Through the first five games of Rutgers' football season, we thought we were seeing a different Gary Nova at quarterback. While he was averaging close to one interception per game, Nova was hitting receivers with a confidence not seen in quite awhile on the banks. Fourth quarter comebacks and overtime thrillers were times when we saw #10 play his best, and with each late touchdown pass the Scarlet Knight faithful began to believe.
On the final Thursday night matchup against Teddy Bridgewater and the Louisville Cardinals, everything unraveled. That confidence? Gone, both Nova's confidence as a passer and the fans' confidence in Nova as well. Throughout the game, you could actually see Nova's throws get progressively worse as the chance of a comeback became more and more possible. Sure, the Scarlet Knight defense gave up a ton of yards, but if someone offered you the proposition that you hold Bridgewater and the Cardinals to 17 points through three-and-a-half quarters, wouldn't you feel certain that the Knights would win the game? Time and time again the Rutgers defense came up with a clutch stop or takeaway, begging the offense to take advantage. Yet for each successive opportunity, Gary Nova withered and made bonehead play after bonehead play.
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Of course, Nova doesn't deserve all the blame. The offensive line surrendered a total of eight sacks, with at least four or five of the sacks being completely their fault. The Louisville defensive line did a great job harassing Nova all night and definitely contributed to his making bad throws. It also wasn't just the offensive line getting beat 1-on-1. Several plays had missed assignments that just left a Louisville pass rusher wide open to sack Gary Nova. Tyler Kroft, who continues to make several great catches, needs to work on his blocking. You can see why he was recruited as a pass-catching tight end, because he does not block anyone before releasing.
The running game was basically non-existent as well, through lack of production and coaching strategy. Justin Goodwin was supposed to get the second drive of the game all to himself after rushing for over one-hundred yards against SMU. Instead, the Knights went five-wide for most of the drive, which led to zero points. Rutgers was down by three points at that point. Interesting time to abandon the run. Kyle Flood will attest that he did not "abandon" the run, but it just comes off as pure coach-speak:
I didn’t think we got away from the run. I think we made a conscious effort to call the plays that we felt would be effective. We put a personnel group out there with five wide receivers in the game so Justin nor Savon, neither one would be out there. There is nothing more to it than that. - Kyle Flood, day-after press conference
With the way the run game was going, you can't blame the coaches for leaning more heavily on the pass. Louisville played extremely well on defense, showing the nation that those lofty rankings against inferior competition would hold up against a top-25 caliber scoring offense. In fact, this game was more of a showcase for the Louisville D than for Bridgewater. I'm sure Charlie Strong didn't plan it that way, but that's the way it turned out to be.
The Rutgers defense and special teams also turned in a relatively great performance. Louisville kicker John Wallace kept it away from the Rutgers return men all night long, so the threat of a spark from Janarion Grant or Quron Pratt was diminished. However, a blocked field goal attempt gave the offense a great chance to take control (which unfortunately became another wasted chance). Jeremy Deering came away with an interception late in the first half that prevented a Louisville score, which led to a Gary Nova interception on the ensuing drive. True freshman Anthony Cioffi sacked Teddy Bridgewater at the Rutgers five-yard line for a strip, sack, fumble that was recovered by David Milewski. This led to a Gary Nova interception on the ensuing drive. The defense also made a key stop late in the fourth that led to a missed 45-yard field goal attempt for Louisville. This led to a Gary Nova interception on the ensuing drive. Notice a trend here? Say what you want about the protection, but you reach a point where you can't blame the offensive line for throwing the ball to the home-colored jerseys.
Six games left in the season. The goal of a BCS bid is looking less and less attainable. Some will be calling for Nova to be replaced to prepare for the B1G. Unfortunately, the best course of action is to stick with Gary. At this point in his career, he still remains the best option for Rutgers, and it's disappointing that he can't perform when the pressure is on. There will be no more tests upcoming this season, save for a trip to Orlando to face Blake Bortles. Even then, a win there doesn't do much to change his narrative. The next time he can prove himself? The B1G. And that is a scary proposition.
What do you think Rutgers should focus on during the bye? Leave your thoughts below!