1. Where is the offense?
Last season Rutgers set records for points and yards, but it some key situations the Scarlet Knights could not punch the ball into the end zone. The same affliction plagued Rutgers against Fresno State, as the Scarlet Knights failed to come away with points after reaching FS territory in five of their seven first-half drives. They couldn't convert when it counted, and the result was a mark in the wrong column to start the 2008 campaign. The Scarlet Knights managed 369 total yards, but just 145 in the second half. Perhaps a lot of this is tied into question 2.
2. Can RU replace Ray Rice?
This question is still unanswered after the first week of the season. Rutgers had limited success running the ball against Fresno State (106 net yards), which allowed the Bulldogs to double team receiver Kenny Britt and slow the passing game. Rutgers clearly missed Rice in the first game, and no one has stepped up so far to show himself as a clear-cut replacement in the offense. It looked like RU was waiting all game for Rice to step onto the field and make things right.
3. Are coaches out-thinking themselves?
Two plays stand out as momentum changers for RU's offense in the Fresno State game. Rutgers was moving the ball very effectively in the first quarter and was faced with a third down and goal from the Fresno State 3-yard line. The Scarlet Knights called two plays coming out of a timeout and failed to convert on back-to-back running plays. The result was an empty drive and momentum shift However, the very next Rutgers drive started at the FS 39-yard line. RU went with a flea flicker on the first play, and quarterback Mike Teel threw an interception in the end zone. RU, which had run up 129 yards on its first two drives, never regained form.
4. Does RU have a home field advantage?
Since the beginning of last season, Rutgers has a 5-4 record at Rutgers Stadium - after posting a 10-2 home mark in 2005-06 (6-0 in '06). The Scarlet Knights have dropped double-digit home losses to Fresno State, West Virginia and Maryland since the beginning of last season, losing by an average score of 30-11. If RU can't dominate at home, this team is in serious trouble.
5. Is this a sign of things to come?
Louisville's failure to make a bowl game last year sent a strong signal to up-and-coming programs: a couple of years of success does not guarantee year-in and year-out winning seasons. Bowl berths are not automatic, especially for a school that had one bid prior to 2005. Rutgers should bounce back, but let's not go thinking that the postseason is a foregone conclusion.
6. Is the season lost?
Not by a longshot. The Scarlet Knights lost to a very good Fresno State team. Still, it's one game in a 12-game season, and the real goal is to win the Big East. The Scarlet Knights were not going to win the national championship this year, so there's still plenty of time to recover and put together a strong run toward a Bowl Championship Series game. If the Knights can't get past North Carolina on Sept. 11, then it's time to worry.
7. Is Fresno State's Ryan Matthews that good?
In my opinion, yes. Matthews' 163-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance was no fluke against the Scarlet Knights. He led all freshmen last year with yards per carry (5.7) and touchdowns (14), and he has the ability to hit the hole quickly and get yardage after initial contact. Rutgers knew about the sophomore Fresno State running back coming into the game but had no real answer for him, especially in the second half.
8. Does RU have the killer instinct?
Former players like Rice and defensive tackle Eric Foster were able to step up when the Scarlet Knights needed them most last season. In the first game this year, Rutgers looked a little lost and lacked any kind of emotional spark. The stadium crowd was flat as well, perhaps feeding off the lack of intensity on the home team's part. Also consider this: Rutgers amassed 224 yards on 40 plays in the first half and came up empty on the scoreboard. The Scarlet Knights have to finish.
9. Can special teams be fixed?
Redshirt freshman kicker San San Te had a rough first outing for the Scarlet Knights, but his day was a blip on the radar compared to other issues. On one of Te's missed field goal attempts, the snap and hold were poor. Mason Robinson fumbled two punts that he eventually recovered. An 82-yard Dennis Campbell touchdown punt return was negated by a (questionable) penalty. Special teams were a sore spot last year, and it was more of the same for RU in the first week. That being said, redshirt sophomore punter Teddy Dellaganna had a solid outing, averaging 39.8 yards per punt and landing three kicks inside the Fresno State 20-yard line. Te should be fine, and the Campbell return was a sign of how talented this team can be.
10. Can the defense bounce back?
RU's defense played extremely well for the first two quarters, but the second half saw some key defensive breakdowns. Safeties were out of position on more than one big FS pass gain, and the run defense allowed 159 total rushing yards and four runs of at least 20 yards in the second half. Just as the offense couldn't find a way to finish in the first half, the defense wilted in the latter stages of the game.
The game was over when . . . Fresno State, up 10-7 midway through the fourth quarter, converted on a 3rd and 23 from the Rutgers 32-yard line with a Tom Brandstater pass to Seyi Ajirotutu at the Rutgers 1-yard line. The play broke RU's back, and FS would punch the ball into the end zone to increase its lead to 17-7 with 6:46 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The upshot to all this is Rutgers doesn't need wholesale changes to improve for Week 2. There are some bright notes. The offense clicked in the first quarter and showed its potential on a drive in the second half to cut the lead to 10-7. The defense played well most of the day, but a few blown assignments were glaring. Dellaganna showed promise, and let's all remember that Jeremy Ito had some shaky outings early in his career.
However, the defense seemed to wilt in the second half, the running game is sputtering without Ray Rice, and the passing game is out of sync. These problems, along with a secondary that also looks to be finding its way, need to be corrected post haste in order to keep the season from sinking.
RU took on a tough team that pointed out its flaws. That's better than waiting
until Week 4 to realize it, like last year. Game 2 will show if Rutgers can
correct those mistakes or if the Scarlet Knights are in real trouble.