The Kyle Flood era at Rutgers got off to a ho-hum start last night. The game's outcome was hardly ever in doubt, as Rutgers easily was controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. However, an inability to connect for big plays on offense, coupled with mistakes and a very conservative game plan, combined to make the contest far more nail biting than it otherwise had any right to be. Rutgers won, and somewhat comfortably even, but this was not the explanation point that would have gone a long way towards establishing confidence in the 2012 season. It was hardly cause for alarm, but not the marauding that everyone would have preferred. Rutgers won, and there's little reason to read anything more into it, not that it will stop anyone.
Was the offense unnerving? One argument could be that everything was deliberately kept vanilla and simple with USF and Arkansas on tap in a few weeks. That might be true to an extent, but geez, that third quarter sure was scary. If the plan was to show nothing and win through sheer force (which it should be reiterated again, worked to the tune of a big margin of victory), there were moments where that had to start going out the window. Similarly, the defense, while not perfect, was really good and no one is digging up excuses for that side of the ball today. Of course Rutgers is better there than on offense, but the offense is talented on paper, and should not have had the trouble it did executing at a very basic level. Yeah, a Louisville-style demolition would be nice, but at least we're not Pittsburgh or Penn State today.
That's not to say everything was bad on that side of the ball; in fact, there were a lot of positives. Pass protection was very good, building on 2011 in that respect (where it was usually solid.) The biggest improvement was in the running game, where Savon Huggins and especially Jawan Jamison were able to generate multiple big plays. Jamison looked fantastic. The offensive line wasn't pushing the defense five yards off the ball like they did circa 2006 (heard that comparison a fair bit last night), but at worst they were getting a draw, as opposed to defenders constantly being in the backfield last year. That meant less tackles for loss, allowing the backs to steadily chug away and wear the defense down before tiring them out. I would have preferred a more deliberate, Cignetti-style pace (should have dominated the time of possession more), but overall this was pretty good. That combo of Antwan Lowery and Betim Bujari looked stellar, with the latter appearing a natural at center.
More importantly, the return of a half-decent running game opened up things in the passing game in turn. Which frankly made the struggles there even more confounding. Last year, Frank Cignetti seemingly would never call a screen pass, even when the circumstances practically were begging for it. Last night anyway, new coordinator Dave Brock seemingly still though that he was still coaching at Boston College, with no one on his roster capable of running a 4.8. It was screen, screen, screen - with the only question being whether those were deliberate (either from Brock or Flood), or Gary Nova had been simply resorting to check downs. If it was Nova, then that's a complete 180 from last year - where he was error prone to a fault, but showed a dynamic fearlessness and played with almost an overconfidence. Outside of one (pretty bad) interception, Nova just played the role of game manager. He did show some good maneuverability in the pocket, but his accuracy and decision making seemed off all night.
A few guys made plays after the catch, but there were few connections downfield, and those fades in the end zone before the field goal may have set the game of football back decades. D.C. Jefferson was...exactly what you would expect from D.C. Jefferson, making a boneheaded play that hurt the offense badly, and following up with a stellar catch. (Paul Carrezola missed the game injured.) Likewise, Brandon Coleman was quiet before going nuts on his touchdown catch. You wish he too would start dominating games instead of playing to type. One bright spot was Tim Wright, who made the case for more playing time in a possession role with a few tough catches, including a one-handed grab that brought to mind the exploits of Mohamed Sanu last season.
The defense was another story entirely, with the front seven looking just as good as expected. Scott Vallone and Isaac Holmes clogged up the middle all game long, with the latter proving his preseason praise well-warranted, and Darius Hamilton providing steady minutes in reserve. Ka'Lial Glaud made some plays at defensive end, as did Marvin Booker, before he went down injured as every Rutgers player was living up to their stereotypes last night apparently. Even better were the linebackers, who really don't get nearly the credit they collectively deserve because all three/four are standouts. The heralded Khaseem Greene did have one of his better games, for what it's worth. One minor quibble is that a forced fumble would have been nice considering that Tulane tempted fate with low snaps all game long.
Rutgers has an aggressive defense, Tulane had no success running the ball, and dinking and dunking worked two years ago, so of course they were going to try it again. The difference this time was that the offense was only disappointing, as opposed to being a burning tire fire. The secondary wasn't bad per se, but not as fast and mean as they guys up front in comparison. It was surprising to see Logan Ryan regress from being a lockdown corner in the second half of last year to Tulane seemingly picking on him for most of the game. What was with that? Brandon Jones also dropped what would have been two easy pick sixes (in all fairness, the first would have been a ridiculous catch), before finally taking a third to the house. (He had a decent chance at another interception after that.) Lorenzo Waters made a few plays at safety in his first game as a starter, which was nice to see.
What else, well...
- The former CSTV has made considerable strides in the quality of their broadcast. One remaining annoyance is that they really need to change the color of their "final" graphic (aired with baseball scores) from yellow to something more neutral, as years of obsessively watching football have conditioned me to associate that color exclusively with flags. It was unnerving to have to keep thinking that a flag was coming for a split second.
- Greg Schiano may be gone, but his aggressive special teams play remains, with the Knights scoring their first special teams block of the year.
- Will we ever, ever, ever have a kicker who is automatic from inside the thirty? Sigh.
- Jeremy Deering looked very strong on kick returns. I almost did a little jig when Mason Robinson actually returned a punt for a decent gain instead of calling for a fair catch. (Not an indictment of Mase; there's little choice when you go for a block as often as Rutgers does.)
- I'm half-tempted to make calls for Dodd/Rankin/etc... at this point bannable. Get a grip people.
- The white uniforms looked surprisingly not terrible in practice, although the jury should still be out on the reds and whites. Still hate the inability to mix and match pant colors, which should be the rule, not the exception, except for big games. The tone on the grey makes the white uniforms look far too close to the Tampa Bay Bucs for comfort.