The Rutgers football team is who everyone thought they were through the season's first two games. North Carolina had looked better despite their two losses to better competition, and proved it yesterday. This is a Rutgers squad with a good defense and a bad offense. The team as a whole is by no means awful, but they're not knocking anyone's doors down at the moment. They're just sort of there. In 2010's deflated Big East, the end result likely translates to eight wins and the Pinstripe Bowl (hooray or Notre Dame once again being bad). with any luck, the young offense will slowly start to gel.
What's startling about the UNC game was that, as bad as the Rutgers offense looked, it actually was a significant step up from the week before (with the point differential coming from playing a better offense and special teams). UNC's backup defenders presumably are still a lot better than FIU's starters, which should be apparent from the latter's failure to stop Maryland whatsoever yesterday (it was kind of close though, and FIU's offense was good). Clearly, the Rutgers offense still has a long, long way to go before they can even be considered passable.
My biggest concern with evaluating yesterday's offensive performance is that there is no way to peek behind the curtain and get a glimpse of what the coaching staff is thinking. That is the direct consequence of the Rutgers athletic department making a deliberate choice to exercise extremely tight control over releasing information. In that vacuum, speculation is the only alternative. I will at least try to make an effort below to try to understand the reasoning behind certain personnel and playcalling decisions.
Tom Savage was not very good yesterday. He threw two crippling interceptions against a decimated UNC defense, showing none of the poise he displayed in 2009 as a true freshman. One could have been for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, and the other before halftime not only potentially cost Rutgers a score (there's no guarantee it would have happened), but set up a UNC touchdown that provided the winning margin of victory. Most of Savage's passes on the day were inaccurate. Even the catches were typically so off the mark as to make running after the catch difficult.
Most disturbing of all, Savage really struggled with going through his progressions and spotting open receivers. A few players before the first interception, there was a WIDE open Keith Stroud in the end zone. (Was that pass deflected? Because it sort of went in Stroud's general direction, only to wobble and die.) Savage stared down receiver Mohamed Sanu all game. That was understandable considering how good Sanu is, but when there's double coverage, why not look for Mark Harrison or especially, D.C. Jefferson? I lost count at how many receivers were wide open downfield yesterday.
Savage was very bad considering that he did not play a good portion of the game. Rutgers ran Mohamed Sanu a lot out of the Wildcat formation, which was effective early, but became extremely predictable in the second half. The subsequent revelation that Tom Savage was battling through rib pain could explain the reliance on Sanu, and the disastrous Chas Dodd series (he was brutal; any prospective QB controversy would be with Sanu, with Dodd a non-factor) early in the second half which sapped a lot of momentum. I once dislocated a rip, and it's far, far more painful than a simple bone break or anything like that. I don't know how much that pain affected Savage's play, but anyone who completely dismisses it as a factor is ignorant, and could possibly be more incorrect.
That being said, what part of Savage's performance yesterday was attributable to playing through pain, playcalling, or downright failure to develop up to this point? Between the injury and general ineffectiveness, I don't know if it's fair to say that overuse of the wildcat directly caused Savage's struggles. He's looked good in other games where Sanu took snaps. Maybe the coaching staff just thought that Sanu gave them the best chance to win, which is very plausible. My principle criticism of that approach was that Sanu should have attempted more passes. Honestly, he does not look half bad as a thrower. They should have also used more read-option plays, or if they did have Sanu hand the ball off more once UNC started keying in on him.
In regards to Kirk Ciarrocca's play calling on offense, there is a case that the personnel on that side of the ball is just so inexperienced that not much would work. In regards to Steve Politi's column today, I'd say that youth was a legitimate excuse when Coach Schiano took over and had to rebuild from scratch. On offense, it was a matter of fact in 2009, and still is to this day. That is absolutely an indictment of recruiting from a few years back and player development, but the current roster makeup cannot be ignored. Rutgers is experienced on defense, and it shows. Likewise to the contrary for the offense.
Even with inexperience being an excuse, the offense does seem like it's behind where it ought to be. Other young teams haven't looked this bad. That is a failure of player development (i.e., Savage's regression), and of Ciarrocca's calls. While Rutgers is very beat up in the backfield right now, they completely abandoned I-Formation runs yesterday, which had been reasonably effective in the first two games. With the Tar Heels slanting Rutgers to death on offense, everyone in the stands around me yesterday was bemoaning why Rutgers could respond in-kind. Why not try a few high-percentage passes, and try to sustain drives with first downs?
Mostly, I'm frustrated today that Rutgers still struggles with implementing the very basics of an offensive attack. Look at North Carolina yesterday. I don't think I've ever seen a more vanilla team on other side of the ball. In fact, their offensive coordinator John Shoop is widely bemoaned for his dink-and-dunk approach. That offense has been pretty effective through because they can execute those vanilla plays very well. They just line up, and run it down your throat, or Yates looks for the open guy eight yards downfield.
The smoke and mirrors and sorcery of the past year and a half hasn't worked, and my biggest fear is that RU has favored that approach because the alternative would be even more ineffective. That's why I'm less critical than most of the calls yesterday. As bad as the offense still was, it did look better than in week two. They were able to eat up the clock on drives a little more, which helped out the defense. As tired as the excuses are sounding, it's not outside of the realm of possibility that RU's ineptitude could slowly improve in the coming weeks.
As to the defensive play, UNC was held below their averages for points and yards. There were too many big plays (and countless missed tackles), and too many conversions on third and long. However, the Rutgers defense was able to force multiple turnovers, and tightened up in the red zone. Considering that the UNC offense is looking to be pretty good, adjusted for context it was a good performance. They did enough to win. In fact, the game's box score looks more impressive than things appeared during the game. Yates was deadly accurate, which kept UNC's drives moving, and warped my perception a bit. Basically, I'm not really in the mood to nitpick and analyze the defense to death today when they're clearly not at all the problem right now.
Other game thoughts:
- There were two calls that made the stadium livid. On Dellaganna's monster punt, UNC's returner appeared to misfield the ball, which then went into the end zone. It was ruled a touchback instead of a safety. It certainly appeared that the ball should have went to Rutgers there, but the referees did not mention any review, and I have no way of looking at the play now. You can thank ESPN for bizarrely not putting its ESPNU games on ESPN3.
- The other head scratcher was when, on UNC's second touchdown, their receiver appeared to fumble into the endzone, which would have been a touchback. The issue is with whether or not he broke the plane before fumbling. It was ruled a touchdown on the field, and the review was completely inconclusive, with no way to see from the television camera angle. By rule the review was correct, but it's possible that the initial call was wrong. There's no way to know without getting a chance to see that play again.
- On the very next play, Lefeged broke his return, and there was a taunting penalty tacked on at the end which was a little ticky-tack. That certainly felt like a makeup call. If it was, I am furious, because that touchdown was the difference in the game! My other issues with officiating were perplexing non-calls on a UNC horse-collar tackled, and blatant defensive pass interference in the fourth quarter. The latter was about as obvious as another (easy, and correct) one that went against Rutgers earlier. Rutgers wins if they execute, but it was not the finest day for ACC referees.
- UNC clearly watched the FIU tape, or just use plain old common sense. Their game plan in the passing game was the slant Rutgers to death to neutralize the pass rush. The defense clearly plays better with a lead, when they can force offenses to go for some of the deeper stuff and try to speed up throws at a minimum.
- RU's lack of size inside clearly is a liability against power rushing teams. That's not so much of a criticism as an acknowledgment that most programs have to make some sort of sacrifice. I have no problem with this approach, which has generally worked well. By the way, does anyone know why UNC did that weird toss play late in the game when running up the gut was working so well? Even if RU was crowding the line, just go with your strengths.
- There seemed to be a few coverage breakdowns when Yates would roll out of the pocket.
- The offensive line looked somewhat better, but with the giant caveat that UNC's defense isn't very good outside of the linebackers. Better than FIU and Norfolk St., but by no means good. One sack was on Savage just holding onto the ball too long. Another was a missed assignment where a defensive lineman just jumped the snap count and shot through a gap. Savage generally did have time to throw though.
- Martinek and Thomas were good enough on the day, and it's increasingly becoming clear that Rocket Williams will never play, ever.
- Why so many false starts on offense?
- Didn't it seem like nearly every snap was high?" I'm surprised that there ended up being only one big miscue. That is a problem waiting to happen.
- Awesome game from Sanu at receiver, with a number of great catches. He still will drop the routine play here or there, but it didn't kill Rutgers today. He was the only effective offense weapon; almost to RU's detriment with Savage ignoring everybody else. UNC's inexperienced secondary backups were giving up big cushions, which is more ammunition to the crowd calling for slants yesterday. Maybe that's why it seemed like receivers were open all day long.
- What was with that play where Yates threw into double coverage, and the DB went for the receiver instead of the easy pick? Sigh...
- Mixed day on special teams. Lefeged had a big return, and the forced UNC into some mistakes. San San Te killed me with that 38-yard miss. If Rutgers makes that, then there's much less pressure on the offense in the 4th quarter. Dellaganna has a great leg, but needs to get his kicks off quicker. As for the block (and lack of blocks), it's not sustainable to live and die on those forever.
Assorted random notes:
- Good crowd on the day. It wasn't quite a sellout, or as big as the Cincinnati crowd last year, but I can't remember seeing so many tailgaters in Johnson Park. The weather was excellent. Can't remember the post-game traffic ever being worse on River Road.
- People still stream into the stadium well into the second quarter. I wasn't happy that fans started leaving after the block and second Savage interception, when Rutgers was still very much in the game at both moments. This wasn't a stomach punch like Cincinnati last year, but it'll be interesting to see what the attendance is for Tulane, which is homecoming.
- Hooray, they fixed the out of town scoreboard! Can somebody please update the Rutgers NFL alumni video montage now?
- The PA system seemed really loud, probably because of the crowd.
- UNC visiting fans seemed generally respectful from what I saw. No complaints.
- Lil' Jovi is already beyond tired, and now he's getting even more attention? He better work on his choreography for Bad Medicine next week. Probably the oddest moment of the day was watching the the UNC players stare at the scoreboard, dumbfounded in their body language, throughout this sequence. You could figuratively hear them thinking that New Jersey is completely batshit insane.
- Bob Mulcahy was honored at halftime.
- Was sitting behind the cannon - the smoke smells bad.
I'm upset today, but more at Tom Savage's lack of development than with the loss. Rutgers at least came to play, which is more than you can say for several other high-profile early home games in recent memory. They weren't blown off the field, but it was by no means a moral victory. Just a generic, nondescript, blase loss that was fairly representative of where the Rutgers football team is at this moment. They are decisively in the middle of the pack. Hopefully, that will be enough this year in a Big East reaching new levels of indignity by the week.