I always like to start out with the positives, and there were many. The offensive line is absolutely dominant, and the running game is as good as any I've seen this year. Rice and Leonard are studs. They not only run well, but both guys have great balance and footwork, and they do the little things. While I'm no Mel Kiper, I know that NFL scouts are just as excited about Leonard's blitz pickups as they are about the Leonard Leap (and probably more so). And give Rice credit because his 200+ yard game came against a team that has excellent linebackers who tackle exceptionally well. I can count about a half dozen solid four-yard runs against South Florida that would have gone for seven or eight yards against Illinois or UNC.
On defense, remember those pre-season concerns about the defensive line? Well, I think that unit has answered the bell and really played well. They absolutely controlled the line of scrimmage and made South Florida one-dimensional. The defensive tackles are controlling both gaps (recall Denton's lesson last week on playing the two-gap technique), and the ends got nice push into the backfield without losing contain. South Florida's QB is very athletic, but he had nowhere to run on most plays.
Barring turnovers or big plays, you are going to win almost every game if you run the ball effectively and stop the run. Rutgers did just that against South Florida, and they also got good pressure in the second half, leading to a couple of ill-advised picks and a key intentional grounding. Those key QB pressures, along with the grind-it-out running game by the offense are the positive memories that I will take from the game, and they are the primary reason why I believe that Rutgers won the game.
Last but not least, on special teams, Ito is in form, Radigan had another great game, and big kudos go out to Cali for corralling that loose ball after the blocked kick. A blocked kick returned for a TD would have brought the "same old Rutgers" naysayers out of their holes!
I know there is a contingent out there that wants to read some constructive criticism (and there always is some) so here goes. I won't belabor the point about the QB play. I will say that, while I am a huge advocate of stretching the defense, the deep ball play calls were very predictable against South Florida. Teel's interception also seemed to be thrown right into the heart of a deep zone, and it seemed like he may have thrown the ball without making a read. He will no doubt continue to get better with experience, so please be patient! From a play-calling perspective, I also was surprised that the tight ends did not see more plays where they were the primary targets. With Tucker out, I expected to see more clear-out plays to the TE (where he delays coming across the middle after the linebackers vacate their zones) or else TE read plays (where he can choose to cut in/out or just sit down in front of the linebacker or safety, depending on their position). Those types of throws to the TE are usually safe, and they work great off play-action.
On defense, it doesn't take a former player to make the observation that the zones were too soft, once again proving the old adage that the prevent defense only prevents you from winning. What appeared to be the prevent defense, however, may have actually been a matter of execution. The major problem that I saw in the secondary was that the safeties did not seem to be disguising their coverages pre-snap and then they seemed to be getting too deep on their drops, perhaps trying to neutralize the deep-ball threat. That left a soft underbelly between the safeties and the linebackers for the intermediate post routes and crossing patterns. You even saw an example of that on the last TD pass that dropped between the linebacker and the safety. The safety should be more aggressive in that circumstance because the back of the endzone functions as an additional defender.
The DBs did make some good plays, including the interceptions, and I think that Manny Collins (who wears my old number) should be recognized for having another solid game on a night when some of the other guys struggled a bit in coverage. He has been the biggest surprise for me on the defensive side of the ball this year: he plays hard, tackles well, and is very sure of himself out there.
Finally, Coach Schiano is a great coach and has taken this program to a new level, and he deserves credit for the defensive adjustments following those two TD drives by South Florida in the 2nd Quarter. I will say that I did not like the two-point conversion—and I made that known before the ball was even snapped (and if you're going to go for two, the play-call needs to run the WRs into the endzone!). If you look at historical rates, the two-point conversion succeeds only approximately 40% of the time so a coach's mindset needs to be focused on what are the consequences of not getting it (it's like gambling, you need to come to grips with whether you can afford to lose all your chips before betting everything you have on red). I have no problem, for example, when a team can cut a 16 point lead down to 8 late in a game or where a team that scores to go ahead by 1 late in a game tries to push the lead to 3. There is no downside in those situations. I just don't see the logic of taking points off the board when you're ahead with that much time left in the game. A similar decision ultimately cost Carolina a chance to go to overtime in the Super Bowl a few years back. Similarly, we all would have been sitting more comfortably on that last drive with a 9-point lead, and that last blocked field goal attempt likely would have been a punt rather than a kick. Anyway, enough said on the two-point play. We won the game!
Kudos to Coach Schiano. He has this team playing hard. The offense dominates the running game, and, while Teel needs to improve, he has not been overly careless with the ball. On defense, everyone had concerns about replacing the depth in the front seven, and the unit has played very well. I have now seen this team in person twice (UNC and Howard), and the players seem very composed, very confident. They are also having fun out there, which gives you an even greater feeling of confidence. I think this team will challenge for the Big East title if they get improved QB play and tighten up the pass defense and special teams play. Pittsburgh will be tough on the road as will Louisville at home - both teams have good QB play (whether it's Cantwell or Brohm in there for the Cardinals). While West Virginia is still my pick to win the conference, I actually give Rutgers a better chance against the Mountaineers on the road than Louisville at home, mostly because of the style of play. I see this Rutgers team getting into double-digits in the win column and putting in another great showing in a bowl game.
Good luck Scarlet Knights, and I'll see all of you at the bowl game!