Progress. How does one measure it with regards to a habitually downtrodden football program such as Rutgers? Coming off a previous coaching regime that registered an 11-44 record over a 5-year period. A regime that oversaw 13 40+ point losses and 5 additional 30+ point losses. Does one point to a 24-3 loss at rising Pittsburgh, a 35-14 loss at national powerhouse Tennessee, and a 35-14 loss at Top 5 Virginia Tech as signs of improvement? Or does one lament an embarrassing 38-19 loss to Division I-AA Villanova, a humiliating 34-11 loss to Division I-A newcomer Buffalo, a lopsided 40-0 loss to one-dimensional West Virginia, and a discouraging 45-14 loss to suddenly downtrodden Syracuse as signs of regression? These are difficult questions to weigh as one evaluates the performance of a staff whose team plays surprisingly well when overmatched but seems incapable of winning winnable games. Or even giving a competitive effort.
The score of the 45-14 loss to Syracuse was a mirage. The game wasn't even that close. Rutgers seized a 7-0 lead in the opening minutes by a circuitous strategy. Syracuse recovered a Rutgers fumble on the RU20 and quickly drove to the RU1 before stalling. Syracuse Head Coach Paul Pasqualoni eschewed a 4th down attempt in favor of an 18-yd FGA, which Jr CB Nate Jones blocked and RS Jr CB Brandon Haw returned 90 yards for a TD. Syracuse returned the ensuing kickoff to the SU40 and drove 37 yards before missing a 40-yard FGA. The Orangemen then forced a 3-n-out and scored on a 10-play, 57-yard TD drive to tie the game. QBit again fumbled deep in Rutgers territory on a Josh Thomas sack that ended QBit's day with a hyperextended elbow. RS Sr QB Troy Nunes tossed a 30-yard TD pass to RS Jr WR Jamel Riddle on a 3rd-n-12 corner route. In relief of QBit, RS Jr QB Ted Trump sparked the Rutgers offense with a 16-palay drive that reached the SU12 before stalling. A holding penalty pushed back the Scarlet Knights and RS So PK Ryan Sands missed a 39-yard FGA. RS So TB Walter Reyes broke the next play from scrimmage for a 79-yard TD. Trump engineered a 12-play drive that stalled just outside of FG range. The teams traded 3-n-outs to close the half, with Rutgers wasting excellent field position at the SU48. Syracuse led 21-7 at halftime but could have led 31-0.
The 2nd Half was a disaster. Rutgers forced a Syracuse punt. Then, the TO spree began. Sr WR Josh Hobbs fumbled at the RU 47 and Syracuse recovered. The Scarlet Knight defense forced a 3-n-out but Trump fumbled at the RU26 on a Rich Scanlon sack. The Rutgers defense again held and forced a 33-yard FG. Nate Jones returned the KO 100 yards for a TD, closing the score to 24-14 in a game that Rutgers had no business but for the effort of its special teams. The Rutgers defense forced another Syracuse punt that pinned the Scarlet Knights at the RU8. Syracuse stopped the Knights and blocked the punt for the clinching TD. RS Sr CB Latroy Oliver intercepted Trump on the next possession and returned the pick to the RU2, from where Reyes scored. Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano inexplicably pulled Trump and burned the redshirt of Fr QB Ryan Hart, who "directed" four 3-n-out possessions. Syracuse closed the scoring with a 57-yard TD drive.
Here's an analysis of how Rutgers measured up to my keys to the Syracuse game. The original text is presented in bold italics.
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.
Forget the "A" game. Where were the "B" and "C" games? The Rutgers offense couldn't move the ball on all but two possessions. The special teams made plays but also had letdowns. And the defense couldn't stop the Orange offense in the 1st Half. Rutgers committed 9 penalties for 67 yards. The QBs couldn't find open receivers. Special teams missed a 39-yard FGA and had a punt blocked and returned for a TD. The defense couldn't get off the field in the 1st Half, allowing Syracuse to convert 3 of 7 3rd down situations. The Orangemen converted a 3rd-n-9 play on their first TD drive and a 3rd-n-12 play on their second TD drive.
Afterwards, RS SR DT William Burnett was quoted, " There are two things we have got to learn how to do: start fast and finish as a team. We came out slow and let them get up early. We let some big plays go. It's funny, we get up (emotionally) to play the No. 3 team (Virginia Tech) and No. 11 team (Tennessee) in the nation. Who knows, maybe we took Syracuse, 1-6, a little lightly at first and they capitalized on it. This had to be the worst game we've played. Who knows, maybe we did take this a little lightly."
What has this done lately to take any opponent lightly? When is Schiano going to have his team at its peak for the games that matter the most? Competitive showings against Tennessee, Virginia Tech, and Miami won't mean squat on the recruiting trail when compared to a 1-11 record.
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.
The Rutgers offense hit only four big plays that gained 104 yards. Fr TB Markis Facyson broke a 40-yard run from the shadow of the Rutgers goalposts but was unable to go the distance. Josh Hobbs had a 25-yard catch-n-run nullified with a fumble at the end of the run. The Scarlet Knights didn't get the big plays that they needed. And, as a result, the Rutgers offense didn't score because it was unable to piece together smaller gains for scoring drives. The rushing attack gained 80 yards on 24 carries. However, less Facyson's 40-yard run, the rushing attack gained only 40 yards on 23 carries. Syracuse sacked the Rutgers QBs 8 times for minus 52 yards. The passing offense gained less than 200 yards. The only big plays were recorded by the special teams – Brandon Haw's 90-yard TD return of Nate Jones' blocked FGA and Jones' 100-yard KOR. Those two plays put Rutgers in striking distance at 24-14 late in the 3rd Quarter but the offense was badly misfiring by that time and could not 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.
Syracuse made big plays on offense, defense, and special teams. Special teams blocked a Mike Bar punt and returned it for the clinching TD early in the 4th Quarter for a 31-14 lead. The defense recorded 8 sacks for minus 52 yards, recovered 4 fumbles, and intercepted one Ted Trump pass. The TOs positioned the Orange offense on the RU20, RU28, SU44, RU24, and RU2. The Orangemen scored 17 points off these TOs. The Syracuse offense recorded only 6 big plays but gained 198 yards on those plays (33 yards per play) and scored two TDs. All but one were rushing plays. Nearly half of Syracuse's 406 yards of total offense were realized on the 6 big plays. The big plays merely complemented an efficient offense that repeatedly gouged the Rutgers defense with good plays (i.e., runs of at least 6 yards and passes of at least 10 yards) if not big plays. Syracuse didn't need the big plays to move the ball.
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.
Rutgers committed five TOs. Syracuse committed only one – a fumble in the closing seconds of garbage time by the 3rd team FB. Rutgers fumbled six times and lost four. The TBs recovered both of their fumbles. The TBs recovered both of their fumbles. Ryan Cubit fumbled twice and Ted Trump fumbled once near the RU20. Syracuse recovered each. Ted Trump threw and INT under duress near the RU20 that Syracuse returned to the RU2. An offense that couldn't score positioned Syracuse for four easy scores. Rutgers was fortunate that Syracuse cashed the TOs into only 17 points. It easily could have been 28 points.
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.
Syracuse rushed for 290 yards. The Orangemen averaged over 6 yards on 43 carries. Nearly two-thirds of their plays from scrimmage were designed runs. Five players had runs that gained more than 15 yards. The TBs did much of the damage – 188 of 290 rushing yards. But QB Troy Nunes (46 yards on 7 carries) and WR Jamel Riddle (30 yards on 2 carries) also hurt Rutgers. The FB saw more action than usual but for naught – 10 carries for only 29 yards. Rutgers couldn't stop the TB pitch in the 1st Half. Once Rutgers adjusted at halftime, Syracuse successfully switched to the option. Syracuse was able to establish its running game and throw primarily as a change of pace.
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.
The resistible force (Rutgers rushing offense) met the movable object (Syracuse rushing defense). The moveable object won hands down, limiting Rutgers to 80 yards rushing in 14 attempts. Pittman gained only 29 yards on 15 carries. His longest gain was a measly 6 yards. Backup TB Markis Facyson fared a little better, gaining 51 yards on 9 carries with a long run of 40 yards. But, excluding his long run, Facyson also struggled. Without a credible rushing attack, Syracuse teed off on the Rutgers QBs – recording 8 sacks for minus 52 yards.
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.
QBit lasted three ineffective series before Syracuse knocked him out of the game with an elbow injury. QBit collided with TB Clarence Pittman on the second play from scrimmage and fumbled on the RU20, giving Syracuse perfect field position. QBit ended Rutgers next possession 3-n-out when he threw behind Fr WR Shawn Tucker on a crossing route. QBit again fumbled in Rutgers territory on the third possession on a Josh Thomas sack. QBit hyperextended his elbow and likely will miss the Miami game. Now that Schiano has burned the RS on Fr QB Ryan Hart, the QB position is more muddled than ever.
Backup QB Ted Trump played unevenly in QBit's absence. Trump completed 13 of 23 pass attempts for 161 yards. But he threw one INT, fumbled once, and was sacked 7 times. Many of the sacks were coverage sacks that were avoidable, including one where Trump was outside the pocket and merely needed to throw the ball away across the LOS. Trump directed 58 and 44 yard drives in the 2nd Quarter but Rutgers couldn't score. Three of the first four 2nd Half possessions ended in TOs. Schiano hooked Trump after his INT ended the fourth possession.
3. RS So FS Jason Grant. I haven't discussed Grant since my review of spring camp, where Grant was the second 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).
Grant recorded 8 tackles against Syracuse, including 6 solo and 2 TFLs. Five tackles were made in the secondary at least 6 yards downfield. So Grant wasn't exactly plugging the LOS. At least on his tackles. Grant tackled WR Jamel Riddle on both of his reverses. Grant was also responsible for QB Troy Nunes, who had a good running game. The FB traps that Syracuse ran so effectively last season were much less so. The impression of most who saw the game was that Grant played well. I would caveat that as relative to a defense that yielded 400 yards of total offense.
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 RS Sr 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.
L.J. Smith played. And played well (3 catches for 48 yards). So, that took some pressure off of Hobbs. Nonetheless, Hobbs again was the leading receiver with 4 catches for 69 yards. However, Hobbs committed a crucial fumble on Rutgers opening possession of the 2nd Half. Josh caught a short pass and broke it for a 25-yard gain but fumbled at the end of his run. Syracuse recovered at the SU44 and eventually converted the TO into a FG. With the obvious exception of the fumble, Hobbs has a solid game. He has become the best WR on the team and complements Smith nicely, especially with his ability to work the middle of the field.
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.
With the offense unable to move the football (or committing TOs) on all but two possessions, Rutgers entered scoring position only once. A drive that started at the RU21 gained a 1st-n-10 at the SU12 on a personal foul against Syracuse. But a holding penalty pushed Rutgers back 10 yards, from where the drive stalled. Trailing 14-7, Sands attempted a 39-yard FGA. Indoors. On artificial turf. The kick didn't even reach the goalposts. Sands is developing a nasty habit of missing easy FGAs at the conclusion of long, sustained drives by the offense. The demoralizing effect of such failures upon an offense that struggles to score can't be underestimated.
Please send any comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome and appreciate your feedback. In the meantime, if you would like to discuss Rutgers football with other fans, please visit our message boards.