KEYS TO THE VILLANOVA GAME
The six-month drought between basketball and football seasons is over! Spring camp in April whetted the appetite of Rutgers fans. Summer camp stoked their enthusiasm. Finally, kickoff is upon us. Rutgers football begins its 133rd season and the 2nd season of the Greg Schiano era tonight.
Rutgers fans have been scanning reports from summer camp, hoping to see tangible signs of improvement after a disastrous 2-9. Schiano was supposed to show immediate improvement upon inheriting a program that former Head Coach Terry Shea had driven into the ground. Better recruiting. More demanding strength and conditioning. Fewer academic casualties. More discipline. Better fundamentals. Tougher attitude. It would all add up to an improved product on the field. That was the theory, anyway. The reality was that a rookie head coach was trying to change an entrenched culture of laissez-faire. The resulting culture shock was inevitable. An experienced head coach would have been challenged to cope with the culture that Schiano found when he arrived on the Banks. Compound that with the unavoidable rookie mistakes in handling personnel and the result was major chemistry problems. Couple the chemistry problems with rookie tactical coaching mistakes and the result was 2-9 with 80-7. The season couldn't end soon enough.
Schiano has since landed his second strong recruiting class. His strength and conditioning program is starting to pay real dividends. Disgruntled and substandard players have been purged from the program. The culture is changing. However, Schiano has suffered a few setbacks. Four of his top recruits did not qualify. His starting WLB transferred. Two freshmen left the team early in summer camp. And the top story out of summer camp was the injury list. At least 15 players lost significant practice repetitions to injury – many of the nagging variety. Hamstring injuries decimated the receiving corps and defensive backfield. Schiano enters the season leaning more heavily upon his backups than he anticipated. Most of the injured players have returned but many are not yet back to 100%.
So a gimpy Rutgers team opens the season at home against Division I-AA Villanova. After losing at home to quasi-Division IA Connecticut last season, Rutgers can't afford to take any opponent lightly. Especially a wounded Rutgers. In the past two meetings, Villanova has stayed with Rutgers for a half before bowing to superior depth. In 2000, Rutgers took a 7-0 lead on its opening 9-play, 63-yard drive. Villanova's opening drive ended with a missed 51-yard FGA. Rutgers second drive quickly stalled and a botched punt snap left the Wildcats parked on the 10-yard line…. 7-7. The next Rutgers drive resulted in a blocked 31-yard FGA. The Rutgers defense snuffed Villanova's next two drives with crucial stops on 3rd-and-short. Late in the first half, Rutgers drove 76 yards in 10 plays, taking a 14-7 lead it wouldn't relinquish. Villanova's last drive of the half ran out of time on the 30-yard line.
Rutgers forced a fumble deep in Wildcat country on the opening possession of the second half. QB Mike McMahon methodically engineered a 7-play, 33-yard TD drive for a 20-7 lead. Rutgers stopped Villanova three-and-out on its next two possessions while in turn missing a 46-yard FGA and orchestrating an 11-play, 59-yard TD drive. Villanova QB Brett Gordon responded with a 12-play, 75-yard TD drive that pulled the Wildcats within 27-14 to open the fourth quarter. Both teams exchanged interceptions then punts. Villanova stalled yet again in Rutgers territory and the punt left Rutgers sitting on its 4-yard line. Twelve plays and 96 yards later, McMahon connected with WR Walter King on a 15-yard slant for the clinching TD. Villanova closed the game with a prevent TD to narrow the final score to 34-21.
Villanova provides a convenient opponent for a Rutgers team desperately needing confidence, especially on offense. Villanova has a terrible defense. Inexperienced players will gain valuable experience. This game will not provide an indication of how improved the Scarlet Knights are. But any weaknesses revealed against Villanova, especially on the OLine and at LB, are major concerns. Here are my five keys to the Villanova game. Since I am expecting a blowout win, I am taking more of a big picture approach, focusing specifically upon concerns raised during last season and throughout spring and summer camps.
1. Riley's Law. Personally, I think Pat Riley is a vastly overrated basketball coach. And outstanding defensive coach and motivator, he has been lost without Magic Johnson directing his offenses. His best Brick team rode the home court advantage to its only NBA Finals appearance. The Bricks earned the home court advantage by mercilessly devouring the cupcakes on their schedule. Riley simply refused to allow his team to lose to bad opponents. So, an unexceptional Brick team earned the best record that secured the home court advantage that propelled them into the Finals.
Schiano must take a similar approach with his team. For the first three games. Starting with Villanova. Last season, his team showed a very disturbing degree of complacency against a bad Connecticut team. That carelessness cost Rutgers a win they couldn't make up anywhere on the schedule. That arrogance earned Schiano an embarrassing defeat that would haunt him on the recruiting trail. And increase the pressure for him to start showing progress in the win-loss column. This Rutgers team is not good enough to take any opponent lightly. Against a weak opponent such as Villanova, they must be focused and business-like. Anything less than a blowout simply is not acceptable.
2. Offensive Line. The offensive line was a disaster last season. Schiano only inherited only six upperclass OL when he assumed the reigns. He lost three of them before summer camp opened. With injuries temporarily shelving two of his more promising underclassmen, Schiano was forced to convert two DL and a JUCO TE to OL because his other young OL weren't ready to play. A rash of nagging injuries hobbled a thin, inexperienced, undersized unit. Chemistry was a pipedream with a constantly shuffling lineup. The OLine couldn't open holes for the RBs and couldn't protect the QBs. The rushing attack averaged only 2.5 yards per carry. Opponents sacked the Rutgers QB 45 times.
The DLine dominated the OLine first in spring camp and then in summer camp. This is the next evolution of a defense that finished last in Big East rushing defense by allowing 231 yards per game. Did the OLine struggle because it still sucks? Or simply because the DLine has improved at a faster rate? While Villanova won't tell us if the OLine is improved, it will identify problems. If Rutgers rushes for 200 yards against Villanova, it won't mean anything. If Rutgers rushes for less than 100 yards, then that is a problem. If Rutgers holds Villanova sackless, don't rejoice. If Villanova sacks Ryan Cubit three or four times and pressures him constantly, be afraid. Be very afraid. The OLine needs a strong effort. They need to build confidence and develop chemistry.
3. Defensive Line. Rutgers has been weak on the DLine since the late Graber years when Rashod Swinger and Charles Woolridge manned the front. Even then it was only respectable. Hardly dominant. Ever since, its' been a turnstyle for opposing RBs to stroll through on their way towards the end zone. Schiano is committed to building his defense with the DLine as its foundation. He believes the DLine is the key to a strong defense. A dominating DLine disrupts the opponents running game, frees LBs to make tackles, and pressures the opposing QB into mistakes. Schiano did not inherit much on the DLine – four returning upperclassmen, none of who were proven, reliable playmakers. So Schiano converted two LBs to DEs. He also recruited three very promising DL, whom he inserted onto the two-deep as true freshmen. And he played a redshirt freshmen on the second team as well.
The DLine is young but experienced. That experience is complemented by the addition of former New England Patriot DLine Coach Randy Melvin, who has accelerated the development of his young charges. RS Sr DT Will Burnett has returned from a second knee operation to augment the DLine. And the youngsters are moving into key roles on the line. The youthful core of So DE Ryan Neill, RS So DT Gary Gibson, So DT Davon Clark, and So DE Alfred Peterson offers a glimmer of hope for the future. If the DLine is to improve, it must start by dominating weaker opponents. The Villanova game is a perfect place to start. Let's see if the DLine can make some plays.
4. Receivers. The receiving corps was very weak last season, which is especially alarming since Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit employs a multiple receiver offense. Only Sr TE LJ Smith and Jr WR Aaron Martin were reliable, viable receiving threats. Two true freshmen – WR Tres Moses and WR Jerry Andre – received playing time but produced minimally. Schiano targeted the receiving corps as an area of need and recruited several promising youngsters – WR Shawn Tucker, WR Corey Barnes, and TE Clark Harris. Schiano also switched backup QB RS Fr Chris Baker to WR during spring camp. RS Fr Bryan Wilson is another new addition to the receiving corps.
The biggest story out of summer camp was the evolving injury list. At one time, six players were listed with hamstring injuries, including starting TE LJ Smith, starting WR Aaron Martin, starting WR Tres Moses, and backup WR Sean Carty. Smith will start against Villanova but isn't 100%. The availability of Martin and Moses is uncertain. No longer are the young receivers expected to provide productive depth. Now they must contribute at the level of a starter. WRs So Jerry Andre and RS Fr Chris Baker will start against Villanova. Fr WR Shawn Tucker is expected to see substantial action as a backup. Villanova has a terrible secondary. If the young receivers struggle to produce against the Wildcats, then quality depth at receiver is going to remain a concern. The receivers need to produce 250 receiving yards.
5. Linebackers. In January, while Schiano was putting the finishing touches on his 2002 recruiting class, Rutgers had a glut of LBs. The incoming class included four LBs. The departing class contained no LBs. The depth chart looked 5-deep at LB. Then Bill Hambrecht transferred. So did Dan Woodard. Nate Leonard missed spring practice and was later forced to quit as a result of recurring knee problems. Likely starter Brad Cunningham transferred after the spring semester. Freshmen Berkeley Hutchinson and William Beckford did not qualify. Schiano moved LB Mitch Davis to FB. Suddenly, the once-deep LB corps has depth problems. Especially considering that starting SLB Sr Brian Bender has played in only 7 games during the previous two season.
Not only is the LB corps thin, but the loss of Cunningham and the unavailability of Beckford and Hutchinson has deprived the unit of much-needed athleticism. The unit is slow. Starters Sr MLB Gary Brackett, Sr SLB Brian Bender, and Jr WLB Brian Hohmann each lack speed. As do backups RS So WLB Jeremy Campbell and RS Fr MLB Ishmael Medley. Only true Fr SLB Terry Bynes possesses Big East caliber speed. The LBs have been vulnerable in pass coverage. They struggle to cover RBs out of the backfield. And they are slow reacting to crossing routes. How do our LBs perform against Villanova's bubble screens, crossing routes, and drag routes?
1. So QB Ryan Cubit. When backup QB Chad Schwenk transferred after losing the starting job to true freshman Cubit, Ryan was cemented as the starting QB with only a former walk-on behind him. QBit set several Rutgers freshman passing records last season while starting all 11 games. Unfortunately, he also led the worst offense in the history of the Big East as Rutgers scored only 36 points in 7 Big East games. QBit completed only 120 of 268 passing attempts (45%) for 1,433 yards, 9 TDs, and 19 INTs. QBit received no assistance from a porous OLine that could protect him. Or RBs that could pick up blitzes. Or receivers that could get open and catch the ball. Or an offensive coordinator who would call more suitable plays. QBit was beaten to a pulp. He often lacked the time to find an open receiver. However, even in the right circumstances, young QBit often failed to make plays.
QBit must prove that he is the QB of the future for Rutgers. How will QBit perform against Villanova's porous secondary? He should throw for at least 250 yards. He must read the defense better before the ball is snapped. He must complete his progressions once the ball is snapped. He must throw the ball before he is sacked. And he must throw the ball to the correct target. Accurately. He must use the entire field. He must hit the deep pass without floating it. He must look off his primary receiver. With his two favorite receivers – LJ Smith and Aaron Martin -- slowed by hamstring injuries, will QBit adopt another choice as his over-used primary receiver or will he spread the ball around among all his resources? Schiano signed two promising QBs in the 2002 class – Anthony Cali and Ryan Hart. While Schiano would obviously prefer to redshirt both, he now has more options should QBit continue to struggle.
2. DE Raheem Orr. Orr made his long awaited debut at Buffalo last season. And on the second play from scrimmage, a chop block inflicted a high ankle sprain on Orr. The ankle injury and other nagging afflictions limited Orr to only 7 games. His 25 tackles put him at #25 on the team. It was a very disappointing year for the player heralded as Rutgers' best. Orr has returned to full health, missing none of spring or summer camp. Orr was the dominant defense player in both camps. Our notoriously weak OTs were unable to stop his pass rushes. Now, lets see how Orr does against a weak opponent. Orr must have a dominating game. And must emerge as a leader of the defense.
3. WR Chris Baker. Baker was a partial qualifier last season. He was allowed to practice but not play. Baker ran the scout team as the QB. During spring camp, Baker split time at QB and WR. Schiano permanently switched Baker to WR before summer camp, although he still uses Baker at QB in certain option plays. Promising stories emerged from spring camp about Baker as a WR. Baker's development at WR was one of the big stories of summer camp. Baker apparently was positioned to compete for the 3WR job but a rash of hamstring injures among the WRs opened a slot on the first team that Baker seized. Schiano desperately needs a second WR to complement Martin and Smith. Baker could be that receiver. Baker's performance against the weak Villanova secondary will give an indication of the degree to which he might contribute this season.
4. TE LJ Smith. LJ was a non-qualifier as a freshman. He couldn't even practice with the team. But Smith is on track to graduate next spring so the NCAA restored his lost year of eligibility. Congratulations on both accounts. I like reading stories about kids who have overcome their academic hardships. Smith led the team in receptions last season with 30 for 282 yards. Along with Aaron Martin, LJ was QBit's primary target. Unfortunately, OC Bill Cubit wasted Smith's talent by using him in a horizontal passing game rather than getting his big, athletic TE downfield. Smith averaged 9 yards per catch and had a longest gain of 31 yards. A supposed breakout season turned disappointing. LJ is still recovering from a hamstring injury suffered early in summer camp. He will start against Villanova but isn't 100%. Cubit's use of Smith will be interesting to note. Will Cubit use Smith to stretch the field and occupy the safeties or will he have him running bubble screens?
5. TB Clarence Pittman. As with Baker, Pittman was academically ineligible last season. Reports indicated that Pittman was the best player on the field while practicing with the scout team. Pittman was the subject of much scrutiny during spring camp as fans sought to glimpse this young talent. But Pittman was unable to claim the starting TB job from incumbent So Marcus Jones. Hamstring and ankle injuries during summer camp limited Pittman's participation and prevented him distancing himself from Jones and true freshman Markis Facyson. Pittman is healthy enough to play against Villanova. He may not start. However, his first game action as a Scarlet Knight will be interesting to observe. How will he compare to the hype?
Coming Monday: "Villanova Post Mortem." A look back at the Villanova game to see how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys.
Coming Next Week: "Buffalo Scouting Reports." I reviewed the tape of the 2001 Rutgers-Buffalo matchup. I'll break down the Bulls defense, offense, and special teams in a three-part series.
Coming Soon: "Ranking the Big East Offenses." The first in a two-part series. I've reassembled my crack panel of fans to evaluate the offensive components of every Big East team. This article will break it down.
Coming Soon: "Big East Conference Predictions." My crack panel will look at the Big East schedule and offer their predictions on each intra-conference game.
Coming Soon: "Ranking the Big East Offense." I've reassembled and augmented my crack panel of fans to evaluate the offensive components of every Big East team. This article will break it down.
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