I'm all over the place right now, and I suspect that most of you are in a similar place at the moment. Yesterday's Rutgers/UConn game only shined a spotlight on the myriad of problems facing Rutgers this season. Outside of the second quarter, and a stunning miracle play right at the end, the offense was (once again) absolutely brutal to watch. UConn's Zach Frazer threw three interceptions, and RU squandered those opportunities. The Scarlet Knights absolutely played their most complete game of the season, yet still have a long, long way to go before they are playing their best football.
However, that last play may have changed everything, lifting the team's fortunes for the season, and giving a relatively young offense some much-needed confidence going forward. Rutgers did end up winning a game they nearly squandered by not scoring for the first 29 minutes of a second half. It was a windy, miserable day in East Hartford. Losing is always painful, but this game in particular was one that both sides absolutely needed to win. UConn found itself in an early hole, before crawling its way back. Rutgers fought to hang on to its early advantage. The game was brutal at times, but featured a wild and crazy finish that can only bring to mind the 1992 victory by Rutgers over Virginia Tech in another spooky Halloween game.
The Huskies didn't want to be stuck at four wins with a relatively difficult November schedule looming. Rutgers badly needed a Big East win after starting out at 0-2. The loser would lose any remaining relevance in the Big East conference race; the winner still having a chance to salvage their season. Now, the Scarlet Knight have that monkey off their backs. They can play a little looser, confident in the fact that things are moving in the right direction. True, the schedule has been pretty bad this year, but Rutgers is 6-2 (with losses to two very good teams), and finished last year on a hot streak as well. It's hard to be too critical of the big picture when you take that into account. How great is it to be going into the bye week thinking positive thoughts?
I just look at the final box score and marvel at how the worm has turned in this series as of late. It may not be a rivalry yet, but Rutgers/UConn sure feels like it on the field. These games are always close, always competitive, always edge of your seat. Viewers always have to stay on their toes. Remember how Randy Edsall won three straight over Schiano when the latter first took over? It was especially embarrassing, as UConn was a provisional I-A program still in the process of making the jump from the CAA, yet arguably were far ahead of the depths Rutgers had fallen under Terry Shea. The switch has flipped as of late, with Schiano prevailing in, now, four of the last five games of this series.
Still, the rule used to be that Rutgers would amass a large edge in total yardage, but inevitably shoot itself in the foot with penalties, turnovers, and other senseless miscues. Not anymore. First, we saw Tony Ciaravino's woes come to the forefront last year in Piscataway. Dave Teggart wasn't much better on the day yesterday. (The wind was a decent excuse for his second miss, but he absolutely should have hit the first one.) Now it's UConn who can't protect the football, and can't run a simple prevent defense.
Rutgers under Greg Schiano may have lost individual matchups yesterday, but they won the game, and that's largely to Coach Schiano's credit. Edsall is a great coach, and his relative accomplishments are spectacular, but now Schiano has his number, and proved it with his excellent clock management (with regards to timeout usage) on UConn's final drive. There are multiple ways to run a successful program, and there's no sense in begrudging either. Both sides can be confident in their respective accomplishments, which speak for themselves.
There's no bones about it; UConn QB Zach Frazer was truly horrifc on the day, completing less than half of his passes, and throwing three interceptions (with several more that were almost picked). Now, it's a stretch to guess exactly what would have happened had Cody Endres stayed in the game (after a recent cold streak in taking out opposing QBs this season, Rutgers has now done that two weeks in a row). Between the wind, and a pass rush, he didn't exactly get off to a good start. In fact, Endres threw three picks last week against West Virginia. But Frazer clearly has no business as a BCS conference starter.
I'm taking in a couple of factors here. With the struggles on offense, Rutgers wasn't able to convert those picks into points, so in that sense, Frazer didn't cost UConn the game. However, with an actual competent starter under center, maybe UConn continues those drives and scores more points of their own. Now, I don't want to hear about how UConn drove late. It was a mirage. They had 56 pass plays, and ran far more plays on the day. The bottom line is that the Rutgers defense tired out late. They put up a valiant effort, harassing Endres and Frazer all day, not granting an ounce of comfort. They could have held Frazer to single digits if the offense had given them ANYTHING in the way of sustained, clock-killing drives in lieu of constant three and outs.
As far as QB Tom Savage goes, 13 completions out of 24 attempts isn't anything to write home about. However, there were two key positives - his 3 to 0 TD/interception ratio, and hitting his receivers on those three scores, particularly Brown on the clincher. Savage is a long, long way from being the franchise player that we all crave, but he continues to hint with the promise of years to come. There's still a lot of football left in his college career, and certainly his share of adversity, but you can't help but think that Tommy has a real chance to be a top quarterback in the years to come. Not a capable one, but a true difference maker; a guy who can shake off a bad game and turn everything with one throw. The staff is still protecting him for the most part, but slowly opening things up with each passing week.
Jack Corcoran had one catch, and appeared to miss his block on an early play which ended up resulting in a sack. When it comes to the running game, I don't want to sound like a broke record here, but it was more of the same. Watch Andre Dixon, I'd be stunned if he was faster than a 4.7 or so in the 40 yard dash. Yet, he's effective. That's because UConn has some semblance of a functional offensive line. Which, we do not at the present time. It is absolutely, positively not the fault or Joe Martinek or Jourdan Brooks for the current rushing woes. They would be far, far more effective behind even an average line, not one that's clearly overmatched when not pushing around 240-lb West Point linemen.
That being said, it IS time to unleash De'Antwan Williams. Martinek and Brooks do a lot of things well, but it's clear that Rocket has an extra burst in his step that the upperclassmen lack. With the run blocking so utterly miserable, that half second makes a world of difference, turning a tackle for two or three yards lost into a positive play. Again, it's not the fault or Joe and Jourdan when they're literally being tackled in the backfield. However, I think Rocket will break more of those tackles. How cruel was it to tease us with only three carries? By the way, Sanu in the wildcat is a useful wrinkle, although let's cut down on the wasted plays.
I was leaning towards Tim "Deuce" Brown as the team's offensive MVP heading into this game. The first TD absolutely sealed it; the second one has Brown threatening Tres Moses for the right to be called the second best receiver of the Schiano era. It's incredible how he's put everything together this year. There's not much else to say there that won't be covered by the press over the next few days. Solid day for Sanu. Harrison had a nice homecoming catch on his touchdown, and had a bad drop later on.
I already bagged on the line for a bit, but this has to be reiterated. They're not Syracuse-bad, but there's no excuse for playing this poorly. UConn can lose Beatty to the NFL and still open up holes up front. And how about Anthony Davis, who probably had his second worst day on the season? Kid has all the potential in the world, but doesn't always play like it.
I thought the defense was aggressive all day long, and gave UConn no quarter until right near the end. Here's something I've been wondering about, and maybe one of you will have a thought here: why doesn't Rutgers connect on more sacks? If the stats are available, I'd bet that the defense gets as many ore more hurries than everyone. However, they usually don't seem to follow through and wrap up for a sack and loss of down. Is that just dumb luck, or is something else at play? The low completion percentage and the picks are evidence enough that the defense was very effective on the day. Frazer is awful, but it's not all on him.
It's interesting that Blair Bines had a safety last year, and followed up with another big play by landing the hit that drove Cody Endres's shoulder into the turf. He grew up in CT, and has come back to haunt them for the past two years.
Ryan D'Imperio was largely outshined by UConn's Scott Lutrus, but he did have a few nice plays, including a memorable tackle for loss, and (once again, ala NC State) making critical stops downfield when Huskies broke into the second level. Of all the knocks on the guy, I really don't understand and how anyone could take issue with his deep speed. Did BLESTO mix up his 40 time with Jerome Murphy's?
Another star on the day, besides Brown, was corner Devin McCourty. Like man other defenders, he did struggle a bit late; but how about his earlier play? He's good in coverage (a nice combo of athleticism and ball skills), but that kickoff return to set the tone for the game was really something else. I think there's a case to be made that he's the defensive MVP on the year, although that is still up for grabs. I thought it was Johnson in September, and McCourty was the guy in October. I liked what I saw from safety Joe Lefeged too. Zaire Kitchen seemed to go down with another knee injury, and was spelled by Khaseem Greene. David Rowe is making strides at the other corner spot; he looks like he could be really good in a year, but is still inconsistent. There were issues on the day with UConn picking apart the RU zone schemes. Remind me again; is everyone blaming Bing or Anderson now as far as the backup DBs go?
UConn's special teams have been an issue all year, and you saw that again today with the missed field goals and big returns. Kickoff coverage was an issue for both sides, and Rutgers is going to have to shore up that area. San San Te only attempted one kick on the day, and it was no gimme considering the distance and wind. I was really hoping to force a fumble (close, but no cigar on a nearly-botched catch by UConn) or block a kick ala Maryland to help break this game open in the third. That's nitpicking, but it would have really helped to put them in a hole they couldn't claw out of.
It was a mixed day for Teddy Dellaganna. He has one of the stronger legs I've seen from a punter, and is truly an asset when punting from deep in Rutgers territory. However, he is rather bad when coming in around midfield, and trying to angle a directional kick to pin the other team deep. Seriously, why even bother having Dellaganna practice this week? Give him a bus ticket, and tell him to go to Giants Stadium, and not come back until he's learned a thing or to from Jeff Feagles. Cause, clearly, the current approach isn't exactly working, and it's the one thing holding Teddy back from being a very good punter.
Actually, I thought it was a fairly well-coached game by Schiano. He handled his timeouts well the whole game. There was the end, but he also had a successful challenge on an important Brown catch in the second quarter, which directly created momentum for the subsequent scores. People will point to the playcalling, or not playing Rocket more. The latter is a concern, but I think the former is very much limited by inexperienced personnel. The OL blows. They can't open up holes, and can't protect Savage. The pressure doesn't help, but he is only completing 54.2% of his passes. Can't do it even more and risk taking hits.
All in all, I'm quite troubled by most of what we saw yesterday, but heartened by the few bright spots, and certainly the end result, which outweighs all else. I think we saw a bit of what I was anticipating the other day - any Jasper Howard effect was going to be a complete wild card. This isn't the UConn of old; now they actually have guys like Endres and Easley and can combine for a decent passing game, but the team now has a much larger propensity to shoot themselves in the foot. They did it against West Virginia, so why couldn't it happen again? Go down early, get the crowd out of it; the possibility was always there, especially when you taking into account that Tim Brown and Antonio Lowery were arguably closer to Howard than any Husky.
In the end, the game was won and lost on the merits, as it should be. Despite my disdain for the dour Randy Edsall and his frequent arrogance and whining to the press, I do have an awful lot of respect for what he's done at UConn. I certainly hope that they can recover from their enormous personal tragedy, if only to put a much-deserved beating on Notre Dame later in the season. I have all the respect in the world for the Husky roster, Howard being only one of many examples of how self-determination can trump all naysayers.
There's certainly no love lost between the hardcore fans who post on all the various online fansites who want to tear each other a new one for each disparing and ridiculous comment, myself included. Even the fiercest partisans out there will have to admit that Saturday's game was one hell of a roller coaster. Once again, it was a nailbiter that went down to the wire. That has been the rule of late, and will likely continue going forward. Of that does a rivalry make? I'm not exactly sure, but things do seem like they're slowly getting there. Now if the afore-mentioned delusional, self righteous UConn puritans will excuse me, these free charter Schianocopter rides don't exactly fly themselves.