Analysis: The identity of the Scarlet Knights

It took a while, perhaps too long, but with a pause in the schedule and Rutgers two-thirds of the way through the 2009 season, everyone finally knows what to expect from the Scarlet Knights. The identity and personality of the Scarlet Knights are known, but what will that mean for a pivotal final third? Can Rutgers make a push for a better known bowl? Or, is lower tier bowl onthe horizon?

It is not the most aesthetically pleasing, and it certainly isn't the best the Big East offers, but two-thirds of the way through the season the identity, personality and, most importantly, the ability of this Rutgers team is known.

Now, with four games remaining, the issue is whether the Scarlet Knights are good enough to reach an established, aged bowl game, or whether neophytes Toronto, St. Petersburg or Birmingham is the destination.

(Of course, a trade-off with another conference for a lower-tier bowl – Detroit, anyone? – is also possible.).

But no matter what bowl game Rutgers goes to, and one more win virtually assures them of one, the path there will include tight games, a lackluster running attack, an ever-learning freshman quarterback and a turnover-inducing defense.

Push the cupcakes on the schedule aside, and that is the formula Rutgers lives by. It worked in a win at Maryland, when the identity was being formulated, existed during an easy win at Army and announced itself with an exclamation point in last week's stunning victory at Connecticut.

Even in the seven-point loss to now eighth-ranked Pittsburgh, the Scarlet Knights displayed those characteristics.

Rutgers (6-2, 1-2 Big East) is masterful at forcing turnovers, and equally adept at holding onto the ball. It is why Rutgers leads the nation in turnover margin, a plus-2.25 per game

And the Scarlet Knights are forcing turnovers in the running game and via interceptions.

Rutgers beat UConn late and held a 4-0 edge in turnovers, recording three interceptions.

On a rainy, windy night at Army, the Scarlet Knights recovered three Black Knights fumbles. And don't think weather was a primary reason for the turnovers since Rutgers lost one fumble.

The Scarlet Knights defense isn't dominating, nor intimidating or particularly punishing, but they are effective. And their youth bodes well for future seasons.

The two seniors among the eight rotating along the defensive line are end George Johnson and backup tackle Blair Bines. The first eight games also showed red-shirt freshman defensive tackle Scott Vallone's combination of quickness and strength should make him an all-Big East player, perhaps as quickly as next season.

The linebackers' improvement in tackling and running to the ball has been great, and the only time the unit seems to have trouble is when there is a bad matchup and someone is forced to cover a receiver or running back.

And while senior cornerback Devin McCourty was expected to excel, the development of sophomore David Rowe progressed rapidly. Rowe may not have pure straight-ahead speed, but his technique and understanding of coverage schemes is a strong point.

Oh, and it helps the defensive line is getting more pressure on the quarterback, so the secondary isn't asked to cover too long.

Offensively, for those wishing to make lemonade, at least the woes of the running game forced freshman quarterback Tom Savage to mature much more quickly than if the Scarlet Knights were consistently churning out 200 rushing yards per game.

The fact is Rutgers' running game is bad, and there is little reason to believe it will improve much, and the total offense suffers for it.

The Scarlet Knights are fifth in the eight-team league in scoring (28.9 ppg), but they are averaging just 20 points in three Big East games.

The offensive line cannot sustain blocks to create running lanes, and after eight weeks of being "one block away from breaking a big play,'' as is the catch-phrase around the program, why will players suddenly be able to do so now?

There is not much the running backs can do when holes aren't available, and running back Joe Martinek doesn't have the speed to get to the outside. Freshman De'Antwan Williams possesses it, but the coaching staff doesn't feel comfortable playing him for extended periods.

Martinek is the leading rusher at 75.1 yards per game, but he is averaging 2.9 yards per carry and 35 yards in three Big East games. Rutgers has accumulated 174 rushing yards (58.0 ypg) against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Connecticut.

Again, the inability to run the ball should pay dividends next season.

Savage has been called on to do more than initially planned, so his learning curve is accelerated. After spending little time in the pocket in high school, he is assimilated well and shows very good pocket awareness, often dipping a shoulder or sliding to the side to avoid the rush and stay in the pocket.

He is 94 of 168 (56 percent) with eight touchdowns. Most significantly, he has thrown one interception.

It also took too long for the receiving corps to materialize, but the clear pecking order is senior Tim Brown with freshmen Mohamed Sanu and Mark Harrison in the familiar three-receiver sets. Brown is the go-to guy, running precise routes and getting open despite increased attention by defenses. And imagine when Sanu and Harrison, as well as Savage, as juniors?

With four games remaining – each winnable – there should be concern whether the defense can continue to create turnovers, whether Savage can keep from throwing turnovers that plague almost every freshman quarterback at some point, and whether the offense's inability to sustain drives will cause the defense to wear out.

Hey, but at least now the identity of the Scarlet Knights is known.


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