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Rutgers struggles badly in 41-21 loss to Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is no Tulane. First and foremost, Rutgers lost yesterday because its opponent was simply better. I have always been enamored with Jonathan Baldwin, and the Panthers have plenty of other future pros, especially on offense. Up to this point Rutgers has largely been able to skirt by against fundamentally flawed competition, and they may well be able to do that in several remaining games. It was not possible against a Pitt team that's genuinely good in spite of hitting some rough patches earlier in the year.

That being said, losing by twenty wasn't entirely of their doing. Rutgers's team this year has inherent structural flaws that have appeared in every game, with Saturday's result only the culmination of all the mishaps from the first half of the season. It is hard to imagine Rutgers in a position to win yesterday, but their horrific pass protection, which literally ranks as the worst of any FBS team, prevented the Scarlet Knights from even having a chance of remaining competitive. In a year where the Big East is seemingly ripe of the taking, that is an awful shame. Early on, this was a game that Dave Wannstedt was begging to give away.

Clearly, there are serious issues at foot, ones that cannot possibly be resolved without at least another offseason of work. For now it is only possible to try and diagnose what's wrong, and the problem seems twofold. Rutgers cannot adequately pass protect. Furthermore, those issues are exacerbated by running plays particularly ill-suited to this deficiency. There were certainly moments yesterday where Dodd really should have thrown the ball away, and those instances have started to add up over the past few weeks. Either he's not going through his reads fast enough, or Rutgers needs to call a more conservative gameplan. It's probably a combination of all of the above.

Speaking of which, it's likely that the current woes with play calling and pass protection tend to reinforce each other. It has to be one of the following four scenarios.

A. Co-offensive coordinator/play caller Kirk Ciarrocca is the problem.

B. Co-offensive coordinator/line coach Kyle Flood is the problem.

C. Some combination of A and B.

D. They're both fine individually, but are a particularly bad mesh together.

Flood, of course, put together brilliant lines his first three seasons here. 2008 went right as expected, with a young line getting better with each game. Then they all returned last year, and everything fell apart with Ciarrocca taking over the play calls from the former offensive coordinator John McNulty. Considering that statistically Ciarrocca's tenure has been a disaster, that would seem to suggest that he should be the scapegoat if at least one of these coaches has to get canned. Installing the offense coincided with Anthony Davis's play falling off considerably. However, the pass protection genuinely seems to be getting worse with each game right now. Pitt didn't even blitz all that much yesterday. They have been so profoundly terrible that citing past good will is becoming more and more of a stretch

It is not fair to expect either Chas Dodd or Tom Savage to perform well under these conditions. On one hand, Dodd's poor play yesterday can mostly, if not completely be attributed to the bad protection. Savage throwing a touchdown in garbage time means nothing. However, Chas is starting to show the same hesitation in the pocket that Tom was displaying after taking too many hits. He didn't lose the job with his play against Pitt, but he didn't exactly earn a vote of confidence, and the performance was pretty strong evidence that Savage was not the primary cause of RU's offense sputtering in September. Perhaps the team could once again benefit from a change. The player with the better command of the offense in practice should be starting as the result of an open competition.

Clearly an offense unable to sustain drives or maintain good field position has a negative effect on a defense, but this was also RU's worst performance of the year on that side of the ball by a considerable margin. It was bound to happen with the offense consistently struggling. You can only live on flash and turnovers for so long. The psychological trauma from Eric LeGrand's injury cannot be quantified, but obviously any defense is going to take a hit by losing two good players in LeGrand and Manny Abreu. The pass rush was largely ineffective for the first time in a while. I lost count at the number of missed tackles, although part of that undoubtedly must be credited to Pitt having quality personnel.

There's no other way really to explain several of the bombs to Jonathan Baldwin. Tino Sunseri, who happens to look like an upgrade over Bill Stull, fired superb passes to Baldwin in double coverage. David Rowe and Khaseem Greene seemed to have good positioning on those plays from what I saw, although it would have been nice if one had tried to make a play on the ball. Sunseri just threaded the needle though, and Baldwin made some terrific catches. He's a fantastic talent, who hopefully will be leaving early for next year's draft along with several of his teammates.

Assorted other game thoughts:

  • Chas Dodd was holding on to the football too long, and taking more time to go through his reeds. This wasn't at all like the past two weeks where he'd successfully spread the ball around. I was shaking my head and begging for the offense to try some shorter passes.
  • It was a surprisingly good game for the running backs, outside of Jordan Thomas's fumble early in the second half. This is a decent group who've really been hamstrung by awful run blocking, and yesterday showed what they're capable of in a better situation. Not that it mattered with the top two backs gaining good yardage, but Schiano talked up De'Antwan Williams, and Rocket didn't see the field until garbage time late in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach. I understand having to pass as the game slipped away, but Rutgers was a little too quick to abandon the running game when it was looking effective. Kordell Young has had several solid games in a row now.
  • Jeremy Deering is a step quicker than Mohamed Sanu out of the Wildcat. He was good in that respect, although it'll be harder if/when defenses start to key in on him.
  • Well, the line did look the best they have with run blocking since, I don't know, UCF last year? Clearly pass protection is an issue when even Stapleton (if hobbled) isn't holding his ground. There are obviously technique and assignment issues. It is impossible to be this bad. I understand things like Forst not having enough speed to contain edge rushers, but something is wrong when everyone fails to pick up rushers on run-of-the-mill plays. The offensive line is the prerequisite that makes a team succeed or fail, and right now these guys are an anchor weighing the team down. At least Barbieri mostly was able to cut down on the high snaps. Another positive was cutting down on the false starts from the past few weeks.
  • I guess you live with dumpoffs to Henry Hynoski or Mike Shanahan all day if the alternative is Jonathan Baldwin going nuts. Shanahan was a bad matchup for Brandon Bing with his size advantage. Bing was giving a decent cushion, and they could have curled him to death all day if they wanted. Pitt does have a pretty good offensive coordinator, who was able to create mismatches, like DE Jonathan Freeny covering TE Mike Cruz on one of his touchdowns. Rutgers bit on play action a lot, which is understandable considering the opponent.
  • Was there a bit of a post-option hangover in the defensive performance?
  • Pitt has made some personnel changes since their offensive line was struggling earlier in the season (subbing in Lucas Nix at right guard, which is basically an analogue for when RU put Anthony Davis in at guard a few years back.) I was really disappointed to how badly RU fared with that matchup.
  • That sequence right before the first half was a perfect illustration of RU's futility on the day. Right after blocking a punt for a touchdown, Rutgers has forced Pitt into another third and long deep in their side of the field. Ray Graham proceeds to break off a huge run, only for Lefeged to punch the ball out. Then the Rutgers offense helplessly takes a few sacks to stymie what was a golden opportunity.
  • San San Te was once again on kickoffs. Pitt's kickoff guy has a MONSTER leg that's basically a guaranteed touchback every time.
  • Teddy Dellaganna was alternating between good and bad. Between the inconsistency and not kicking off, you wonder if he's at 100% right now.
  • Joe Lefeged had some good returns, but also a bad misfield on a pooch kick. On one of the booming touchbacks, he cost RU field position by running one kick out from deep and then stumbling.
  • Not that it ultimately mattered, but did anyone think Joe Martinek's TD was good? Rutgers got away with one there, with an assist from an inconclusive camera angle most likely.
  • Want more bad news? Navy-ND at the Meadowlands (officially a ND homegame) was at close to full capacity yesterday. RU's students largely didn't go to last week's game due to logistical hurdles. That's why the game's attendance was far below what Rutgers could get for an average home game. West Point students were not able to go on leave to attend the game either, which had the end result of Army bringing very few fans to the game. I don't know how many fans Navy brought to their victory, and how many in attendance came from out of state (you'd think a lot), which make directly comparing the two games harder.

Pittsburgh is a good team this year. They badly beat up Syracuse at the dome, and then the Orange turned around and upset West Virginia yesterday. This game looked scary for a reason. To that end, USF in a week and a half looks more than winnable, even following a surprising upset over Cincinnati. Rutgers ought to be favored just as much as they deserved to be underdogs yesterday, and the team now has a bye to heal up reassess. The Big East still looks wide open, and even with its considerable flaws Rutgers has as good a chance as any to make up ground during the rest of the schedule.