KEYS TO THE VANDERBILT GAME
Those of you that do not harken back to the Dick Anderson era of Rutgers football truly cannot appreciate the irony of the appearance of Vanderbilt o the Rutgers schedule. The last time this occurred was a home-and-home series in 1987-88. In 1987, a 5-2 Rutgers team traveled to Nashville to face traditional SEC doormat Vanderbilt with bowl representatives in attendance. Rutgers had beaten Kentucky and Boston College in compiling those five wins. But the nemesis of Anderson's teams – defending the option – derailed the Scarlet Knights in a 27-13 victory that spoiled Rutgers bowls hopes. The following year, the Commodores returned the visit with an appearance at the Meadowlands. Coming off a 17-13 season opening upset of defending Rose Bowl champion Michigan State, Rutgers was poised to build on a 6-5 1997 season that fell just short of the desired bowl bid. However, the Scarlet Knights again could not stop the Vanderbilt option attack and the Dores emerged with a 31-30 pinball win.
"Scrape him off the field, he's killing our drive". It rang out from behind me as a Commodore lay hurt on the field. While obviously not the classiest of comments, it nonetheless did express the urgency of the afternoon at Giants Stadium. Neither defense could stop the opposing offense. Rutgers outgained Vanderbilt 584-526. Rutgers QB Scott Erney had a set Rutgers records with 35 completions, 55 attempts, and 436 passing yards. He threw for one TD but also threw two INTs. Rutgers WR Eric Young caught 13 passes for 171 yards. Vanderbilt QB Eric Jones threw for 267 yards and one TD on 19 of 30 attempts plus he gained 73 rushing yards and scored two TDs on 13 carries. SEC record-breaking WR Boo Mitchell caught 7 passes for 104 yards. The game resembled the 2nd Half of the Syracuse game last week as the teams exchanged scoring drives. The Scarlet Knights scored six times but managed only three TDs. Vanderbilt was more efficient and converted four of their five scores into TDs. Rutgers led for most of the game but faltered late. The ‘Dores took a late lead and withstood Rutgers' final drive to return to Nashville with a sweep of the home-and-home series. And Rutgers fans thenceforth began referring to the ever-elusive bowl game as "the B-word".
Vanderbilt opened the scoring with a 29-yard FG. Rutgers answered with a 1-yard TD run late in the 1st Quarter. Vanderbilt recaptured the lead with a 15-yard TD run. Rutgers retaliated with a 3-yard TD run and a 35-yard FG. The Dores scored another TD before Rutgers kicked a 21-yard FG in the final seconds of the 1st Half. Rutgers led 20-17 at halftime. Rutgers extended the lead to 10 points with a 24-yard TD pass from Erney but the Scarlet Knights sputtered thereafter. Jones took only a half-minute to answer with a 33-yard TD. Jones scored on a 1-yard TD run early in the 4th Quarter to give Vanderbilt its first lead, 31-27, since the 1st Quarter. Rutgers kicked a 49-yard FG midway through the quarter but Erney ended a marvelous performance with a late INT to kill Rutgers final drive.
Rutgers (2-2, 0-1 Big East) entered the 2004 with similar bowl game aspirations, coming off a 5-7 season in Head Coach Greg Shiano's third campaign. Many Rutgers fans looked at the schedule, saw Vanderbilt (1-3, 1-1 SEC), laughed, and penciled an automatic win. They should look a little deeper. Third-year Vanderbilt Head Coach Bobby Johnson, who previously piloted Furman to a Division IAA national championship, is trying to similarly resurrect a moribund Dores program, much as Schiano is doing at Rutgers. Johnson returns 21 starters – plus one kicker – from a young team that was more competitive than is typically associated with Vanderbilt. The young Dores threw scares into a few SEC powerhouses, including Georgia and Mississippi. Vanderbilt fans were also hoping to realize a longshot bowl season this year. September was a cruel month for both programs. Rutgers followed up a tremendous season-opening win against Michigan State with an incomprehensible loss to Division IAA New Hampshire and then blew a late lead in the Big East opener at Syracuse. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt was demolished in their season opener against South Carolina, blew a lead in loss at Mississippi, and lost a close game to Navy. Both programs needed fast starts to realize their dreams of bowl bids. Neither got them. Bowl dreams are a shambles now as each time tries to salvage its season. Here are my five keys to a badly needed win at Vanderbilt.
1. Cutlery. Much as the Kent State offense revolved around the multi-dimensional skills of QB Joshua Cribbs, so too does the Commodore offense orbit versatile RS Jr QB Jay Cutler. Cutler may be the most unheralded QB in the nation since he toils in obscurity in the SEC basement. He is a dual-threat who can run or pass. Unlike Cribbs, who is more prone to run, Cutler uses his mobility to pass. Which is not to say he won't run – he will. Vanderbilt employs an option element in their offense to capitalize upon Cutler's mobility. But Cutler will continue to look downfield once he leaves the pocket. The first priority for the Scarlet Knight defense in this regard is to contain Cutler inside the pocket. Rutgers successfully harnessed Cribbs and the result was minus 76 yards in sacks that nearly offset his 110 rushing yards. The Scarlet Knights must do likewise with Cutler. Contain him and then collapse the pocket. The DEs must maintain containment and not let Vanderbilt roll the pocket. The DTs and any blitzing LBs must honor their rush lanes and not give Cutler gaps through which to dart. The second priority is to limit Cutler's yardage in the option. If Vanderbilt runs option, the DE must drill Cutler. If the Dores run counter-option, the DE must feather – delay the pitch, string it to the sideline, and wait for help. Rutgers must limit Cutler to less than 200 total yards.
2. Misdirection. The Rutgers defense struggles badly with direction plays. Michigan State set up one TD with a 46-yard gain on a counter trey. New Hampshire repeatedly burned Rutgers with WR middle screens. And Syracuse shredded the Rutgers defense with counters. The Orange TBs averaged 11.7 yards per carry. Syracuse had eight gains of at least 20 yards, most of which were misdirection plays. The Scarlet Knight defenders must honor their backside responsibilities before committing to pursue a play. The backside DEs must maintain containment and the backside OLB cannot get sucked inside. Better defense of misdirection – whether counter or screen – will dramatically reduce the number of big plays allowed. Which will improve the overall defensive performance. Rutgers must not allow more than one big play off misdirection. And that play must not be allowed to be a TD.
3. Ball Control. Rutgers has performed most effectively when it has monopolized the football and played keep away from opposing offenses. Rutgers is averaging a 9-minute margin in time of possession and an 82-71 disparity in plays from scrimmage. Ball control is Rutgers' most effective defensive strategy. It keeps the defense well-rested. It provides the defense with time to regroup and adjust between possessions. And it disrupts the rhythm of the opposing offense. The Scarlet Knights are a fragile team after a disappointing September. A dominating ball control effort will restore the faith in their identity. Rutgers must not rely exclusively on its ground attack. Rather, the Scarlet Knights must mix the short pass with run regardless of down, distance, or score. Rutgers must have a 10-minute edge in time of possession and a 20+ margin in plays from scrimmage.
4. Offensive Line of Scrimmage. Vanderbilt is allowing almost 200 rushing yards per game. Other than All SEC DE RS Jr Jovan Haye, the Dores DLine is underwhelming. As has been the Scarlet Knight OLine. If Rutgers is to control the ball, the Scarlet Knights must control the offensive line of scrimmage. Haye must be neutralized. The other Vanderbilt DL must be dominated. The Rutgers OL must open holes against seven-man fronts for the TBs. The running game must not force Jr QB Ryan Hart to bear the full burden of offensive production on a weekly basis. Hart excels within the system. And that system requires balance between running and passing. The OLine must not allow more than one sack. And the RBs must average at least 4.0 yards per carry.
5. Kick Returners. With a few exceptions, Vanderbilt is not an athletic team. The Dores' defense is slow and small. The WRs don't scare anybody. And the RBs are solid but not spectacular. The Scarlet Knights have not struggled for lack of athleticism. Rutgers has plenty of athletes. This disparity in talent should manifest itself on special teams. Specifically, the return game. Rutgers must dominate kick returns. KORs RS Jr Tres Moses and So Willie Foster must average 30 yards per return; the pair must average 15 yards per punt return. The returners must score at least one TD.
1. Jr MLB Will Gilkison. Starting MLB So DeVraun Thompson injured his knee against Syracuse. Although he returned to practice mid-week, his availability is uncertain. Gilkison, Thompson's backup, likely will have to pick up the slack. Gilkison struggled last season, first as the starting MLB and later as the starting WLB. His pursuit was typically poor because he often got sucked into the line of scrimmage and subsequently caught in traffic. Gilkison was on the field last week when Syracuse TB Damien Rhodes broke two quick-hitting runs up the middle. With a diminished role likely for Thompson, Gilkison must step forward. Vanderbilt uses the option in their rushing offense. Gilkison will be responsible for the FB dive, if the Dores incorporate the triple option into their scheme. He also must roam sideline-to-sideline to make tackles. Johnson likely will use misdirection against Rutgers. Gilkison must not get lured out of position. He must spy Cutler in passing situations and mirror the mobile Dores QB. Gilkison must register at least 8 tackles, 2 TFLs, and a sack.
2. RS Fr LT Pedro Sosa/Fr RT Jeremy Zuttah. Late in the 1st Quarter against Syracuse, RS Jr RT Sameeh McDonald injured his knee and did not return. Enter backup LT RS Fr Pedro Sosa as RS Sr LT Ron Green slid over to McDonald's spot. Sosa immediately committed two false start penalties and was promptly pulled in favor of true freshman Jeremy Zuttah. Zuttah struggled in his first significant action as Syracuse took advantage of Zuttah and pressured Hart off the edge. On the final possession, Zuttah committed two false start and a holding penalty that contributed to a 4th-n-29 situation on the RU03. But, overall, the Scarlet Knight offense nonetheless performed better without McDonald than it did with McDonald. This may not be cause-and-effect. But Zuttah's presence on the field did not cause a meltdown. McDonald will not play this week. The current depth chart shows Sosa listed to fill McDonald's hole in the ranks as Green again plays RT. However, don't be surprised to see Zuttah split time with – or simply replace – Sosa. DE Jovan Haye is Vanderbilt's best player on defense. Johnson will likely align Haye across from either rookie. Whether it's Sosa or Zuttah. Whether it's at RT or LT. Sosa and/or Zuttah will get a baptism with fire. This could be a little squirrelly for Rutgers. Schiano must help them by chipping Haye TEs or RBs. But Sosa/Zuttah must compete against Haye and must not get abused. They don't need to outplay Haye. Just keep Haye from dominating the game.
3. RS Jr DE Ryan Neill/RS Fr DE Eric Foster. Neill and Foster platoon at RDE. Neill has been an impact player since returning from a devastating knee injury, recording 16 tackles, 5.5. TFLs, and 2.5 sacks. Foster has displaced several veterans to grab a spot on the two-deep. The pair has combined for 26 tackles, 7 TFLs, and 4 sacks. Vanderbilt's starting LT – three-year starter RS Sr Justin Geisinger – has missed the past two games with a knee injury. His availability is uncertain. Geisinger's backup – RS Jr Ryan King – is one of only two experienced Dore backup OL. Regardless of whether Geisinger plays, Vanderbilt likely will be vulnerable at LT, which protects Cutler's blind side. Neill and Foster must capitalize upon this opportunity and wreak havoc off the QBs blind side. But they must not be so aggressive that they are vulnerable to draws and screens. Neill and Foster must combine for 8 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 2 sacks.
4. Sr CB Eddie Grimes. So CB Derrick Roberson replaced Grimes as a starting CB two games ago. Grimes apparently was viewed as a liability in pass coverage even though his running mate – So Joe Porter – was the player being targeted by opposing teams. Syracuse rushed for 370 yards against Rutgers. One problem was a recurring failure of the CBs to seal the sideline and turn outside runs back inside. The CBs too readily conceded the sideline and gave up big runs. Grimes is Schiano's best run support CB. He is built more like a safety than a CB and would seem to be the obvious choice at CB against a one-dimensional running team. Yet he barely played against Syracuse. Vanderbilt has placed increased emphasis on its running game this season. Grimes should start and he should play. Grimes must register at least 5 tackles. He also must not yield any big plays.
5. Sr TB Clarence Pittman. Pittman has replaced former Scarlet Knight TB Marcus Jones as the invisible man. I kept wondering when Pittman would get his chance against Syracuse. Especially when Hairston coughed up the second fumble. Pittman is Rutgers most experienced TB. Jr TB Markis Facyson isn't a TB so much as a 3rd down specialist. Dmitri Linton is s a true freshman. Schiano raved about Pittman's improvement during spring camp. Yet Pittman didn't play behind a guy who runs through the wrong holes, can't see open holes, and fumbles. In a larger role, Facyson gained 43 yards on 14 carries against Syracuse. However, he gained 28 yards on a single run; he averaged 1 yard per carry on the remaining 13 attempts. Linton only ran outside. Schiano needs to find a TB who can run both inside and out. Who can catch as well as he can run. That obviously isn't Hairston. Schiano decries the lack of leadership on his team. Yet he plays non-performing youngsters ahead of his veterans. It's time that Pittman got his chance.
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