Last year, Pittsburgh Head Coach Walt Harris pulled his starters at halftime with 42-0 lead against hopelessly overmatched Rutgers. One year later, Harris couldn't pull his starters until midway through the 4th Quarter of a 23-3 victory. These are the baby steps with which progress at Rutgers are currently measured. The performance of the defense improved tremendously over the previous year, when the Panther receivers torched the Rutgers secondary. However, the Pittsburgh offense lost many of its key skill players and is much worse this year. Nonetheless, the defense executed a game plan designed to stop the Panther running game and force RS Jr QB Rod Rutherford to beat man-to-man coverage. While the defense provided evidence of substantial improvements, the offense showed only marginal improvement. Although the offense was not shutout, it never crossed midfield under its own power. The Pittsburgh defense limited Rutgers to only 11 total yards and three first downs in the first half. Rutgers' offense gained only 134 yards for the entire game.
The first half was a battle of field position that favored Pittsburgh. Special teams play repeatedly pinned Rutgers in the shadow of its own goal posts while Pittsburgh faced short fields. Yet the Panthers were unable to convert field position into points. Pittsburgh started four first-half possessions inside Rutgers territory but scored on none of these drives. The Rutgers defense overcame an off-sides penalty by Raheem Orr to stop Pittsburgh on 4th-and-1 at the Rutgers 6 yard line. Rutgers also stopped Pittsburgh on downs at the Rutgers 31 yard line on the next possession. Behind the inspired play of its defense, Rutgers steadily pushed Pittsburgh back. Pittsburgh in turn pushed Rutgers back after a shanked Panther punt put the Scarlet Knights in business on the Pittsburgh 37 yard line. The Panthers then used 51-yard and 25-yard completions to drive to the Rutgers 1 yard line, where the Rutgers defense stiffened and limited the Panthers to a 19-yard FG. After Pittsburgh pinned Rutgers on its own goal line with yet another punt, the Panthers sacked RS Jr QB Ted Trump, forced a fumble, and returned it for a TD. More special teams gaffes – stupid KORs and muffed punts – positioned Pittsburgh for another score but the Panthers missed a 41-yard FGA. Rutgers trailed 10-0 at halftime despite a tremendous defensive effort because the offense sputtered and the special teams blundered.
Rutgers outplayed Pittsburgh in the 3rd Quarter yet trailed 17-3 at its conclusion. While the Rutgers offense started moving the football slightly – gaining one or two first downs each possession – the Scarlet Knight defense limited Pittsburgh to seven total plays on three of its four possessions, forcing fumbles on two of those possessions. However, Pittsburgh used pass plays of 33, 14, and 31 yards to fuel a quick 6-play, 80-yard TD drive. Rutgers turned Pittsburgh's first fumble – on Pittsburgh's 41-yard line – into its only scoring threat of the game as a 36-yard TB option pass to RS Sr TE LJ Smith setup Rutgers at the Panther 5-yard line. However, the Scarlet Knights couldn't punch it in and Head Coach Greg Schiano settled for erasing the goose egg on the scoreboard rather than going for the TD. Rutgers never threatened again while Pittsburgh missed a 38-yard FGA after a 55-yard drive and scored on a 4-play, 30-yard TD drive setup by a Marcus Jones fumble.
Here's an analysis of how Rutgers measured up to my keys to the Pittsburgh game. The original text is presented in bold italics.
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.
Rutgers defense played magnificently in very trying circumstances. They were passionate if not always poised. The Scarlet Knights exhibited tremendous determination when repeatedly forced to defend short fields early in the game. Rutgers stoned Pittsburgh on 7 consecutive first-half short yardage plays. The defense followed that effort by forcing two crucial 2nd half TOs. To a fan used to seeing opponents slice and dice the Rutgers defense, the defensive effort was astonishing, with the exception of two off-sides penalties and a personal foul on Alfred Peterson, who Schiano did not remove from the game.
The Rutgers offense played scared. The playcalling, down to Sands' 20-yard FGA, was conservative. Only 11 of 46 pass attempts were deep balls. Rutgers primarily threw short on hitches and outs that offered minimal opportunity for yardage after the catch against the sure-tackling Panther secondary. Offensive execution was also poor. The OL repeatedly missed blocks, allowing the Panther defense to make big plays. The offense committed five penalties for 28 yards. While the penalty yardage wasn't severe, the Rutgers offense rarely converts a 1st down when losing yardage during a series. Even 5-yard penalties are possession-killers. Schiano had to play much more aggressively on offense to win. He seemed content to play for a low scoring loss.
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.
Rutgers confirmed my prediction that it couldn't march downfield against Pittsburgh. Rutgers longest sustained drive was only 9 plays for 22 yards and 2 first downs. The running plays were all conservative – no misdirection. Rutgers seemed incapable of exploiting the Pittsburgh blitz. Rutgers rarely got the ball to receivers in zones vacated by blitzing Panthers. The Rutgers staff insisted upon pecking at the Panthers with hitches and outs that offered minimal opportunities for yardage after the catch. Three screen pass attempts yielded but one completion for a loss of one yard. Only 10 of 45 pass attempts were deep balls. Only one of those 11 was completed – a 19-yard post pattern to Sr WR Josh Hobbs in the final minutes. Another drew a 15-yard pass interference penalty. A third was caught by Aaron Martin but was ruled incomplete. Only three of 12 first-half pass attempts were deep balls.
Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit pulled a TB option pass out of his bag of tricks. Fr TB Markis Facyson took a pitch and threw downfield to RS Sr TE LJ Smith for a 36-yard gain – Rutgers' longest of the season.
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.
Schiano employed the obvious defensive strategy and it gave Rutgers a chance to win the game. Schiano put 8 men on the line of scrimmage on early downs and dared Rutherford to throw deep. The Scarlet Knights stuffed the Panther running game with a swarming aggressiveness not seen in many years. Pittsburgh gained only 107 yards on 40 carries. Rutgers held Pittsburgh to 2 yards or less on 20 of these 40 carries, including 13 TFLs (or no gain). RS Sr MLB Gary Brackett led the Scarlet Knights with 4 TFLs. Harris stubbornly pounded at Rutgers with his running game and the Scarlet Knights simply refused to relent.
Rutherford completed 12 of 25 pass attempts for 255 yards and one TD. Pittsburgh's offense completed only three scoring drives – two of these were fueled by deep passes. Pittsburgh couldn't move the ball without big plays. Rutgers forced TOs on the only other drives that saw big plays by the Panthers – a Rutherford fumble on the Rutgers 19 yard line and a blocked 38-yard FGA. Rutherford won the game for Pittsburgh. But just barely.
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?
Terrible. That sums up the pass protection. Much hasn't changed since last season. Trump was harassed all game by DL and blitzing LBs and DBs. Three seconds must have seemed like an eternity if and when Trump got it. Pittsburgh recorded 3 sacks and many more hurries and knockdowns. Midway through the 1st Quarter, backup LT Howard Blackwood whiffed on his blocking assignment and a blind-side sack and fumble produced a defensive TD for Pittsburgh. The OLine couldn't execute screen passes, either, which should be successful because opposing defenses are accustomed to bursting through the Rutgers OLine. Two screen passes were not completed because the OTs could not cut the play-side DE, who deflected one of screen passes.
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.
Schiano and Ferraro employed a shrewd selection of coverage packages against Rutherford. The Scarlet Knights played man-to-man coverage behind an 8-man front on early downs but dropped 8 men into coverage in long yardage situations. The man-to-man coverage was tight. Rutgers did not give Rutherford chippies underneath. Rutherford's 48% completion rate reflected the reduced accuracy from throwing downfield. The Scarlet Knight DBs were beaten frequently, often by 5 yards or more on deep balls. But Rutherford often missed the open receivers or the receivers dropped the balls. The Rutgers DBs weren't once flagged for pass interference. Their situation was tenuous all game. But they accomplished their goals as Pittsburgh scored only 10 points off big passes.
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.
Welcome to the Big East, Mr. Trump. Did we neglect to mention that your OLine is a sieve? I knew we forgot something. Trump completed only one of 10 deep passes – a 19-yard post pattern to Josh Hobbs in the final minutes. His next longest pass was only 12 yards. Trump completed only 18 of 45 pass attempts for only 131 yards and 2 INTs, although both INTs occurred in the final minutes with the outcome already decided. He misread a goal line pass and forced a slant when the coverage screamed for a corner route. Late in the 1st Quarter, Trump suffered a high ankle sprain that severely hindered his mobility. Not that his mobility was used prior to the injury. Schiano kept Trump in the pocket, a stationary target for the Pittsburgh blitz.
Trump had a rough 1st half, completing only 5 of 11 passes for 28 yards and 3 first downs. Three of his 6 incompletions were poorly thrown and two of those three ended possessions. The 3rd Quarter was Trump's best, as it was for the entire offense. Trump completed only 6 of 16 passes for 43 yards and 4 first downs. But two additional first down throws were nullified when the referees inaccurately ruled them incomplete. These uncompletions would have gained an additional 40 yards. Trump struggled again in the 4th Quarter as the offense became increasingly desperate – 7 of 18 for 60 yards, 3 first downs, and 2 INTs. Trump looked more comfortable and composed in the second half. The staff needs to be more creative and give their receivers opportunities to run after the catch.
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.
Pilch struggled with his blocking assignments as the bigger, faster, and stronger Panthers were able to avoid or blow-up his blocks. Especially out in space on pitches. On Rutgers second possession, Pilch missed a block on a pitch-out against Gerald Hayes, who tackled Markis Facyson for a 4-yard loss. I didn't focus on Pilch's blocking, so I'm not entirely sure if he struggled as badly as did the rest of the OLine. I do know that decent yardage inside or outside was few and far between.
Schiano ignored Pilch as an offensive threat. Not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless, Pilch didn't carry the ball. He also was not a receiving threat. Trump did not throw to Pilch until the final minutes, and only as a safety valve on a crossing route.
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.
Facyson had a very long day. Welcome to the Big East, Mr. Facyson. Markis gained only 24 yards on 15 carries. Three screen passes were thrown his way – two were incomplete and he lost a yard on the third. Ten of his 15 carries gained 2 yards or less; six were TFLs (or no gain). Facyson gained 6 yards or more on but a single carry – an 8-yard run off-tackle on the second possession. The rushing threat evaporated in the 1st half. Rutgers primarily threw the ball in the 2nd half. Hoping for big gains behind this offensive line was perhaps asking for the impossible. Not surprisingly, Facyson couldn't deliver.
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.
Rutgers lost the battle of punters not because Barr punted poorly but because Panther P Andy Lee punted exceptionally. Lee twice dropped punts inside the Rutgers 5-yard line. Of course, Lee had the advantage of superior field position. Barr had an acceptable performance – averaging 41 yards on 11 punts. The Panthers averaged 6 yards per return. Barr's net punting average was 35 yards per punt. While Barr performed adequately, he didn't provide the dominating performance Rutgers needed given its habitually poor field position and its anemic offense.
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.
Sands was a non-factor in this game because the Rutgers offense could not sustain drives against the Panther defense. Rutgers moved into FG range only once. Sands converted a chip shot 18-yard FGA.
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