The Rutgers football team presently has a record of 2-1. Big East conference play hasn't even started, and the other league teams have not been looking very good up to this point. That is why there is no fair cause for alarm at the moment. Based on this year's schedule, Rutgers should still be on track to have an acceptable season. However, the Rutgers offense currently ranks 112th nationwide in yardage, and as of now has taken a step back from last season's unacceptably bad level of performance.
With as bad as the Big East looks this year, the Scarlet Knights theoretically could waltz into a BCS bid if the team had its affairs in order. Everybody is tanking in out of conference play, and since North Carolina was the best game of that sort on RU's schedule, the Knights won't have many other chances to earn respect on the national level. Disaster is not exactly on the horizon, but things could and arguably should be much better than another underachieving season. Which factors are specifically to blame for RU's uninspiring start? Here are a few candidates.
Play calling - Greg Schiano officially splits offensive coordinator duties between QB coach Kirk Ciarrocca and OL coach Kyle Flood, but media members have repeatedly stated that this setup is in name only, mainly existing to give Flood a bump up in pay and status. Ciarrocca calls the shots; which makes sense, considering how implausible it would be that a line coach like Flood would be harboring nascent spread urges while working under a pro-style coordinator the past few years in John McNulty.
Ciarrocca took the reigns after McNulty departed to the NFL following the 2008 season, and the promotion was well-justified on the merits. He had proven to be a good wide receivers coach, and molded Joe Flacco into a top passer at Delaware. Considering the financial restrictions that the Rutgers football program has to deal with, I don't see how anyone could have argued with the hire at the time. Finding Flood had seemed to work out, and Rutgers has brought in its fair share of FCS assistants on defense who have proven to be good pickups.
As I argued over the weekend, what makes evaluating Ciarrocca's performance more difficult is that Rutgers has been extremely young on offense since he took over, and the line has struggled during that time period. What if most calls would be ineffective due to personnel issues? Even with all the youth though, the offense has bizarrely regressed this year, and appears to be behind where they ought to be by now. There's also increasing fan frustration with the offense's use of the Shotgun formation and multiple receiver sets. I'm not ready to call for the offensive coordinator's head just yet, but he is going to become a very easy target if the team doesn't start showing progress and scoring points soon.
Tom Savage - The problem with any idea of a possible quarterback controversy is a lack of viable alternatives. Chas Dodd is a true freshman, has barely played, and did not look good in his handful of snaps. Steve Shimko is hurt. D.C. Jefferson is now a tight end. The only other option is receiver Mohamed Sanu, who actually hasn't looked half bad when given an opportunity to throw the ball. That switch would take away RU's best receiver and playmaker on offense, so even if it was effective, the offense would just be creating another hole in the process.
Rutgers is just going to have to live with Savage, and hope that the light starts to come back on soon. After all, there are some fair caveats here. Receiver Tim Wright is out for the year with an injury, and other contributors at the position have missed time. A supporting cast of first and second year players will undoubtedly have their share of issues. The play calling hasn't really utilized enough high-percentage throws in order to help get Savage into a rhythm. The running game has struggled, behind a shaky offensive line that has had its share of struggles in pass protection too. Speaking of which...
Art Forst - Counting even Savage, no starters has generated more fan criticism up to this point than Forst. The offensive line has already replaced one starter in guard Caleb Ruch, who lost his job to freshman Antwan Lowery. Howard Barbieri has struggled with his snaps, but there clearly isn't another center on the roster this year who's ready to contribute. That leaves Forst standing alone on the firing line, clearly exacerbated by his status as a top recruit (who it needs to be pointed out, bravely chose Rutgers over a number of nationwide pursuers) several years back. Is this guy just the next Sam Young; meaning that he peaked early and just isn't going to improve while his peers catch up in their physical development?
Like with Ruch, Forst had his moments as a freshman in 2008, but there's a growing consensus that he's been a major liability this year. Coach Schiano conceded as much earlier in the week by admitting that backup left tackle Devon Watkis may soon receive an opportunity to replace Forst. Even if that statement was just a motivational ploy, clearly more is to be expected out of a player that everyone expected to turn into a road grader at right tackle this year; not a lead-footed turnstile in pass protection.
For what it's worth: while I don't think it's possible to really evaluate line play without tediously and repeatedly going over film to see who's landing their blocks (and even that requires plenty of guesswork on assignments), my impression too has been that Forst has struggled, while Desmond Stapleton has stepped in well at left tackle.
San San Te - Here's a quick statistical reminder for readers. Te hit 12 of 17 kicks as a freshman in 2008, for a rounded total of 70.6%. He hit 18 of 28 lats year, which was down to 64.3%. Through three games he is currently 7 of 11. Attempting eleven field goals in three games is a testament to the offense's ineffectiveness, but Te needs to make more than 63.7% of his kicks if the offense is going to struggle with scoring points in the red zone to that extent. You can live with the ones over 45 yards being rather unlikely to connect, but why are the sub-40 kicks proving to be an adventure? It is very difficult to find a good kicker on the college level, and unfortunately there may not be any better available options.