Analysis: RU at the one-third mark

Rutgers is one-third of the way through its season, and tells you what is going right, what is wrong and what needs more work. What are Rutgers' biggest areas of concern as the Big East schedule approaches, and what have we learned about quarterback Tom Savage? It is all here, in our analysis of the opening one-third of the Scarlet Knights' 2009 season.

The season is one-third done as Rutgers sits at 3-1, and although answers to most of the preseason questions are materializing, the biggest question Rutgers had going into the season remains unresolved.

Yes, freshman Tom Savage is the quarterback of the future, but how far can the Scarlet Knights expect to go with him as the starter this year?

By now, an answer wasn't possible, but at least clarification was supposed to be on the reachable horizon.

He looked fine against a vanilla Cincinnati defense in the second half of the season-opening beatdown, and he made a few big-time throws against woefully overmatched Howard. But there was also erratic play against Florida International before concussion knocked him out.

Not only did the injury cost Savage vital playing time, including a first road test at Maryland, but also robbed him of much-needed practice time.

He has shown a big-time arm and ability to command a huddle, but he also left the pocket too early a few times against Florida International and made a throws in which his mechanics were not in sync.

Now, after playing the sacrificial Tigers of Texas Southern in Saturday's homecoming affair, Savage will go into the Oct. 16 showdown against Pittsburgh largely untested, and with loads to prove in a national television game.

He is 34 of 64 for 543 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, playing behind an offensive line expected to be spectacular, but instead performing pedestrian.

In truth, after a third of the season, the offense is where most of the issues remain.

The offensive line remains a work in process. So much so getting improved play from it was one of the focal points of last week's bye. The Scarlet Knights are averaging 165.5 rushing yards per game, but the total is skewed by a 245-yard effort against Football Championship Subdivision Howard.

The unit has also failed to keep the pressure off quarterbacks Domenic Natale and Savage, although some of those issues fall on blitz pickup responsibilities.

It seems as though every time the running back situation is about to work itself out, something changes. Joe Martinek was the starter when the season began, but Jordan Brooks took the lead role by rushing for 124 yards against Howard. Martinek responded with 121 yards the next week against Florida International to regain his grip.

Then, Martinek started at Maryland but saw Brooks carry the ball in the second and third quarters, only for Martinek to rebound and break two big runs in the fourth quarter to re-establish his standing as the top running back.

Through much of it, though, is the absence of speedy freshman De'Antwan Williams. The Woodbridge (Va.) High product played late against Howard and ran for 89 yards, but it didn't translate into more opportunity the next two weeks, even though Williams brings a speed element missing from the two-headed system Rutgers is employing.

With Brooks or Martinek in the backfield, Rutgers is predominantly tackle-to-tackle running team. Williams has the speed to get to the outside. Mix in a screen pass to the speedster and he could take some of the pressure off the offensive line, and showcase his big-play ability by getting him the ball in space.

Lastly on offense is the receiving corps, which is an interesting unit. Senior Tim Brown (15 catches, 358 yards) is the leader, and he has performed well and demonstrated his athleticism and toughness with several catches. But he still has a tendency to drop too many passes, which is keeping him from being an elite-level college receiver.

Freshman Mohamed Sanu has been the biggest surprise with a team-leading 16 catches for 167 yards, and it is exciting to imagine how good he is going to be the next two or three years. His teammates talk about his strong work ethic and high football IQ, which goes nicely with a 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame.

However, the down side of the receiving corps is a lack of production from everyone else. Julian Hayes is the only other wide receiver to have a catch (he has one), and the third receiver continues to be a wait-and-see proposition that is now two months old and showing no signs of clarifying.

D.C. Jefferson made the transition nicely from quarterback to tight end, but he still has a lot to learn, especially from a blocking standpoint.. The best case for Rutgers would be if Shamar Graves answers the challenge of being pushed back to second team and becomes a factor for a starting spot again because he has the physical and mental tools to do it.

But as unsettled as things appear on offense, the opposite is true defensively. And that is saying something given the way the defense was picked apart by Cincinnati.

The eight-man rotation on the defensive line has worked well, even if illness to Charlie Noonan and an ankle injury to George Johnson take depth away for the Texas Southern mauling.

Again, the competition must be considered in the last three games, but the defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage each time. That allowed the linebackers to do their primary jobs, which is make tackles.

In the three games since the defensive allowed 45 points to Cincinnati, the defense yielded 35 points. It also scored three touchdowns, including two at Maryland to give the Scarlet Knights the lead while the offense found itself.

The linebackers are tackling well and running to the football, and the matchup and communication problems the Scarlet Knights experienced the opener were corrected. Having strong linebacker play is crucial to defensive success, and Damaso Munoz, Antonio Lowery and Ryan D'Imperio are doing it.

The secondary also is working itself out, with red-shirt freshman Khaseem Greene gaining valuable experience. To no one's surprise, Devin McCourty is proving to be one of the best corners early in the Big East season and safety Joe Lefeged turned into the defense's top play-maker.

But questions remain at the other corner slot. David Rowe has gotten plenty of work there, but Rowe's best position down the road may be strong safety, and Rutgers may wind up rolling coverages to Rowe's side if McCourty continues to play well.

Oh, and special teams are fine.

The biggest development there is Sanu. Rutgers has a guy in place for the next few years who not only can return punts, but do something more much important …catch them. Overall, Rutgers is 3-1, with the biggest disappointment being not the loss to Cincinnati, but the nature in which the Scarlet Knights lost.

A bevy of questions remain, and most are about the offense's ability to score points. By the time the middle third of the season is complete, answers will be had, and the direction of the season will be understood.

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