TENNESSEE GAME – THE VIEW FROM SECTION A
What a half of football! For 30 minutes, about 500 Rutgers fans and a very game group of Scarlet Knights owned 104,079 seat Neyland Stadium, home of the national powerhouse University of Tennessee Volunteers. Jr KOR Nate Jones returned the opening KO 100 yards to stun the Volunteers and hush their normally boisterous fans. Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano then amplified the shock with an onsides KO that the Scarlet Knights successfully recovered. The mightyVols were knocked on their heels and the Scarlet Knights kept them there most of the first half. Chants of "RRRRR…UUUU" and "Let's Go RU" roared from the small but vocal contingent of Rutgers faithful that cautiously ventured to Knoxville to experience the aura of Neyland Stadium and Tennessee Volunteer football. As the Rutgers defense trotted onto the field at the start of the 2nd quarter, they pumped their fists and waved their arms in acknowledgement of the vocal support they were receiving.
Rutgers totally dominated the first half against the 11th-ranked Vols. Rutgers outgained Tennessee 221 yards to 63 yards. The Scarlet Knights controlled the ball for 21 minutes. Only one crucial Rutgers TO and two very questionable calls on the Tennessee goal line as the half expired afforded Tennessee a halftime deficit of only 14-7.
After losing the onsides KO, Tennessee quickly forced a Rutgers punt. With a golden opportunity to further bury the Vols lost, it appeared that Rutgers had consumed its allowance of good fortune. Behind the powerful running of So TB Jabari Davis and aided by a Rutgers personal foul, Tennessee rapidly drove 65 yards in 5 plays into the red zone. But Jr WLB Brian Hohmann blew up a screen pass and then RS Sr MLB Gary Brackett sacked Jr QB Casey Claussen for a 9-yard loss. RS Sr PK Alex Wells missed a 40-yard FGA and Rutgers' lead remained 7-0. However, So QB Ryan Cubit threw a bad INT on the subsequent series and Claussen capitalized on the resulting short field with a 14-yard TD pass to So TB Derrick Tinsley on a seam route. But the scrappy Scarlet Knights would not go quietly.
QBit engineered a 12-play, 80-yard, 7-minute drive that culminated with an 11-yard TD throw to So TE Chris Loomis on a delay route reminiscent of a different shade of orange. Syracuse Orange. RS Fr TB Clarence Pittman, starting his first game as a Scarlet Knight, gained 36 tough yards on 7 carries on the drive. Rutgers converted 3 third down plays, including 3rd–n-9 and 3rd–n-16. Tennessee did not gain a first down in the 2nd Quarter. QBit led Rutgers on 13-play, 54-yard, 6.5-minute drive that ended in disappointment when Tennessee blocked the resulting 43-yard FGA. But Rutgers wasn't finished yet. Not content with a 7-point lead, Schiano wanted one more score before halftime. With 3:53 remaining, QBit drove Rutgers 66 yards to the Tennessee 5-yard line. Pittman had 4 carries for 24 yards and RS Sr TE L.J. Smith had 3 receptions for 33 yards. But the referees incorrectly ruled that Tennessee tackled a scrambling QBit just short of the goal line and then incorrectly ruled that the half expired before QBit could stop the clock. Replays showed QBit crossed the goal line before going down and that he spiked the ball before time expired. Some could argue that a $750,000 payday buys a little bit of home cooking.
Tennessee regrouped at halftime and dominated the 2nd half as I expected they would from the opening gun. Biletnikoff Award candidate So WR Kelley Washington exhibited dominating playmaking against an overmatched Scarlet Knight secondary. Tennessee opened the 2nd half with a 4-play, 79-yard TD drive capped by a 13-yard TD pass from Claussen to Witten on a corner route on Sr SLB Brian Hohmann, who stripped Witten after the catch. Washington caught three consecutive passes on hitch routes and gained 66 yards, including a 52-yard catch-and-run after RS Jr CB Brandon Haw whiffed on the open field tackle. Tennessee quickly forced a Rutgers punt and then Claussen connected with Washington on a 48-yard fade route. RS Jr Troy Fleming scored on a 16-yard run against a stretched Rutgers defense on the next play. Tennessee reversed a 7-point deficit into a 7-point lead in only 5 minutes. Rutgers only serious drive of the 2nd half ended after Sr WR Aaron Martin dropped a 3rd down pass. Tennessee attempted to pad its lead but a 10-play, 59-yard drive ended with a missed 41-yard FGA. Rutgers averted disaster when a 40-yard INT return for an apparent Vol TD was nullified by a stupid roughing the passer personal foul. The 3rd Quarter ended with the Vol defense pushing Rutgers backwards.
Washington sealed the outcome early in the 4th Quarter with a 58-yard TD catch-and-run on yet another hitch route as Nate Jones was caught in no-man's land and could neither break-up the pass nor attempt the tackle. Big punt returns on consecutive Tennessee possessions set up the final Vol TD – a 15-yard drive aided by yet another Rutgers personal foul. So, Tennessee escaped with a much harder-than-anticipated 35-14 victory. And Rutgers – yes, the Scarlet Knights, Kirk Herbstreet – earned the grudging respect of the big, bad Volunteers who, according to one Vol player, had expected Rutgers to "come in and lie down".
Meanwhile, the Rutgers faithful emerged from the bowels of Neyland Stadium with their heads up and chest out. Volunteer fans offered their congratulations and esteem for a Rutgers program that surprised the Orange masses with their toughness, poise, and talent. The Tennessee fans were as gracious in victory as they had been hospitable the preceding days. I had traveled to Knoxville for the primary purpose of experiencing the culture of Tennessee football Neyland Stadium. The outcome of the game was unimportant because my stated prediction was, "Lube up, it's going to be painful." I had a great time in Knoxville, making the acquaintance of some really great and friendly Rutgers fans, soaking up the southern hospitality, and experiencing the culture of Tennessee football. As it turned out, the outcome of the game was the chocolate icing on a fabulous southern chocolate cake.
Here are some thoughts, observations, and insights on the two very different halves of football at Neyland Stadium.
· Fast Greggy. Did Schiano and his charges play it safe and try to minimize the margin of defeat? Nope, just like Coach Felson, they played it fast and loose. With Rutgers fans imploring him to down the opening KO in the end zone for a touchback, Nate Jones brought it out. And took it home. Jones outrunning the Vol KO team was the first of many surprises. Schiano's onsides KO was brilliant, although I thought he should have exploited Tennessee's momentary confusion with a deep route to L.J. Smith. The final drive of the 1st half was another example of Schiano's daring. The safe call was running out the clock and taking the 7-point lead into the locker room. But Schiano wanted more and earned more, only to have the officials deny him points. Schiano dared to bold and was on verge of a spectacular upset.
· Brilliant Offensive Strategy. For two years, the Rutgers offense has too often been predictable, unimaginative, and illogical. It has played to its weaknesses instead of camouflaging them. But the most impressive offensive display of the Greg Schiano era was the by-product of an outstanding game plan designed to capitalize upon Tennessee's defensive tendencies and leverage their strengths against them. Running plays, especially draws, in long yardage situations – against a defense in man-to-man coverage – gained 49 yards and 3 first downs on 8 carries. The Vol DBs had their backs turned and Pittman had open field if he broke the LOS. These draws took pressure off QBit and slowed the Tennessee pass rush. Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit finally had Ryan executing quick throws on short drops, which also mitigated the Vol pass rush.
· Rushing Attack. The Rutgers rushing offense against the Tennessee rushing defense had all the trappings of Bambi vs Godzilla. But Clarence Pittman performed magnificently behind a patchwork OLine that had been terrible when it was healthy. Pittman made defenders miss. He ran hard inside, turning potential losses into short gains. When the intended hole was plugged, Pittman cutback or bounced outside. And once he broke the LOS, he tore off big chunks. On several carries, the last defender made a TD-saving tackle. After Rutgers gained 6 yards or more on only 2 carries against Pittsburgh, Pittman had 6 gains of 6 yards or more in the first half alone on his way to 81 yards on 17 carries.
· Pass Distribution. Eight different receivers were targeted in 18 pass attempts. Six receivers combined for 12 receptions, led by L.J. with 6 receptions.
· Feeding L.J. After 15 games, the Rutgers staff finally rode L.J. Smith. QBit threw 8 passes to Smith on drag (2), slant (2), hitch (3), and curl routes. L.J. caught 6 for 60 yards and 3 first downs. With an effective running game, Smith found plenty of room to operate in the Tennessee secondary.
· QB Execution. QBit completed 12 of 18 passes for 127 yards, 7 first downs, one TD, and one INT. This was QBit's best half of football at Rutgers. He was efficient, shrewd, decisive, and accurate – none of which have frequently been used to describe his past performances. He found his safety valve receivers when his primary targets were covered. His improved accuracy enabled him to sustain drives. Seven of his 12 completions converted first downs, four of which occurred on 3rd down. QBit also had 16 yards rushing to offset an 8-yard sack.
· Playmaking. I define a good play as a run of 6 yards or more and a reception for 10 yards or more. Rutgers has not produced a lot of these plays through the first 4 games. That is one of the main reasons that the offense has struggled to drive the length of the field. Against Tennessee, Rutgers made 13 good plays in the first half alone. 12 of those 13 good plays earned first downs. Twleve of 13 first half first downs results from big plays – 7 passes and 5 runs. Not all of these were in long yardage situations (e.g., Pilch's 20 yard drag route on 3rd-n-1). But Rutgers was able to consistently make good plays kept the chains moving.
· Rushing Defense. After yielding 32 rushing yards on the first two Vol plays from scrimmage, Rutgers allowed only 9 yards on 6 carries the rest of the half. This was one of the most pleasant surprises of the game, considering that Rutgers defense allowed 231 rushing yards per game last season, ranking #109 nationally. The inability of Tennessee to run against Rutgers defense frequently put them into 2nd-n-long and 3rd-n-long situations.
· Pass Defense. Rutgers double-covered Kelley Washington and Casey Claussen couldn't find alternate receivers. Rutgers sacked Claussen twice and forced him to scramble twice more for minimal yardage. Claussen was terrible. He looked confused and nervous in the face of Rutgers' pressure. Claussen completed only one of 8 designed passes for 11 yards (including 10 yards gained on two scrambles and 13 yards lost on two sacks) and one TD.
I asked a few Rutgers fans at Neyland Stadium for their thoughts during that festive halftime. Here are their words:
"Our goal is to develop into a program that has the same atmosphere as Tennessee! With another half of like the last one, we are on our way. Go RU!" – Jim from Cranford
"Just like '79. Where did this team come from? This makes Villanova and Buffalo look real tough!" – Rocco Mazza
"OK. I'm a believer again. Go RU!" – Glenn Long, Hillsboro
· Tennessee's Offensive Adjustments. A certain indication of Rutgers' 1st half dominance was the offensive adjustments Tennessee made at halftime. Make no mistake. Rutgers forced Tennessee out of its offensive game plan and forced the Volunteers into these adjustments. Tennessee changed its offensive scheme without substantially changing its personal. Head Coach Philip Fulmer scrapped the I formation and spread the field. He replaced powerful Jabari Davis with the quicker Derrick Tinsley at TB. Fulmer then deployed Tinsley as a 3WR and Jr TE Jason Witten as a 4WR, leaving FB Troy Fleming, a converted TB, as the sole RB in the backfield and putting Claussen in the shotgun. The Volunteers came out throwing and ran merely as a change of pace. After gaining only 63 yards in the 1st half, Tennessee gained 310 yards in the 2nd half – 258 yards via the pass.
· Tennessee Defensive Adjustments. Again, Rutgers dictated Tennessee's defensive adjustments, as well. Fulmer's defensive adjustments were not as severe as they were on offense, but they were equally effective. After yielding 221 yards in the 1st half, the Vols allowed only 51 yards in the 2nd half. Fulmer reigned in his defense since Rutgers counter-punched so well in the 1st half. Tennessee played more conservatively and forced Rutgers to beat them in individual match-ups. Not surprisingly, the Scarlet Knights couldn't. The Vols sat on the draw plays in long yardage situations, allowing only 12 yards on 6 carries. Tennessee kept more players in coverage, which bought time for the DLine to get to QBit, who was sacked twice and force to scramble once.
· Villanova Scouting Report. Tennessee essentially ran the Villanova offense that spread and shredded the Rutgers defense so badly. The Vols primarily ran four plays – hitch routes, fade routes, bubble screens, and draws. The Vols isolated Kelley Washington opposite trips. When Rutgers covered Washington man-to-man, Claussen threw either hitch routes (5 of 5 for 136 yards, 3 first downs, and a TD) or fade routes (1 of 6 for 63 yards and 2 first downs, including a pass interference penalty), depending upon the CB cushion. When Rutgers double-covered Washington, Claussen threw bubble screens (4 of 5 for 40 yards and 2 first downs) to Tinsley on the other side, where Tennessee outnumbered Rutgers 3-to-2 on the LOS. When Rutgers dropped too many back into coverage, Tennessee ran draws to Fleming (3 carries for 29 yards, including 5 yards lost on a holding penalty). Tennessee spread Rutgers and beat them one-on-one.
· Dime Defense. Rutgers unsuccessfully attempted to cover these 3WR and 4WR formations from its base 4-3 Cover 1 (one-deep zone) defense. Tennessee forced Schiano into his 3-2 dime defense with the 3WR and 4WR formations using their base offensive personnel. However, Schiano didn't make this adjustment until trailing 21-14 and the damage had been done. Tennessee scored against the dime when Schiano brought up the safeties to blitz and left the CBs in man-to-man coverage. Schiano should have double covered Washington in the dime and forced Tennessee to beat Rutgers 10-to-9. The way Claussen was playing, it might have worked.
· QB Keeper. With Tennessee sitting on the draw play in long yardage situations, QBit twice faked the draw and ran a bootleg, gaining 21 yards. This was another good but late adjustment.
· Reversal of Fortune. After completing 67% of his 1st half passes, QBit completed only 4 of 13 2nd half passes for only 15 yards. He didn't convert any 1st downs except for one pass interference penalty and one roughing-the-passer penalty. Tennessee crowded the short and intermediate zones and took away the passes underneath. QBit was 0 of 4 on deep passes, with one missed pass interference penalty and an INT nullified by the aforementioned roughing-the-passer penalty. While there still was good ball distribution in the 2nd half as 6 different receivers were targeted, only three caught passes.
· L.J. Smith. Tennessee took L.J. out of the offensive equation after halftime. Smith caught only one 2nd half pass for 4 yards (on a 3rd-n-5 play). He also drew a pass interference penalty on 3rd-n-12. He was open on a corner route and an out pattern but QBit threw poor passes.
· Fake Punt. With the game slipping away at the outset of the 3rd Quarter, Schiano called a fake punt on 4th-and-1 from the RU29. It was satisfying to see Schiano still committed to the upset rather than merely settling into a damage control mindset.
I took a few more post game quotes, including one from a gracious Volunteer fan:
"I don't generally believe in moral victories, but this definitely was one!" – Maureen Lugo, Colonia
"It was more than worth the trip. Rutgers made us proud." – Carol Crocker, Colonia
"Your team never quit fighting! You should be proud of the game that Rutgers played." – Jack Daniel, a Tennessee fan and retired Army Ranger from Knoxville Tennessee (Honest! I didn't make him up!)
Coming Next Week: Revenge! Rutgers owes West Virginia some serious payback for 80-7. Can Rutgers close the gap and beat West Virginia at home? It's going to be a full week. The West Virginia-Maryland game was broadcast on the Deuce. I'll get a chance to scout the Mountaineers and prepare some scouting reports. I'll also chime in with my keys to the game. Hopefully, before kickoff.
Please send any comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome and appreciate your feedback. In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the upcoming West Virginia game with other fans, please visit our message boards.