KEYS TO THE SYRACUSE GAME
Newspaper articles this week have characterized the recent Rutgers-Syracuse series as exciting and closely contested battles. And they have been. Rutgers averted a winless season in 1999 with a 27-24 OT win at Rutgers Stadium. At the Carrier Dome in 2000, Rutgers led 14-7 at halftime and was tied 21-21 late in the 3rd Quarter before Syracuse pulled away for a 49-21 victory. Last season, the Orangemen escaped Piscataway with a 24-17 victory.
Syracuse took the opening KO and drove 66 yards for a 26-yard FG. Rutgers pinned Syracuse at the SU10 with a punt and DT Billy Tulloch sacked Anderson for a safety. Rutgers took the ensuing free kick and drove 36 yards for a 37-yard FG. The Scarlet Knights recovered a Syracuse fumble at the SU40 and penetrated the SU10, but PK Steve Barone missed a 31-yard FGA. The Orangemen then drove 80 yards in 8 plays to take an 11-5 lead with a successful 2XPA. Rutgers countered with a 71-yard drive but again stalled inside the SU10 and again watched Barone miss a chip shot FGA (25 yards). Syracuse replied in-kind with a missed 45-yard FGA. An exchange of punts closed a half that saw a flurry of action without much scoring. Rutgers' three trips inside the red zone netted 7 points.
Rutgers opened the 2nd Half with a 3-n-out possession but Syracuse missed a 40-yard FGA. Rutgers again reached the red zone and again settled for a FGA (37 yards). And Barone inexplicably kicked it and explicably missed again. Rutgers forced a 3-n-out and PR Tres Moses gave the Scarlet Knights excellent field position. Rutgers yet again penetrated the red zone but consecutive sacks forced a 46-yard FGA, which Barone missed. Of course. After surviving repeated Rutgers assaults, Syracuse delivered the apparent knockout blow with an 8-play, 72-yard TD drive. Following a Rutgers punt to close the 3rd Quarter, SS Tarell Freeney intercepted Anderson and setup Rutgers at midfield. Rutgers scored seven plays later but Barone missed the XPA. Unbelievable! Syracuse muffed a pooched KO and Rutgers recovered at the SU9. Three plays later, Rutgers scored the tying TD but botched the XPA with poor execution between the long snapper and the holder. After an exchange of punts, Syracuse drove 62 yards in 8 plays for a late TD to break the tie. QB Ryan Cubit drove Rutgers downfield in the final minute but his last second end zone heave was intercepted.
Rutgers caught Syracuse flat after it had survived a brutal non-conference schedule. But the special teams play was abominable, costing Rutgers 14 points in a 7 point loss. This loss was all on Schiano for his bungling of the PK situation. Ryan Sands, who was 3 of 3 for the season including one FG of 44 yards, was replaced by Barone, who was coming off an injury and hadn't kicked since the previous season when he missed 7 of 13 FGAs, including all three attempts from beyond 40 yards. This was a no-brainer. And Schiano blew it. But Schiano compounded a poor personnel decision – starting Barone ahead of Sands – by stubbornly refusing to correct that mistake as Barone whiffed chip shot after chip shot. Rutgers' failure to capitalize on scoring opportunities cost them a huge upset. One that was desperately needed after stumbling against Connecticut the previous week.
Nonetheless, following the UConn debacle, the competitiveness that Rutgers showed against Syracuse was encouraging. Oh, how times have changed. Only five years ago, Syracuse was handing Rutgers among its worse beatings of the season. Syracuse rolled 42-0 at the Carrier Dome in 1996. The Orangemen cruised 50-3 in 1997, prompting some whining from former Rutgers Head Coach Terry Shea that Syracuse Head Coach Paul Pasqualoni ran up the score. Pasqualoni showed Shea RUTS the next year in Syracuse, slapping Shea with a 70-14 loss. What has happened to make this series suddenly close? Rutgers has strung together consecutive 1-, 3-, and 2-win seasons so the improvement obviously hasn't come from Rutgers. The real cause lies in upstate New York, where Pasqualoni has not been able to replace brilliant QB Donovan McNabb, who departed after the 1998 season. Pasqualoni has repeatedly lost his top QB recruits – including former Hokie Michael Vick, current Hokie Bryan Randall, and transfer Cecil Howard. Pasqualoni has failed to find a QB capable of running Syracuse' complicated freeze option offense. The once devastating Orange offense is a shell of its former self, with QBs who can't run the option and can't pass effectively. The QB problems that apparently were solved with the emergence of RS Jr R.J. Anderson last season have re-emerged. Meanwhile, the defense has suddenly collapsed and now ranks among the nation's worse. The Orange are reeling at 1-6 (0-3) and Pasqualoni is again under fire.
Entering the season, I penciled this game as a sure loss. Rutgers has lost seven straight in the Carrier Dome, dating back to a 16-10 win in 1986. But Syracuse is suddenly vulnerable, having lost to Big East second division opponents Temple and West Virginia. Syracuse is also fragile, as witnessed by meltdowns in two of the past three season. Suddenly, this game appears winnable. Here are my five keys to the Syracuse game.
1. Klotzen, nich Klechern. It's German. And it's slang. It was a phrase coined by panzer pioneer Heinz Guderian. Literally, it means "boot ‘em, don't spatter ‘em." Symbolically, it means "Concentrate your resources at the focal point and don't disperse the effort." What in the hell does that have to do with football? I was going to explain that in a preseason article under this exact title. An article I didn't have time to write. And an article that seemingly would have stated the obvious. Except it apparently wasn't quite so obvious. At least to the Rutgers football team. It means don't empty your barrels against Tennessee, Virginia Tech, and Miami, leaving nothing for West Virginia, Syracuse, and Temple. Unfortunately, that has been the trend under Schiano. Rutgers played Miami and Virginia Tech hard last season but rolled over for Connecticut, Temple, and West Virginia. Rutgers played perhaps its best game under Schiano at Tennessee but flopped around against West Virginia two weeks later off of a bye week. The Scarlet Knights then ventured into Lane Stadium and put a scare into Top 5 Virginia Tech. Even worse, Rutgers has overlooked patsies such as Villanova and Buffalo and gotten demolished. Thus far, General Schiano's resume is full of hard fought but hopeless defeats alongside demoralizing losses against beatable opponents. I'd much rather see tactical retreats against hopeless odds alongside shrewdly won battles against evenly matched opponents. Fewer Cullodens and Sedans. More Bulges and Gazalas. Syracuse is vulnerable. Syracuse is fragile. Syracuse is beatable. Make sure the team's "A game" wasn't left behind in Blacksburg.
2. Hit Big Plays. The once-formidable Syracuse defense has been victimized by big plays all season long. Since a season-opening drilling at Brigham Young. Through a shocking home field massacre at the hands of Pittsburgh. To a stunning upset loss in Philadelphia to lowly Temple. Last season, the Orange defense yielded plenty of yardage but always managed to make big plays, thus denying their opponents points commensurate with the yardage gained. This season, with terrorizing DE Dwight Freeney departed, Syracuse is not making big plays on defense. And they are still getting gouged in terms of yardage allowed. Syracuse is allowing an average of almost 16 yards per reception. Last season, big plays fueled Rutgers' offense against Syracuse as the Scarlet Knights hit 9 plays of at least 15 yards. Such big plays accounted for 281 of 418 yards of total offense, for an average of over 31 yards per big play. Both rushing and passing plays contributed to these totals. Unfortunately, Rutgers has not shown big play potential this season. The longest rush gained 24 yards. Prior to the game against Virginia Tech, the Scarlet Knights had demonstrated a complete inability to get the ball downfield. However, last week So QB Ryan Cubit connected on passes of 31, 35, and 39 yards. Rutgers must capitalize upon Syracuse's vulnerability and repeatedly make big plays to move the football.
3. Deny Big Plays. Last season, Syracuse virtually matched Rutgers big play production, gaining 292 yards on 11 plays of at least 15 yards (27 yards per big play). Unlike Rutgers, Syracuse possessed the strong red zone running game that enabled them to convert opportunities generated by big plays into points. Usually TDs. Syracuse still has a strong running game. However, their inability to successfully throw the football has rendered the Orangemen very one-dimensional. Syracuse has not shown the ability to drive the length of the field. Therefore, the Rutgers defense must not give up the big plays that will enable Syracuse to drive quickly. After very sloppy defensive performances against Villanova and Buffalo, Rutgers had limited big plays by opposing offenses until their visit to Blacksburg. However, Syracuse doesn't have players quite the caliber of Lee Suggs or Kevin Jones. Rutgers must force Syracuse to repeatedly convert first downs to matriculate the ball down the field.
4. Turnovers. With the 117th ranked total offense in the nation (of 117 IA teams, or DFL), Rutgers does not have the luxury of winning sloppily. The Scarlet Knights do not gain enough yardage to overcome TOs that short-circuit drives. Rutgers is competitive within the Big East with regard to TOs forced. However, Rutgers is next to last in TOs committed (17). Only Syracuse has committed more (18). The RBs have dramatically improved their ball security compared to last year. INTs have been the biggest contributor to the TO problem. TOs killed Rutgers against Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia. When Rutgers minimized its TOs (e.g., Tennessee) or won the TO battle (e.g., Virginia Tech), the Scarlet Knights were much more competitive. Rutgers must commit no more than 2 TOs against the Orangemen. And Rutgers must win the TO battle.
5. Rush Defense. Syracuse rushed for 354 yards against Rutgers last season. The Orangemen averaged over 7 yards per attempt on 48 carries. Nearly three-quarters of their plays from scrimmage were designed runs. Five players had runs that gained more than 15 yards. The seldom used Syracuse FBs burned the Scarlet Knight defense for gains of 32, 37, and 48 yards among their 8 carries. This season, the Syracuse rushing offense is averaging 168 yards per game, which is comparable to the production achieved last year. The TBs are still carrying the burden. The QB will carry the football but is not the running threat that are either West Virginia's Rasheed Marshall or Virginia Tech's Bryan Randall. And the Orange FBs are still underused (i.e., 3 carries per game). As attempted with varying degrees of success against Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Virginia Tech, Rutgers must crowd the LOS and stuff the Syracuse running game. Account for the FB. Account for the QB. Contain the TBs. Force Syracuse to throw to convert first downs. Make mistake-prone RS Sr QB Troy Nunes win the game by throwing the football.
1. RS Fr TB Clarence Pittman. The Syracuse defense is ranked last in the Big East and #109 nationally is rushing defense, yielding 213 yards per game Last year, backup TB Ravon Anderson torched Syracuse for 163 yards on 13 carries. Unfortunately, the Rutgers offense is ranked #116 in rushing offense at 63 yards per game. Rutgers has rushed effectively only twice – against hapless Army and at Tennessee. Pittman gained 104 yards on 31 carries against Tennessee, including 81 yards in the 1st Half when the Rutgers offense was most successful. Rutgers needs a tremendous game from Pittman. Pittman must rush for at least 100 yards to reduce the pressure – both internal (from the Rutgers sideline) and external (from the Syracuse defense) – on QB Ryan Cubit. Pittman must break a few long runs to capitalize upon Syracuse' vulnerability. And he must take them to the house.
2. So QB Ryan Cubit. With solid performances against Tennessee and Virginia Tech, QBit has demonstrated enough to earn back the starting job he lost after his woeful performance against Villanova. The job – and associated playing time – should be QBit's to lose for the rest of the season. QBit displayed his best performance of last season against Syracuse, completing 19 of 34 passes for 224 yards, one TD, and one INT. QBit effectively spread the ball among at seven different receivers (six of whom caught passes) and used the entire field. Rutgers must get similarly diverse distribution from QBit, especially with RS Sr TE L.J. Smith hobbled with a knee injury. Spread the ball. Use the whole field. QBit must throw for at least 225 yards. And he must connect with his receivers on big plays to exploit Syracuse's weakness.
3. RS So FS Jason Grant. I haven't discussed Grant since my review of spring camp, where Grant was the 2nt team SS behind leading tackler Shawn Seabrooks. I had assumed that Grant was merely a placeholder for either an incoming freshman or a soon-to-be converted CB (i.e., RS Sr DeWayne Thompson). I had written Grant off as a contributor on defense. I was wrong. Grant maintained his position on the depth chart through summer camp and has contributed nicely as the backup SS when healthy – 23 tackles in four games. However, the unexpected losses of Sr FS Nate Colon (quit) and So FS Jarvis Johnson (knee and ankle injury) have pressed Grant into the starting lineup one week after returning from a one-month layoff from knee surgery. Grant apparently is more of a hitter than a cover guy. Don't be surprised if Grant plays his normal SS position and Schiano switches Seabrooks to FS. As the least experienced member of the Scarlet Knight secondary, expect Syracuse to target Grant with their multiple formations, motion, and misdirection to confuse him and get him out of position. Syracuse effectively ran FB traps opposite the SS pressure last season. Schiano must use Grant aggressively so that the inexperienced player isn't forced to read and react. But Schiano must disguise that aggressiveness so that Syracuse can't easily counterpunch against it (i.e., FB traps).
4. Sr WR Josh Hobbs. Hobbs was another player who I had written off after spring camp. Hobbs saw limited action last season on the 3WR two-deep, catching only 4 passes. Hobbs finished the season with a nagging knee injury that hindered his performance. As a 3rd year player whose performance was forgettable in an unimpressive receiving corps, Hobbs appeared likely to be displaced by any one of several freshmen WRs – Chris Baker, Bryan Wilson, Shawn Tucker, Darren Haliburton, Cory Barnes, and Frederick Robinson. But attrition has whittled the depth of the receiving corps – Robinson and Haliburton quit during summer camp and Sr Aaron Martin (hamstring), So Tres Moses (knee), and Baker (foot) have been hurt. As was TB Ravon Anderson last year, Hobbs was patient and waited for his opportunity. As the 3WR, Hobbs has caught 15 passes for 188 yards. Hobbs had a career game against Virginia Tech, catching 5 passes for 89 yards, including a 39-yard reception that was the longest play from scrimmage this season. In the absence of TE L.J. Smith (knee injury), Rutgers must replace Smith's productivity. Hobbs must be that replacement. As he was against Virginia Tech. Hobbs must make at least 6 receptions for at least 100 receiving yards.
5. RS So PK Ryan Sands. The Syracuse offense is struggling. It has scored 47 points in three Big East losses. The Rutgers offense has struggled all season, averaging only 15 points per game. The game likely will be low scoring. In such a game, every scoring opportunity is crucial. The kicking game cost Rutgers 14 points in the Syracuse game last season as PK Steve Barone missed 4 of 5 FGAs and one XPA. Sand must be perfect on FGAs inside 40 yards. He can't leave easy points on the field.
Coming Next: "Syracuse Post Mortem." A look back at the Syracuse game to see how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys.
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