That late September Saturday in Fayetteville was supposed to be the moment that the country would have to pay attention to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in 2012, especially at the quarterback position. Sophomore QB Gary Nova just capped off a career performance in big, bad SEC country, albeit against a team that would turn out to not be very formidable. He threw for 5 touchdowns and nearly 400 yards in front of a bewildered pro-Razorback crowd, with no interceptions, earning himself a helmet sticker on College Gameday. In fact, Nova would go four straight weeks without throwing an interception, starting with the USF game until the home game against Syracuse. His next game with an interception came against Temple, although that pick is overshadowed by his throwing for four touchdowns on 17-27 passing for 232 yards.
It seemed as if everything was rolling for RU and that finally, stability seemed to find its way to the quarterback position on the banks. What happened?
It turns out, that special performance against Arkansas was just that, special. You can point to his performances against Temple and Arkansas (and to a lesser extent, USF) as outstanding. Outside of those two games, Nova's numbers look very pedestrian. He was serviceable as a "game-manager" in the wins against Connecticut, Syracuse, Army, and Cincinnati. The Rutgers offense was never seen as a big threat over the course of the season, and that shows in the numbers: 88th in pass yards, 106th in rushing yards, and 98th in points for. Quarterback is arguably the most important position on the field in how today's game is played, evidenced by the high number of Heisman trophies going to QBs in the past decade (even the history of the award shows a preference for QBs). So are we correct to assume that as Nova goes, so goes the team?
I would not go that far in simplifying the junior's career for RU. Several factors led to the poor finish by Rutgers in the 2012 season. Coach Flood believes in a power running game to help the quarterback establish the passing game, and while Jawan Jamison had a strong season rushing the ball, the entire rushing game as a whole was mediocre. Fullback is an extremely underrated position in the Scarlet Knight offense, and losing starter Michael Burton in late September for the entire year had a devastating effect on the running game.
Furthermore, while Nova did not by any means make a case for the Davey O'Brien Award in most games, he was not a total detriment to the team either. Outside of his complete collapse versus Kent State (six interceptions?!), I don't truly see him as the reason Rutgers did not succeed more. Conservative play-calling certainly didn't help, what with the plethora of screen passes and draws making RU as predictable as a bad horror movie. Bringing Ron Prince in as coordinator may not dramatically improve the offense, although his internet meme fame should bring more (bad) publicity to the Scarlet Knights. In reality, Prince's track record does show that he has some skill as a coordinator, with middle of the road offensive rankings at Virginia under Al Groh and top-20 rankings at Kansas State as head coach. In games with a proper fullback, both Nova and the running game shine, and Burton is full-speed ahead for a productive 2013 season. Good, old-fashioned experience should mean improvement, and a continuing QB-WR relationship with freak-athlete Brandon Coleman is a huge plus.
What are the contingency plans? Chas Dodd is still on the roster for all the conspiracy theorists. While Dodd always showed the heart and fire that you want to see, he has never entrenched himself as the de-facto starter with on the field results. There was the 2010 game against Connecticut. He never showed results like that again that season, except for the laugher against Cincinnati (when Cincy scores 60+ on RU, I doubt they are worrying about playing defense). In 2011, he came in to save the game against USF, although I would call Mo Sanu the real savior there. He did play well in the Pinstripe Bowl, but nothing to inspire complete confidence.
Then there are the new guys. Blake Rankin was arguably a higher-rated prospect than Nova, and he offers a dual-threat ability in addition to his throwing skills. Chris Laviano is a solid 4-star pocket-passer prospect, and it's entirely possible he is the future at the position. However, these two are untested and unproven. Going in favor of potential versus experience is a dangerous game, and one could argue that Schiano did this with Dodd and Nova. Huggins himself is a former consensus 4-star prospect, and we're still waiting for him to live up to our outrageous expectations.
Gary Nova is neither the answer to all of the offense's problems, nor the cause of all of the struggles. There are so many more underlying aspects that contribute to overall production, from offensive line play to rushing output and wide receiver drops. The college game allows for other positions to take the spotlight off the quarterback that the NFL can't, and it's entirely possible that by the end of the 2013 season, who is playing QB will not be the number one concern.
The play of Nova has always been a hot topic for RU fans. How do you feel about the junior quarterback? Vote in the poll and leave your thoughts below.