I transferred into Rutgers in the Fall of 1993 after a year of playing at a small Division III school with an invitation from Coach Graber to walk-on the team. After sitting out the 1993 season due to NCAA rules for transfer students, I saw my first game action against Temple in 1994 and then played in every game on the 1995 team as a backup safety and a starter on special teams. After three unforgettable years at Rutgers, I headed off to Georgetown Law School where I earned my J.D. in 1999. I currently live in Washington, D.C. with my wife, Becky, and I practice construction law, representing general contractors, government contractors, sureties, and owners on commercial construction projects located throughout the country.
The teams on which I played at the end of the Graber Era were the last ones to sniff the possibility of a bowl berth. Although we fell short of this goal, I thought that we were at least respectable and competitive in those last few years before the unfortunate Terry Shea experiment.
This year's team seems destined to finally achieve that goal that has seemed so elusive -- a bowl game. To get there, Coach Schiano had to call a mulligan on his decision to name Mike Teel as the starting QB. I love Teel as a prospect -- he has a strong arm, he is very poised, and he is deceptively athletic (similar to Ben Roethlisberger, for example). The future is bright for Teel and for RU.
The bottom-line, however, is that Rutgers found itself down 10-3 to Uconn (playing their 3rd string QB) in a game where it should have been up by two scores. If Rutgers were 2-4 instead of 4-2, I would have favored leaving the young kid in there to see if he could fight his way through a tough road game. But Rutgers needed Ryan Hart's senior leadership to stay on track in their bowl quest.
Hart may not have a strong arm, but he has cut down on the mistakes that plagued him over his first three years as a starter. Where Teel seemed to be picking out his receivers before the snap, Hart was reading the defense and finding the open receivers (particularly Moses) over and over again, making Uconn pay dearly for putting 8 men in the box. Make no mistake that it was Hart's throws in the third quarter that loosened up the defense for the running game to take over in the 4th quarter. The safeties had to move off the line, and the linebackers had to respect the passing threat once again.
And Kudos to the other 10 guys, with Rice and Leonard taking the game on their shoulders behind strong blocking from the o-line in the second half. In the end, Rutgers wore down Uconn, and the better team won the game.
The game should not have been that close, given what I perceived to be a disparity in talent, particularly the way that Rutgers dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
The defense played their best game of the year. The 10 points that they gave up during the first half was acceptable given that they were playing on a short field, and they dominated the second half up through the final drive. The roughing the passer call (it was a correct call) changed the momentum of the last drive and bailed out Uconn after it failed to convert on third down, but Ryan Neill plays so hard that you have to live with the penalty.
The entire defensive line should get the game ball on defense -- they dominated the line of scrimmage, shut down the running game, and played the entire game in the backfield. Ramel Meekins has probably been the biggest surprise of the year from my perspective (with Chenry Lewis as a close second). Picking up where Harley and Gibson left off last year, Meekins uses his low center of gravity, strength, and quickness to penetrate the backfield and disrupt nearly every play. He had one play on a key 3rd down early in the Third Quarter where he beat the center so easily that he actually stopped rushing the quarterback because he thought it must have been a screen.
On that play, Uconn got the ball away to Caulley for a 5 or 6 yard gain, and who was downfield assisting on the tackle?
Here are some other random thoughts and predictions:
** I would revert to the QB rotation. While I'm generally not a fan of rotating QBs, Louisville proved last year that it can be done. Their situation was very similar to ours. Brohm was one of the top recruits in the country, and he no doubt had far better skills than Lefors. Brohm is a better QB this year because he saw significant action last year, but the team benefited from having Lefors in there last year to keep the ship steady. At Rutgers, Hart has been less than spectacular at times, but we have not been seeing the same mistakes that he's made in the past. I would continue to play Teel, to get him significant minutes, and to go with the QB who seems most in the groove. When he's on, Teel brings more to the table than Hart. Because of his arm strength, the safeties have to play deeper and the corners have to give extra cushion to respect the deep ball. When he gets these cushions, Teel needs to work some of the underneath routes, which will effectively leave the safeties out of position to stop those intermediate routes. They should also get Teel some "gimme" throws to the TEs and Wrs (see my comments below) when he's struggling as was the case against Uconn.
**It was good to see Clark Harris and Sam Johnson getting involved in the offense again. The tight end should be the QB's best friend (especially for a new QB like Teel) -- they are big targets that present matchup problems underneath against the linebackers and in the crossing routes.
**A prediction on Brian Leonard: As draft day nears, you will hear the talking heads say that his draft stock is falling because he is not a traditional blocking fullback and not a true tailback. Then the Patriots or another franchise with less than traditional scouting methods, realizing that he is just a great football player, will draft him on the first day and find a way to get him on the field. At a minimum, he will make a great third-down back because he has great hands and he is superb in blitz pickup.
**I love Tiquan Underwood's athleticism, but two QBs are enough for one team. If they are going to continue to use him, I like the idea of using him to run the sprint option out of the shotgun as a change of pace. Preparing for the option was never fun, and it is a way to keep the ends, safeties, and OLBs honest.
**Get the ball to Willie Foster--swing passes, screens, quick slants, whatever. Get the ball in his hands, and he will make play (particularly when Teel is in there). He can be a great compliment to Moses and Tucker (who has been the invisible man this year).
**Biggest area that needs to improve: punt and kick coverage. As a former special teams guy, I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must be to sit in those meetings to watch film every week of the other team starting with the ball on the 35 yard line. I am sure those meetings are not a lot of fun these days.
Missed tackles don't seem to be the problem -- it seems to be something more fundamental. The two rules of kick coverage are: (1) stay in your lane and (2) beat your block. Without knowing the exact schemes, it's hard to tell if the problem is no. 1 or no. 2 or a combination of both.
** While there has been so much attention to the rising stars on offense playing in their first or second year (Teel, Rice, Zuttah, Foster, Underwood, etc.), I think we also have to acknowledge some of the young guys on defense who will be dominating the Big East by their senior years: Lewis (has amazing instincts -- you can't teach that), Girault is a monster and will be the leader of the defense after Neill graduates, and Westerman is the next star in a long line of pass rushers. Meekins, Lee, Greene, Malast, and several of the other young guys look like they will do a nice job filling in the starting rotation in the years to come.
**My prediction: 8-3. To be frank, I shied away from making a prediction at the beginning of the season because of all of the obvious question marks that seemed to exist at every position except WR, TE, and Kicker. Even where we had talent, I questioned the depth (o-line and d-line, for example). And with lingering questions about the production coming from running backs not named Leonard and from the QB, I saw them winning anywhere from 5 to 8 games, depending on how certain key guys answered the bell.
This team finds ways to win, even when they don't have their "A game" (a la the Syracuse game, as Matei pointed out). I see them winning at home against Navy, S. Florida, and Cincy, and losing a shoot-out on the road at Louisville, who is tough at home and has one of the best offenses in the nation.
We'll see you somewhere warm in late December!