If Rutgers was going to win the Big East football conference this year, it would be behind steady play from Dom Natale.
That's why I was hoping that Natale be the definitive victor of the starting QB competition in camp, and likely why Greg Schiano ultimately went with him going into the season.
Natale showed today that he honestly does have some poise and accuracy. He's Ryan Hart. Like Hart, Natale has serious issues with his decision making, which lead to critical turnovers. Dom thinks he has more arm strength than he really does. You can get away with forcing the ball when you're Brett Favre. Not when you're Hart or Natale. Unfortunately, Keith Sargeant was correct about this pratfall.
In all honesty, I thought the game was a rehash of last year's UNC contest, right down to the fans starting to stream out of the stadium midway through the third quarter, leading the new Rutgers Stadium at about 10% capacity by the time the game ended. It was like the UNC contest in that, while the visiting opponent was undoubtedly the superior team, the result became completely lopsided owing to a brutal meltdown at the quarterback position. Cincinnati is a better football team than Rutgers. They're not better in all facets of the game. Teams are never quite as good or as bad as they seem, and will regress to their means at some point.
On that note, Cincinnati is legit. I picked them to win the Big East conference, and there's no reason to doubt them at this point. They won this game as much as RU gave it away. How on earth can anyone not rank them in the top 25 after this? In fact, they belong in the top 15. Does anyone honestly think Notre Dame beating on Nevada was more impressive? Cincy always had the capacity to drop 40+ on any team. Keeping them in striking distance wouldn't necessarily be a task for the defense; it requires keeping your head above water on the other side of the ball. We needed an effective running game today to keep the Bearcat offense off the field, and failed to control the ball in that regard.
Why did that happen? Cincy didn't respect Natale at all, stacking the line at will. That brought more blitzers into his face, and crowded any running lanes. And, he showed that he didn't deserve their respect. We'll see how that defense looks over the next few games, but I'm still not convinced that they're necessarily all that just because Brian Kelly talked them up in a press conference. Natale played that poorly today, completely gift-wrapping the last two interceptions.
In truth, I thought the game was over once Cincy scored its third touchdown. The #1 priority today was to avoid a shootout. RU put together a decent opening drive, but it was masked by trickery. You can't keep getting in third and longs and expect to keep getting bailed out. Natale shouldn't be the starter, but at least he showed something in that contest. At this point, the Jabu option package needs to be removed from the offense, because all it accomplishes is to give away downs to the other team. I still cannot believe (well, actually, I can) that Jabu missed a receiver (Brown?) who was so wide open. And why would any defenses do anything but sell out against the run when Lovelace is in the game? He has a cannon, but can't hit the side of a barn. Yes, Jabu is well-respected, and a great teammate. Give him a humanitarian of the year award, and move him to safety. He is not an effective quarterback, and would have doubled Natale's interception total if given the opportunity.
Natale's turnovers, not having any running room, and getting into too many third and longs sapped the offense's momentum completely. Without the ability to grind away the clock, Cincy's no huddle attack was able to eviscerate the RU defense. There are a few reasons for optimism there however. RU's strength is in its front seven. When the Bearcats lined up in a spread with four wide, that strength is neutralized.
You either have to go dime and quarter, or there are multiple open receivers downfield. And that's how Cincy played it, having Pike take a lot of three step drops at first to build momentum and get into a rhythm. We're not going to see another offense nearly that good this year, and probably won't see another team (MAYBE WVU) capable of that kind of scheming. Go against teams in I-formation, and Rutgers will be able to unleash its pass rush. Arguably, the only chance you have there is to go Giants/Patriots and send in the kitchen sink, hoping to rattle Pike, but it's not going to happen without anything on offense.
The schedule factor is the main reason why you shouldn't jump in front of the Acela right now. RU had its toughest game of the season week one. Can you believe that Brian Kelly was complaining about that, when we're the ones who really needed a tuneup? Rutgers is still going to have an 8-4 season, possibly 9-3 if they can win back momentum against a very, very beatable Maryland team in a few weeks. I saw nothing from their similar beatdown on Saturday to indicate that they could do much, if anything that the Bearcats utilized.
Rutgers won't win the Big East this year, and that's going to ruffle a lot of feathers. We're tired of finishing second and third. But, in losing, we may have found the key to winning it in a year or two with the emergence of Tom Savage. Yes, Cincy's defense probably let up a bit, but Savage out of the Shotgun looked far, far more effective than Natale or Lovelace. There's value in trying to restore Natale's confidence next week, but frankly, Savage is the future of Rutgers football, and needs every rep he can get at this point. His emergence in the second half was solace for the die-hards who did manage to stay in the stands. I didn't want to put this level of pressure on him as a true freshman, but there's little alternative at this point.
He will have his growing pains, but we'll just have to work through them. Savage is just better in all facets of the game (even scrambling at one point), and opponents actually respect his arm. The receivers dropped a few that had maybe a little too much zip on them. He'll get better, and the receivers will adjust from Natale's weak arm to Savage. Why, oh why, couldn't Cardinal O'Hara have let him enroll for spring practice?
Another bright spot tonight were the receivers. Timmy Brown quieted any doubts about whether he was an every down receiver. And Sanu - wow. We may finally have a legit possession guy at the minimum. The skeptics may have been right about the uncertainity about quarterback, but RU proved them wrong here. Why weren't Graves and Corcoran more involved in the passing game though? IF you're not going to throw to Corcoran, there's literally no reason not to start Hoagie Morales.
If the receivers were a bright spot, then the offensive line was not. Now I understand why Schiano was concerned. Some of that was Natale's fault, but they didn't look so hot in either pass protection or run blocking. I don't really feel like reviewing the replay at this point to see who precisely was at fault, but maybe Anthony Davis should hold off for the moment on his plans to declare after the end of this season.
Why'd the secondary look so bad? As I said above, some of that is just owing to the fact that Cincy is going to get their yardage and points, especially when the offense gets so much time on the field. Seemed like there were a lot of missed assignments though. Deja vu from 2008. What a rough break for Zaire Kitchen too.
One last bright spot were the special teams. They look 100% improved, although Dellaganna's kickoffs suffered in comparison to the beauties from the Cincy kicker.
It's going to be a rough couple days, and I'm certainly not happy about what happened, but it's not like Rutgers hasn't started flat before. Illinois, New Hampshire, or Fresno anyone? Rutgers isn't a football factory. You've been through those games, you've been through Shea. Sometimes, it's not your night. Schiano's teams usually seem to start slow and gain momentum throughout the season. Every once in a while, there's just an inexplicable loss. Hopefully, we'll make it up at some point, and that's where I look to those Terrable Terrapins.
Anyway, hope I didn't forget any of the points that I wanted to hit. Sorry for trailing off at the end, but I have to run. I haven't been sleeping very well at all, and am completely exhausted. I have a lot more to say about the stadium experience, hopefully tomorrow.