KEYS TO THE WEST VIRGINIA GAME
80-7. Those numbers have haunted the Rutgers football program – its coaches, its players, its recruits, and its fans – for nearly a year. On a crisp, sunny day at Mountaineer Field, West Virginia handed Rutgers its worst defeat in over 100 years. Here's a summary of the lowlights:
· The margin of victory was West Virginia's largest since 1951, when the Mountaineers defeated Geneva, and the largest margin ever recorded at Mountaineer Field.
· West Virginia's 11 touchdowns were the most ever scored at Mountaineer Field.
· West Virginia's 9 rushing touchdowns were the most ever scored at Mountaineer Field.
· Rutgers' 8 turnovers were the most ever committed at Mountaineer Field.
· West Virginia's 446 rushing yards were the most ever gained at Mountaineer Field.
· West Virginia's 59 first-half points were the most ever recorded by a West Virginia team in the first half.
The "contest" pitted the unresisting object (Rutgers defense) with the inert force (Rutgers offense). Rutgers went 3-n-out on four of its five 1st Quarter possessions. The fifth possession ended in a 3rd down fumble at the RU15. A sixth possession was denied when Fr PR Tres Moses muffed the Mountaineers' first and only punt at the RU11. Meanwhile, after punting on its first possession (and recovering the muff), West Virginia scored four consecutive TDs to end the quarter leading 28-0. The litany of Rutgers 3-n-out possessions changed to TOs in the 2nd Quarter. The Scarlet Knights committed one fumble and threw 3 INTs. They also punted once after a 3-n-out. Conversely, West Virginia scored on every possession – 4 TDs and a FG. The Mountaineer defense recorded two of the four TDs, returning a fumble and INT. Another INT was returned to the RU6. West Virginia scored four TDs in the final 8 minutes to turn a 31-0 rout into a 59-0 abortion.
Mercifully, West Virginia eased up in the 2nd Half, throwing only four passes. It easily could have been worse. Rutgers continued to bungle with TOs on its first two possessions. West Virginia drove 51 yards for a TD to open the 2nd Half. But the Scarlet Knight defense twice stopped the Mountaineers on 4th down inside the RU30. West Virginia stopped Rutgers' second sustained drove – and second visit onto the Mountaineer half of the field – on downs and then drove 62 yards for another TD to close the 3rd Quarter. 73-0.
Rutgers opened the 4th Quarter with yet another 3-n-out. West Virginia drove 65 yards before the Rutgers defense turned West Virginia over on downs for the third time, inside the RU10. Rutgers finally orchestrated a sustained TD drive – 17 plays, 91-yards, and 8 minutes – against West Virginia's 3rd string and walk-ons. West Virginia answered with its own 60-yard TD drive to round out the scoring. 80-7. A game that will live in infamy.
Rutgers fans entered the season with expectations that Rutgers had closed the gap with a West Virginia program that stumbled to a 3-8 record whose only real highlight was the romp over Rutgers. West Virginia has historically destroyed Rutgers in Morgantown but has struggled against the Scarlet Knights in Piscataway. Home field advantage has been more decisive than the talent gap. Has the talent gap closed sufficiently to enable Rutgers to beat West Virginia at home? Early losses to Villanova and Buffalo raised strong doubts that were compounded by the play of an improved Mountaineer team. However, significantly better performances against vastly superior Pittsburgh and Tennessee rekindled these hopes. Here are my five keys to the West Virginia game.
1. Throttle Avon Cobourne. Rutgers is not going to stop RS Sr TB Avon Cobourne. Few teams will. He is the leading rusher in the nation at 152 yards per game. Cobourne is the Mountaineer's primary offensive weapon and West Virginia will repeatedly give him the ball. Cobourne gained 123 yards against Maryland's highly regarded rush defense. But it took 30 carries to achieve that production. Maryland held Cobourne in check and ensured that he didn't dominate the game's pace. Last year, Cobourne averaged almost 8 yards per carry against Rutgers, gaining 147 yards on only 19 carries. West Virginia ran roughshod over Rutgers, accumulating 446 yards on 48 carries for a whopping 9 yards per carry. If Rutgers has any chance of beating West Virginia, the Scarlet Knights must throttle the West Virginia rushing attack. That means they must keep Avon Cobourne in check. West Virginia will spread the field with 3WR and 4WR formations, giving Cobourne room to run. While the spread offense is considered primarily a passing offense, Rodriguez relies heavily upon Cobourne's legs. Rutgers will not be able to cram 8 or 9 defenders in the box because DBs must cover the Mountaineer WRs. Rutgers' front 6 or 7 must stop Cobourne. There won't be much help at the second level. Rutgers must contain on the outside. Force Cobourne back towards help. Fill gaps in the middle. And finish tackles. If Cobourne is held to less than 150 yards in a full game, the defense has accomplished its primary objective.
2. Contain Rasheed Marshall. RS So QB Rasheed Marshall is a big, athletic QB who is as much a threat to run as he is to pass. Marshall leads the Big East in total offense at 193 yards per game. The West Virginia spread offense disperses the defense, leaving usually 7 or fewer defenders in the box. Those defenders often focus upon Cobourne, which provides running opportunities for Marshall on options, keepers, bootlegs, and draw in addition to undersigned scrambles. Marshall is averaging 52 rushing yards per game. West Virginia QBs gained 82 rushing yards last year, including losses from sacks. The Rutgers defense must better account for Marshall. The DEs must contain Marshall on the outside. Especially the back side DE. Don't allow Marshall to break containment on bootlegs. Belt him on the option. One player – either RS Sr MLB Gary Brackett or RS Sr SS Shawn Seabrooks – must serve as the spy on pass plays. They must mirror Marshall and bring him down quickly if he scrambles. Rutgers must not let Marshall beat them with his feet. Make him win the game with his arm.
3. Cover 1. Maryland held West Virginia to 138 rushing yards last week. Early in the game, the Terps primarily employed a Cover 1 (man coverage underneath with the FS playing centerfield) defensive package, putting the SS into the box for run support. That gave the Terps one more defender than the Mountaineers had blockers. West Virginia gained only 58 yards on 15 carries (3.9 yd/carry) against the Cover 1 scheme. However, the Cover 1 scheme also leaves nobody to account for Marshall, who gained 25 yards on 3 designed runs against the Cover 1. With a healthy 35-0 lead, Maryland switched primarily to a more conservative Cover 2 scheme (2 deep zone with man coverage underneath). The Cover 2 scheme yielded 109 yards on 22 carries (5.0 yd/carry). Rutgers can't afford to employ Cover 2 against the Mountaineers except in long yardage situations. Cover 2 will give West Virginia a 5-on-5 or 6-on-6 stalemate with blockers, forcing the Scarlet Knight defenders to fight off blocks to make tackles before the ball carrier breaks into the secondary. Rutgers must bring up at least one safety in run support. That will create one unblocked defender, who must make plays. Missed tackles in a Cover 1 scheme will enable Cobourne or backup TB RS Jr Quincy Wilson to rip off huge chunks of yardage because the FS is the last "line" of defense. Rutgers must also mix its coverage to keep West Virginia off balance. The Scarlet Knights must also disguise their coverage by switching into it late in the play clock, thus denying Marshall the opportunity to audible or even make sight adjustments with his WRs.
4. Big Plays. Maryland executed 8 plays of 20 yards or more against West Virginia. Big plays factored into six of seven offensive scoring drives. Maryland broke TD runs of 70 and 73 yards against the Mountaineer defense. The Terps also hit a 45-yard TD pass. West Virginia employs a "3-3 stack" defense, featuring five DBs (three safeties and two CBs). The Mountaineers almost exclusively play Cover 1 and bring the safeties not assigned to covering WRs into the box. Their CBs typically play man-to-man coverage with large cushions. The FS plays deep, about 15 yards off the ball. If a RB can break the LOS, especially on a misdirection play, West Virginia has little as a second line of defense. Likewise, with only one safety providing deep help, West Virginia is vulnerable deep down the sideline. Rutgers must commit to running the football. Force West Virginia to keep 8 men in the box and focus on run support. Rutgers might get stuffed for 2 yards or less frequently, so the Scarlet Knights must hit some good plays as they did against Tennessee to compensate. Persistence with, and success in, the running game will create opportunities in the passing game. Rutgers will be able to throw fade routes on West Virginia. These must be executed better than they were against Tennessee. The large cushions given by the West Virginia CBs will also allow Rutgers to beat them with double moves (e.g., hitch-n-go or out-n-up). The large cushions will allow completions underneath. Rutgers needs to break tackles on some of these and make big gains after the catch.
5. Turnovers. Rutgers committed 8 TOs last year in Morgantown leading to 35 points, all scored in the 1st Half. Early TOs inside the RU20 gave West Virginia two easy TDs. Four consecutive TOs to close the 1st Half burst the dam as West Virginia converted three into TDs – two returned for TDs and a third falling just short of the end zone. Obviously, Rutgers can ill afford turnovers. Rutgers needs to sustain drives and keep the Mountaineer rushing attack on the sidelines. The Scarlet Knights must win the TO battle. They can't beat West Virginia by giving the ball away. The Rutgers offense is not efficient enough to overcome carelessness. Rasheed Marshall recently suffered a dislocated pinkie on his throwing hand. As a result, his throwing has been erratic. Rutgers needs to record at least two INTs against Marshall. That should provide an adequate margin to offset Rutgers own TOs. To generate INTs, Rutgers must get West Virginia into long yardage situations and make plays from a blitzing Cover 2 defense.
1. RS Fr TB Clarence Pittman. It's ironic that the team keys emphasize defense but the most important individual is an offensive player. This merely reflects the teamwork absolutely essential for the defense to attain the goals I've established. While teamwork is equally important on offense, the greater struggles of the offense place greater emphasis on playmaking by individuals. Clarence Pittman is one such individual. Pittman is coming off a breakout performance against Tennessee where he rushed for 105 yards on 31 carries. The Rutgers running game still struggled against Tennessee, gaining 2 yards or less on 18 of 36 designed runs. However, Pittman repeatedly ripped off good plays (i.e., rushes of 6 yards or more) to convert first downs, especially on draw plays in long yardage situations. Pittman ran hard inside, squeaking out positive yards when none apparently existed. Pittman cut back effectively and found creases in the Volunteer pursuit. Clarence also didn't hesitate to bounce his runs outside if the inside was jammed. He kept Tennessee off balance, which provided So QB Ryan Cubit with enough time to throw. While a steady stream of 4-yard runs would be preferable, Rutgers offensive woes indicate that big runs will be more essential. The Scarlet Knights need a 125-yard effort out of Pittman. Clarence must break at least one long TD.
2. So FS Jarvis Johnson. Jarvis Johnson will likely bear a tremendous burden as the FS in the Cover 1 defense. As the deep safety, Johnson must provide sideline-to-sideline double coverage on deep patterns. He will be tested by fly, fade, and corner routes along the sidelines. He will also have to keep an eye on Mountaineer QB Rasheed Marshall, who will be otherwise unaccounted in a Cover 1 defense. Johnson will have to provide run support on QB keepers, options, and bootlegs. Jarvis must use shrewd judgment and quick decision-making to balance these conflicting run support and double coverage responsibilities. If Johnson makes a bad decision, West Virginia could break a big play. As the deep safety, Johnson will also be the last line of defense. A "line" of one. If Avon Cobourne breaks through the LOS, Johnson must be there to meet him. If a WR beats a CB on a short pattern, Johnson must clean up the mess. Johnson absolutely must finish his tackles. As the last line of defense, missed tackles could mean Mountaineer TDs.
3. RS Sr SS Shawn Seabrooks. For over two years, Shawn Seabrooks has been Rutgers' defensive playmaker. Rutgers must make plays on both sides of the LOS to record its first Big East win in nearly three years. Seabrooks is the Scarlet Knight most likely to make those plays. Head Coach Greg Schiano likely will move Seabrooks around, often late in the play clock, in an attempt to confuse QB Rasheed Marshall. Seabrooks will line up as a deep safety in the Cover 2 package, from which he will either blitz, provide deep double coverage, or provide run support. In the Cover 1 or Cover 0 (pure man-to-man wit no deep help) alignments, Seabrooks will be up near the LOS, where he will provide close run support, blitz, or cover the TB or TE man-to-man. In the close run support role, Seabrooks often will be the unblocked defender, especially if he moves up late in the play clock or at the snap. Seabrooks must make tackles in this capacity. He must sack Marhsall when he blitzes. Whether in zone or man-to-man coverage, Seabrooks needs to come up with a pick.
4. RS Jr QB Ted Trump. The QB debate continues. Behind a shaky OLine and with a non-existent running game, an injured (ribs and ankle) Ted Trump struggled to move the offense against Pittsburgh. With the exception of the 3rd Quarter, he played poorly. Ryan Cubit replaced the injured Trump for the game at Tennessee. QBit exhibited the best half that a Scarlet Knight QB has displayed in 16 games under Schiano. However, QBit struggled as badly in the 2nd Half as Trump struggled against Pittsburgh. Schiano elected to start Trump and apparently doesn't have any plans to switch QBs during the game. Therefore, the responsibility of leading the offense falls squarely on Trump's shoulders. Trump must perform substantially better against West Virginia than he did against Pittsburgh. West Virginia will put 8 men in the box. While Trump obviously needs help from his OLine and RBs, he must execute the passing game, especially on the early downs. He must complete at least 50% of his passes. Preferably 60%. The West Virginia CBs play man-to-man with big cushions. Trump must put them on a yo-yo – throwing hitches, curls, and outs to pull the CBs up and then going up top over them. Trump needs at least 200 yards passing.
5. RS Sr TE L.J. Smith. L.J. had a big game against Tennessee with 7 receptions for 64 yards. Three of those receptions converted first downs to sustain drives. Smith will be matched against the Mountaineer SS in pass coverage. With the FS sitting back in centerfield, the seam route in the middle of the field generally won't be open. However, the outsides will be open. The flats will be available for out and drag routes because the CBs will be giving large cushions to the WRs. The corner route will also be available, especially opposite slot receivers or if the flanker draws the CB and FS with a post route. If Trump can look off the FS, L.J. might make some big plays on corner routes. L.J. must have at least 6 receptions and at least 90 yards receiving. His threat as a receiver must push a safety off the LOS.
Coming Monday: "West Virginia Post Mortem." A look back at the West Virginia game to see how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys.
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