial sack. And he forced a fumble deep in Syracuse territory on a sack of the Orange QB (Syracuse reovered). Connecticut will likely try to protect its rookie QB with quick throws. Neill must bring the heat from the edge to make sure Brown throws quickly. Ryan must contain the backside against counters and reverses. And he must not create, with upfield rushes, wide gaps through which Husky RBs can scamper. Neill must record 6 tackles, a sack, and 2 QB hurries.
5. RS Jr P Joe Radigan. Radigan is averaging 39 yards per punt this season. On the surface, it appears adequate. However, looking deeper, there are problems. Radigan is wildly inconsistent. He booms one punt and shanks the next. He has been a liability in the field position battle – kicking short from deep in Rutgers territory and kicking launching punts into the end zone (touchbacks) from the opponent's side of the field. Short low kicks have rolled for longer yardage (inflating Radigan's average). Or been returned for big gains before the Scarlet Knights punt coverage team can close. Connecticut will likely try to win a game where ball control and field position are crucial. Radigan must not put Rutgers at a disadvantage with poor kicks. He must average 40 yards per kick. Pin Connecticut deep when presented with such opportunities. And put enough hang time into his kicks to allow the gunners to cover the PR.
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