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Panic sets in, as Rutgers blows it to Tulane 17-14

I thought that last year's defeat to a vastly inferior Syracuse team would stand for a while as the worst post-rebuilding loss of Greg Schiano's tenure at Rutgers. Yesterday's defeat shattered that assumption, and stands alone as a crushing reality check that there is something uniquely and inherently wrong and flawed about this year's Scarlet Knight team. That is the inescapable conclusion when you lose at home to an opponent who has looked rather bad up to this point, and did nothing yesterday to indicate otherwise.

The Tulane game did not have the caveats that Syracuse provided. It was at home, and Tulane does not have a bizarre and inexplicable obsession with demonizing Rutgers as a propaganda ploy. More importantly, Syracuse actively won their victory through superior game planning and execution that day. While I normally would never try to disparage or diminish the other team's contributions in a loss (or to the contrary, solely credit internal factors in a victory), Tulane clearly did nothing of note all game beyond not being a complete and utter train wreck. Rutgers could have played the same result against the #40 team as the #120. It was a result solely, and inexorably the result of RU's failure to execute on even the most basic and simple of levels on offense.

Clearly, the present course of action is not working at all. Rutgers fans wanted a scapegoat, and now they have one. Write it down right now: if the team (and necessarily) the offense do not improve, this is the game which will cost the team's offensive coaching staff (specifically, line coach Kyle Flood and play caller Kirk Ciarrocca) their jobs. Flood's done good work in the past, and Ciarrocca's promotion made sense at the time given his resume, but neither are at all working out, and it might very well be time to move on.

While it's difficult to definitively isolate causes (perhaps no offense could be successful with bad line play, and there are specific personnel issues that I'll get to below), the Rutgers football team needs a clean break. Any excuses fall on deaf ears when the offense isn't just bad; it's an anchor that threatens to sink the entire season into disaster. I'm definitively not lashing out at Coach Schiano today, because his actions in assembling the current staff are completely defensible. Moreover, there are not immediately obvious internal replacements. However, Schiano does need to clean house at the first opportunity, and it would be shocking if that isn't what happens considering the current woes.

The next topic on everybody's mind today concerns the nascent quarterback controversy. Tom Savage continued his ineffective play before being felled by Chas Dodd, who was markedly better. To play the devil's advocate, here are a couple points why you shouldn't necessarily be screaming for Dodd today.

  1. Everything happened in a small sample size.
  2. While Dodd was far better than Savage yesterday, he wasn't exactly an asset to the offense either. He was average, which frankly would be a big improvement.
  3. Dodd played in a much more friendly context than Savage. The protection was suddenly a lot better, which I think had a lot to do with running the ball more in the second half. That opened up play action, which isn't viable when all runs are getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. There were a couple of really pretty forward screens that I've been desperate for Savage to try all year.
  4. Dodd wasn't nursing multiple injuries, and the weight of high expectations.

That being said, there's no doubt that Dodd looked a lot better. He throws a very pretty ball with some zip. I also like he how will throw in a fake here and there to keep the defense off balance. Most importantly, he looks infinitely more comfortable in going through his reads, which really seemed like the biggest difference between the two yesterday. Savage is a step slower, and much more prone to locking onto receivers.

Here's my theory: Dodd ran a spread offense while he was in high school, so he already has a firm grasp with what Ciarrocca is trying to do right now with the increased used of Shotgun and multi-WR sets. That's not Savage's natural game. Most quarterbacks do see the field a lot better in the spread though. So is that Tom's fault, or is Joe Flacco's personal tutor not all that he was cracked up to be? After all, it's the QB coach's job to make sure that Savage is in a position to succeed. I'm not yet ready to anoint Dodd the starter, but yesterday was indeed a notch towards him being a better fit with the current offense. If Savage is going to be the guy, then Rutgers needs to get back to basics and run a pro style offense. The current situation of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole benefits no one.

While the offense was by no means good in the second half, that level of even average to below-average performance throughout an entire game almost certainly would have been enough to turn the losses of the past two weeks into wins. Rutgers could not score points on the day (even in the second half, when they did move the ball some). The futility on that side of the ball, along with Teddy Dellaganna's punting miscues, consistently gave Tulane's offense excellent field position on the day. That was the margin of victory.

The defense may not have given up any points if they had received more support. What's really odd is that Rutgers dominated total yardage and time of possession. Based on the box score (although it's skewed by Sanu's early TD run), that pitiful effort actually represented progress over FIU and UNC. Rutgers was the better team in the second half, and could have won if they had more time, but that is little comfort now.

As far as the Wildcat goes, while Mohamed Sanu should pass out of that formation more considering that he's looked good throwing in limited duty, I don't have much of a problem with its usage in general. They mixed in more fakes and handoffs yesterday, which make the direct snap a little less predictable. The tendency to go for the home run, super low-percentage pass instead of securing the easier first down is frustrating, and lingers on from when John McNulty was the offensive coordinator.

Devon Watkis didn't look great at right tackle yesterday. Art Forst may not be playing well, but there wouldn't be a rotation if one was clearly ahead of the other. Is it too late to give Wynn a shot, or would that just create another hole at left guard? And wow, Barberi is really causing a lot of heartburn at center. His snaps are almost always too high, which is exacerbated when Savage isn't in the game. That many wrong guesses in pass protection were not fun either. The line did get a lot better at picking up blitzes in the second half though; did the offense finally figure out what Tulane was doing?

All the misery and lamentations on offense mask what was once again a very good defensive performance. Sacks are such a misleading statistic. When you actually watch the RU defense operate, their attacking style clearly dictates their will on opposing offenses. Quarterbacks have to operate on a much faster internal clock, which leads to incompletions. The defense will give up some yardage and conversions in the process, but eventually they force favorable downs, and incompletions on third down. That is a deliberate choice, as is how the aggressiveness is occasionally vulnerable to trickery. Yesterday was just an absolute clinic in disguising blitzes, and it's sad that those triumphs will be quickly forgotten in all of the (well-deserved) dread and negativity over the next week.

Other thoughts:

  • Unfortunately, this game is proof that you can't live and die with turnovers and blocks. The only surefire way to win is good execution.
  • While Dodd was better, he had his issues too. He missed a WIDE OPEN Harrison on the touchdown drive. It was painful how that PA pass to Stroud almost connected. The interception to end the game was awful, and just as bad as Savage's picks last week.
  • We are boned in two years if Sanu leaves early for the NFL. Dodd liked to find Deering, and spread the ball around more (although, not to Jefferson).
  • Generally solid game from the backs, are have been taking a backseat to Sanu in the Wildcat. Those momentum screens worked well. While Thomas doesn't have a lot of power, I liked how he fought for extra yardage on a few runs.
  • It was somewhat of a breakout game for Manny Abreu, who has never really stood out in any particular way before. It was a mixed game for Lowery, who took a bad angle on that play where Abreu went down. He had his moments on rushes and in coverage.
  • Good game from Silvestro, and Francis continues to make the most of his snaps. Freeny misread Tulane's running TD, but had a few moments too.
  • I like what I saw from the safeties. Ryan had one bad missed tackle.
  • Colin McEvoy's now on offense? I thought I saw him blocking on a Wildcat run, and then his number was called a few plays later.
  • Bad, bad game by Teddy Dellaganna. With as bad as the offense played, they still might have won if he was as good as the Tulane punter.
  • That holding call back on Lefeged's kick return was ticky-tack, which hurts considering that it would have been the margin of victory. Lefeged has been looking good on returns.
  • Shaky clock management at the end. They should have went into the two-minute drill on the next to last drive, not the last one. Ultimately didn't matter, but it could have.

Whatever issues there are right now, there is no acceptable excuse for how an unmitigated disaster like this can occur after a decade with Schiano. I don't think yesterday was an example of ill-preparation per se. He wasn't outcoached. This was a game lost last spring, and during fall training camp. It was a failure of player development. While there is a solution, it's not necessarily immediate. Staff hires don't work out all the time, and they often can be addressed. We don't need this turning into a situation like with what's occurred at Virginia Tech though, where Frank Beamer has shown excessive loyalty to an over matched and ineffective coordinator. UConn and Miami are two examples that immediately come to mind of programs that showed near-instant improvement via shaking up their staffs.

In the broad sense things aren't doomed, although the Tulane loss undoubtedly did appreciable damage to the Rutgers football program for the time being. Even more distressing are what's to come in the following weeks. UConn moved from a certain victory to a probable loss based on Frazer's benching combined with RU's offensive woes (although Dodd is an deniable X-factor). Nobody has the slightest clue with the rest of the Big East, and even Army is showing signs of life. Tulane was supposed to be a gimme. There are no pushovers left.

Clearly, no one can pretend that this year is going to mirror 2006 after the past two weeks. It's hard to point towards 2008 either; that was a very good team that fell into an early funk owing to some bad fluky luck. 2004 is a very real possibility; especially when you remember that team did not give up, and remained in the mix for bowl eligibility into late in the season. The thought of not even being able to go to the crummy Pinstripe Bowl is not an especially comforting one.

Certainly no team is doing less with more at the moment. The one remaining escape valve is that with even an average offense, as Rutgers showed yesterday with Dodd, they are good enough on defense to beat any team left on the schedule. It will be an awful shame if that doesn't prove adequate, and those yeoman efforts end up going to waste. Almost as much of a disappointment as stumbling in what could well be the worst Big East year on record. Things will get better, eventually, but damn if they aren't unbearably miserable for now.