NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - OCTOBER 29: Former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand #52 leads the Rutgers Scarlet Knights onto the field before a game against West Virginia Mountaineers at High Point Solutions Stadium on October 29, 2011 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. LeGrand was paralyzed during a kickoff return in October 2010. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Rutgers football is in a familiar place today. At 5-3, and 2-2 in conference play, their record is about where their talent dictates they should be. In fact, most preseason prognosticators had Rutgers winning four games and dead last in the conference, although any fair and reasonable evaluation would have projected Rutgers at 8-4. In other words - exactly where they are currently on pace to be. You didn't have to be the Amazing Kreskin to predict a Mountaineer win yesterday. It had only happened every single year since 1994. It's just the specific details of the game, with Rutgers leading throughout, only to blow a lead late in a flurry of turnovers that ended up being so frustrating. Like so many times before, Rutgers has this one on a silver platter. It was theirs for the taking, but they ultimately could not capitalize and win one for Eric LeGrand.
Again, it is beyond frustrating, but Rutgers is (or well, is going to be) a third or fourth place conference team for a reason. There is certainly a lot of talent up and down their roster, but in critical spots - specifically, quarterback, they're far too green. Looking back on the heralded 2009 recruiting class, it has in many respects lived up to its billing in spite of a few busts. De'Antwan Williams could never quite crack through, and more problematic still was Tom Savage's eventual transfer to Arizona. Savage's immolation in Kirk Ciarrocca's spread is what got Rutgers into a QB carousel in the first place. He was supposed to have the job locked up for four years. Not only is Savage gone, but his backup was recruited to play in Ciarrocca's offense.
Hence, Rutgers's best option under center is a true freshman. Gary Nova has an awful lot of talent, and that is evident loud and clear every week that he plays. Nova can make all the throws, and displays a maturity and confidence far beyond his years. Therein, in a sense, lies the problem. He acts like a fifth-year senior in many respects, but does not have that wealth of experience to draw on during games. The weather was certainly a factor yesterday, and hurt his numbers to a significant extent, but his mental errors are still far too pervasive to beat a top opponent like West Virginia. It's awful, because otherwise Rutgers could well be competing for a BCS bid, but it's still going to take another year or two to dig out of the hole left over from 2010. Realistically, that's why Rutgers is a mid-tier team this year, and not a top one.Put all the conspiracy theories about recruiting Don Bosco Prep, or about taking a mulligan for the future. Greg Schiano and Frank Cignetti know what's at stake in the conference standings. They wouldn't be giving Nova every snap if they did not think he gave them the best chance to win. End of story. Unfortunately, that is not enough against good opponents, although it probably will for the next few. It was painful, and still stings like a hell a day later, but they were still playing West Virginia. If Rutgers somehow lost to USF, UConn, or Army, then it's panic time. For now, it remains curious why Chas Dodd isn't playing at all - it was surprising that he lost his job owing to one bad quarter in Syracuse, and hasn't come in during Nova's lowest points - but none of us are seeing practice every week.
Inferring too much from a game played in such awful conditions would be a mistake, with the second half probably being more telling due to the field actually being playable. That does not exactly due Rutgers any favors overall due to their all-around struggles. Besides the obvious, there was some good. The running game (and offensive line) looked very good. Jawan Jamison played very well, and Jeremy Deering had some nice runs and returns. Michael Burton has started to come on over the past few weeks as a blocker, and even had a few nice runs. Quron Pratt brought some consistency to the receiver position opposite Mohamed Sanu. Mark Harrison caught a touchdown (Brandon Coleman was a mixed bag, but they should have called the number of a more sure-handed receiver on the fake.)
There's no sense in lamenting getting torched by West Virginia, Geno Smith, and Dana Holgorsen. That tends to happen a lot regardless of opponent. However, for the second week in a row, the Rutgers defense could not generate much in the way sacks or turnovers. The weather is a huge caveat, as were the offensive giveaways, but you have to wonder what's going on with the front seven. Was injured defensive end Mike Larrow that much of a loss - even with Jamil Merrell playing more now that he's healed up from his foot injury? A big back like Shawne Alston was a tough matchup for the speedy-but-undersized Rutgers defense, which could be a factor again against USF (although, again, they're nowhere near WVU's level.)
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith had his own issues with securing a slippery football, but he was far more accurate than Nova, and recovered most of his fumbles. If only RU got a few of those bounces, or better bounces on special teams, or a few of those near misses on punt blocks succeeded, the end result could have been different. Rutgers needed a lot of luck to beat a good opponent. Not only did they not get it, but they were at the wrong end of a few bad breaks of their own. That's how it goes sometimes, and the challenge now will be recovering for this next three game stretch where the Scarlet Knights should be favored in every contest. Vent all you want now, but there is still plenty of season left to go.