Rutgers was the consensus last place team in every preseason Big East prediction. Likewise, with Pitt coming off a bit win over USF at home, and Rutgers squeaking by Syracuse on the road last week, all the pundits predicted a Panther win yesterday, if not a blowout. Needless to say, all of the predictions were wrong. Yesterday should not have been a surprise. This is not a classic worst-to-first scenario. Rutgers always had talent, it just was not utilized properly in 2009 and 2010 due to circumstances that no longer hold true. Everyone was just massively overreacting to a criminally small sample size. Rutgers and Pitt are two respectable teams, but Rutgers had a considerable matchup edge due to Pitt's awful offensive line, which was exacerbated by RU's strong home field advantage.
Tino Sunseri was all kinds of dreadful yesterday, but there were extenuating circumstances. Todd Graham is trying to fit him into some weird spread/option hybrid, when Sunseri originally signed on to play for Frank Cignetti. Furthermore, the Pittsburgh offensive line was bad to begin with, and is dreadful absent the injured Chris Jacobson and Lucas Nix. In retrospect, it seems insane that anyone could have picked a team with awful line play against the blitz-happy Rutgers defense. That worm sure has turned. Pitt doesn't have Scott Shafer as defensive coordinator, so Gary Nova barely broke a sweat in the pocket yesterday. The Rutgers line is more than adequate in pass protection, while Pittsburgh's injuries have it now assuming the mantle from Rutgers as the nation's worst offensive line.
Pitt wouldn't have scored any points if it were not for the valiant efforts of Ray Graham. Grades or not, Rutgers really blew it in whiffing on Graham. This isn't Dion Lewis, who didn't have much power, and wasn't even from New Jersey to begin with. Ray Graham is far, far better than Lewis, and it's like a stab in the gut to see him looking like a mirror image of Ray Rice while Rutgers is still looking for answers in its own backfield. Graham single-handedly kept the Panthers in the game for three quarters yesterday, and surely is the best running back in the country thus far. If not for Graham, the Rutgers defense pitches a shutout yesterday.Some times statistics don't tell the whole story for a defensive performance. Last year's defense will never get the credit it was due in the first half of the season, but they did a great job of holding teams below their season averages for points and yardage. Clearly, the 2011 defense is at another level entirely - owing to personnel changes to ramp up the overall team speed, and not having an incompetent offensive coordinator hurting them with poor field position and bad time of possession numbers. Now the adults are back in charge with Frank Cignetti in town, and his superior ball-control strategy wiped the floor with Pitt's no-huddle yesterday. Three quarters of unproductive runs up the gut may have seemed frustrating at the time, but Cigs was clearly laying the groundwork for tiring out Pitt's defense in the fourth quarter, which is exactly what happened. Once again, the tortoise beat the hare, and a week off Pittsburgh sneering was all for naught.
The Rutgers defense benefited from context yesterday - Pitt's no-huddle was an inept, fundamentally unsound strategy, and their OL was terrible. Even with that caveat, it was an all-around phenomenal performance. Stats are always subject to the context qualifier mentioned above, but Rutgers only allowed ten points, registered six sacks, four interceptions, and one interception return for a touchdown. Justin Francis was unblockable all game, and when Sunseri or Trey Anderson were able to attempt a pass, it was usually right into the waiting arms of Logan Ryan, Steve Beauharnais, or Duron Harmon. Kevin Snyder also made a few plays when subbing in at linebacker for Jamal Merrell.
The only warts were losing starting end Mike Larrow for the year in the first quarter (there were multiple other injuries during the game, but no reports have any of the others being serious.) One projected starting end in Jamil Merrell hasn't played yet with his foot injury, and Marvin Booker has been out for weeks. This leaves Manny Abreu and Marcus Thompson as presumable starters, backed up by Ka'Lial Glaud, Myles Jackson, Shane Meisner, and possibly freshman. Rutgers just lost backup middle linebacker Dave Milewski earlier in the week, and if Glaud has to switch back to LB, the team is left even thinner up front. Abreu and Thompson are more than capable, but the depth behind them is turning into a huge concern.
Update: looks like Jamil Merrell actually returned yesterday.
For the second week in a row, there wasn't much to write home about on offense, but they managed the game well enough to win. For Rutgers, the goal was not to implode, and simply let the defense win. That means grinding out the clock, winning the field position battle, and not turning the ball over (absent two botched snaps.) Gary Nova delivered those qualities in spades on Saturday, although it may just be time to throw Chas Dodd back into the mix again. Nova lacks Dodd's chemistry with Mohamed Sanu, but found Joe Martinek, D.C. Jefferson, and Mark Harrison for a few nice plays yesterday. The running game is still pretty bad, but a reshuffled line (Caleb Ruch went in at center, with David Osei moving to LT) opened up a few holes for Jeremy Deering and Savon Huggins. Both arguably deserve more touches next week against Navy.
Yesterday's euphoria and ecstasy has been absent since the USF game two years ago, so that's a welcome return. More importantly, the game offered the vindication and validation Rutgers fans have been craving over the past year. Rutgers is back in its familiar position of lording over the likes of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, UConn, and USF. They're not world-beaters, not as long as they can't run block, but New Jersey woke up today confident that the world makes sense again. If there's any black cloud in such an overwhelming victory, it's in wondering what could have been the past two years if not for Ciarrocca's ineptitude. That should have been our Big East title and undeserved Fiesta Bowl bid, our super conference invitation. Rutgers is finally back where it belongs, and now must race against time to undue two years of self-inflicted wounds while this golden opportunity is still presenting itself.