KEYS TO THE PITTSBURGH GAME
Two years ago, Terry Shea's last Rutgers traveled to Pittsburgh for Game 4. After opening the season with comfortable wins against Villanova and Buffalo as well as an expected blowout loss at Virginia Tech, the Pittsburgh game was going to be the first true test for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights lost that game 29-17 despite Pittsburgh's best attempts to give the game away, including seven turnovers. That outcome under those circumstances essentially confirmed that Shea would not meet his 6-win mandate. This year, Rutgers likewise travels to Pittsburgh for Game 4 for what was again supposed to be the first true test for Rutgers after expected comfortable season-opening wins over Villanova, Buffalo, and Army. Unfortunately, the wins over Villanova and Buffalo didn't quite materialize. Two bad losses left Rutgers fans wondering if the team was really as bad as it appeared and if the program had regressed as badly as it seemed. However, a 44-0 Homecoming win over Army allayed some of these concerns. So, Rutgers travels to Pittsburgh for a contest that should indicate who the real Scarlet Knights are – the 0-2 bunglers or the poised, aggressive squad that dismantled an inferior Army squad. Nonetheless, the Scarlet Knights have a large gap to close with the Panthers.
How big of a gap? Well, since the referees wouldn't stop the fight, Walt Harris did. Pitt won with a first half TKO. Pittsburgh took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in 8 plays, with QB David Priestly connecting with WR Antonio Bryant on a 9-yard TD pass. The Scarlet Knight and Panthers exchanged 5 consecutive punts. Pittsburgh then scored TDs on its final five 1st half possessions – including drives of 50, 60, 77, and 80 yards. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh defense limited Rutgers to 16 total yards in the first half. Rutgers went 3-and-out on four of its first 6 possessions. Rutgers fumbled a kickoff return. And retreated 10 yards on its final possession of the half. Pittsburgh led 42-0 at halftime in a laugher. And it was a laugher, because the Rutgers crowd enjoyed the antics of a member of the Pittsburgh staff retrieving the kickoff tee. He worked harder than any Scarlet Knight.
The 2nd half was an embarrassment as Harris employed the fetal position offense for 30 minutes to keep the score from reaching truly ridiculous proportions. Harris played his backups most of the 2nd half. He rarely threw the ball after torching the Rutgers secondary in the 1st half. Pittsburgh punted on every 2nd half possession. So nearly did Rutgers, interrupting the punting display with a fumble. Rutgers did not cross midfield until its final possession. The final 42-0 score provided no indication of Pittsburgh's total dominance.
Pittsburgh has been underwhelming so far this season in victories against Ohio and Alabama-Birmingham. The defense appears strong while the offense is struggling. If the Army game is any indication of the caliber of Rutgers, then a victory against Pittsburgh game is more feasible than it appeared prior to the season. However, Rutgers must play a near flawless game with respect to turnovers and penalties. And the Scarlet Knights must make big plays and capitalized upon any opportunities offered by Pittsburgh. Here are my five keys to the Pittsburgh game.
1. Attitude. The first three games revealed the extent to which the attitude of the Rutgers team affects its performance on the field. The team that lost 37-19 to Villanova and 34-11 to Buffalo was uninspired, confused, and soft. The team that beat Army was focused, passionate, and aggressive. If Rutgers is to have the slightest semblance of a chance against Pittsburgh, it must play fast land loose. The Scarlet Knights must be sharp and disciplined on offense while being confident and energetic on defense. Pittsburgh has demonstrated superior talent in recent years – sufficient to overcome lackadaisical efforts. Rutgers must be razor sharp. The Scarlet Knights cannot afford to play conservatively because Pittsburgh's superior talent will prove decisive otherwise. However, Walt Harris' team has a penchant for overlooking opponents. The Scarlet Knights have nothing to lose. Let it all hang out so as to be ready to capitalize in case Pittsburgh is in a generous mood.
2. Big Play Offense. The Panther defense clearly will be the best unit on the field. The Pittsburgh defense returns 7 starters from a squad ranked #28 nationally in scoring defense (21 points per game), #7 nationally in total defense (285 yards per game), #26 nationally in rushing defense (119 yards per game), and #6 nationally in passing defense (166 yards per game). Rutgers likely won't be able to consistently march downfield against the Panther defense. Therefore, the Scarlet Knights must attempt to hit big plays. Rutgers should throw deep early and often when presented with favorable coverage. This game would be a timely opportunity to open Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit's bag of tricks.
3. Aggressive Defense. Pittsburgh's offense has struggled as RS Jr QB Rod Rutherford has struggled. Rutherford has completed 53% of his passes and has thrown as many INTs (five) as TDs. The once-potent Pittsburgh passing game has sputtered with a completely overhauled cast. The Panthers are much more dependent upon their running game now. The problem is that they don't have the overwhelming talent to be one-dimensional, as does Virginia Tech. Rutgers must focus its defensive schemes against upon stopping the Panther running game. Move RS Sr SS Shawn Seabrooks up as the eighth man in the box. Do it frequently. Occasionally bring up Sr FS Nate Colon or So FS Jarvis Johnson for additional run support. Force Rutherford to win the game by throwing successfully. Take away his running game and make him beat man-to-man coverage. If Rutgers can stop the Panther rushing attack but Rutherford beats them with his arm, there's not much more that could be done. But Rutgers must make Rutherford prove he can win with his arm.
4. Pass Protection. The Rutgers OLine was severely overmatched in Big East games last season. The OLine afforded minimal pass protection against opposing defenses. Scarlet Knight QBs were sacked 38 times by Big East opponents. Pittsburgh employs an aggressive defense featuring frequent blitzing. The Panthers rarely rush only their DL, usually sending at least one LB or DB. Pittsburgh recorded 7 sacks against Rutgers last season. Last week, RS Jr QB Ted Trump showed tremendous improvement over his first effort as the starting QB. I don't think that Buffalo's defense is appreciably better than Army's defense. Therefore, I think Trump's improvement was more attributable to experience. Trump showed he can read a defense, find his secondary receivers, escape from pressure, and deliver accurate passes. Pittsburgh will display a level of athleticism on a whole different level than witnessed in Weeks 1-3. That athleticism will enable Pittsburgh to challenge Trump in the aforementioned areas to a degree he has not really experienced. The OLine must provide Trump with reasonable protection to enable him to find open receivers and deliver the football. He needs at least 3 unmolested seconds. Can the OLine provide that consistently?
5. Man-to-Man Coverage. If Rutgers is going to force Pittsburgh QB Rod Rutherford to beat them by throwing the football, such a strategy will frequently leave the Scarlet Knight CBs in man-to-man coverage. Rutgers cannot afford to play soft man-to-man coverage. Virginia Tech rookie QB Grant Noel was nearly perfect last season against such coverage, completing 17 of 22 pass attempts. Rutgers conceded the flats and Noel completed hitches and curls all day. This was the same Grant Noel who, when faced with press coverage, repeatedly failed to connect on deep passes. Schiano must learn these lessons and apply the studied solutions in similar circumstances. This would appear to be one such circumstance. The Pittsburgh receivers are inexperienced. The QB is shaky. Press the WRs at the line of scrimmage and force Rutherford to go up top and hit the big play. Don't give him chippies for 60 minutes. The Rutgers DBs must be physical at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of pass routes and must look up for incoming passes. The Scarlet Knights also can't afford an endless stream of pass interference penalties.
1. RS Jr QB Ted Trump. Trump will face a different caliber of defense this week. Much bigger. Much stronger. And much faster. Rutgers must put points on the scoreboard since the Rutgers defense is the less likely to stop the opposing offense. Rutgers will need big plays to score. And those big plays most likely must come from Trump. Schiano must use Trump's mobility – rollouts, bootlegs, draws, etc. – to pressure the Panther defense. Trump must make plays while on the move. He showed great accuracy while throwing on the move against Army. He will need much more of the same against Pittsburgh. Trump will also need to hit his deep passes to knock the Panther defense on its heels. He must be accurate with his passes and quick with his progressions because the Pitt DBs won't be giving him the cushions he saw against Army.
2. RS So FB Ray Pilch. Last week, Schiano remembered that the FB is an eligible receiver. The FB also is an eligible ball-carrier. Last season, opponents were essentially able to ignore the Rutgers FB in the coverage schemes because Rutgers almost never used the FB. Against Army, RS So FB Ray Pilch had 3 receptions for 45 yards and 2 first downs. Although the least athletic of the skill positions players, Pilch demonstrated that he can be a viable receiving threat, leading the team in receptions and receiving yards Schiano must continue to use Pilch as a change-of-pace. Giving him one or two carries might yield a nice return as well. However, Pilch's most valuable role is that of a blocker – lead blocker for the TB and blitz protection for the QB. With the inside running game consistently gaining little, Rutgers is increasingly running outside, which increases the importance of the FB as the lead blocker. Against better competition, Pilch must continue his strong blocking. Pilch will also be challenged in blitz protection as Pittsburgh will frequently send their LBs. Piles will likewise have to pickup better athletes this week.
3. Fr TB Markis Facyson. Facyson had a terrific game against Army, gaining 129 yards on 32 carries. His rushing took pressure off Ted Trump, who likewise was terrific. Rutgers is likely in for a long day at Heinz Field trying to run against the stingy Panther rush defense. Facyson will probably have many carries that gain 2 yards or less. He needs to break some long runs to move the chains. And keep the rushing threat present so Pittsburgh can't simply tee off on Trump. Rutgers needs some big plays in the game. They will need some from Facyson. He must consistently make the first tackler miss.
4. RS Sr P Mike Barr. If the Panther offense continues to struggle, the game will evolve into a battle of field position. Mike Barr is a tremendous weapon in such an affair. His ability to boom punts 50 yards can greatly assist the defense by pushing the Panther offense further back in its possessions. Barr had a strong game against Army but has struggled this year. Rutgers needs the kind of effort that has given Barr All-Big East consideration. Barr especially must hit big punts from the shadows of his own end zone. Rutgers can't afford to give Pittsburgh short fields with which to work.
5. RS So PK Ryan Sands. The Rutgers offense likely will struggle to drive the length of the field against the tough Pittsburgh defense. If the offense isn't completely stifled, it may bog inside the Pittsburgh 25-yard line. Rutgers must capitalize upon every available scoring opportunity. Therefore, Schiano may need to rely upon Sands to generate the bulk of his points. Sands has struggled this season. He has missed two of four FGAs – from 24 yards and 39 yards. Sands must make every FGA from inside 40 yards. Some longer ones wouldn't hurt, either. Rutgers can't afford to leave any points on the field because they will be tough to attain.
Coming Monday: "Pittsburgh Post Mortem." A look back at the Pittsburgh game to see how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys.
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