Last night's tale has continued many familiar, ongoing themes around these parts. Rutgers once again had started off a year slowly, before finally starting to get its act together. Greg Schiano's Scarlet Knights have now taken five of the last six games against Randy Edsall's Huskies. All of the victories in the series were hard fought, going down to the wire. Rutgers-UConn cannot just be deemed a football rivalry out of the blue. The teams have to earn that distinction, and it is starting to grow with each of these yearly contests.
Early in the third quarter, when things were not looking optimistic for Rutgers, I asked a friend whether this game counted as a moral victory considering how much better the offense had looked. After all, the Scarlet Knights seemingly marched up and down the field all game. It was one of those nights where if you didn't actually look at the scoreboard, it would have seemed like RU was winning by double digits. Look at the lopsided disparities in time of possession, total yardage, and first downs. It would have been a tragedy of Rutgers lost. The only comfort in that scenario would have been that there isn't really a good reason why a team should dominate at midfield and stall out in the red zone. Eventually that bad luck will even out, as UConn's 2009 squad can well attest.
True freshman quarterback Chas Dodd was the hero on the night, rescuing Rutgers from its offensive doldrums, and taking a lot of scrutiny off offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Technically, the team's offense has improved in each of the past few weeks. UConn is hardly any great shakes defensively compared to their teams from a few years back, but neither were FIU, Tulane, or North Carolina. If Greg Schiano wants to say that the offense is incredibly young and showing improvement by the week, then by golly he has at least earned the right to silence critics on that point at least for the next seven days.
There is still one very big notable exception of course, being the offensive line's ongoing struggles with pass protection (combined with Howard Barbieri's errant snaps). Caleb Ruch and Art Forst were announced as being in the starting lineup, and I honestly don't know whether or not they rotated with backups Antwan Lowery and Devon Watkis. Giving up that many sacks in the first half was inexcusable, although they did get a little better with blitz pickup in the second half (with a probably assist to UConn, but more on that later). The multiple false starts at home (and that includes skill position players too) needs to end now, thanks.
Evaluating the general play calling is more complex. Clearly, the conventional passes on the night worked very, very well. There were two notable exceptions though, and even those have caveats. When the offense was stalling out throughout the second and third quarter, there were two obvious culprits. Dodd was throwing so many bombs down the sideline on first down that I was having flashbacks to when John McNulty was the offensive coordinator (and I'm saying that as a McNulty apologist). Those are called low-percentage plays for a reason; they rarely work. The only question is whether or not those were designed as Dodd's first read, or Chas is just a gunslinger who cares not for first downs.
Rutgers was utilizing a particular drive momentum killing combination on the night, on multiple occasions. The bomb on first down would be followed by a direct snap or zone-read in the Wildcat with Mohamed Sanu on second down. The former was especially bad, because there wasn't even the threat of a handoff to someone else. The Wildcat has its uses, and is being unfairly maligned in some senses, but it could and definitely should be used more efficiently. Sanu is a good playmaker, but he's not going to do anything if everyone in the stadium knows what's going to happen. He has to both attempt more passes and hand the ball off on zone-reads to keep defenses honest.
In these described sequences, it'd be Dodd bomb on first down, stuffed Wildcat run on second, and all of a sudden it's third and long and not much time has come off the clock. I'm not sure what happened last night was even a case of Rutgers even being allergic to the end zone so much as crippling drives with one or both of these plays, and far too many penalties. Even then, eventually Sanu's first pass was glorious (the second, not so much), and Dodd finally connected with two deep passes to Deering and Harrison in the fourth quarter. It makes you wonder about whether or not Dodd and/or the staff kept seeing something downfield, which would be interesting considering that some of the throws were into double coverage. Going down to the well so many times in an effort to set up those big plays wouldn't have made much sense; the game could have very well ended up as a loss.
The defense obviously was a strength for most of the first half. Connecticut's touchdowns came off a kickoff return, Todman going nuts (one horrendously wrong guess, as opposed to a failure of execution), and off of a short field following Rutgers getting pinned deep and giving up a big punt return. I thought UConn made good adjustments in pass protection during the second half (there were a number of plays where Rutgers clearly did blitz, and couldn't touch Endres - man I wish we had their OL), but their offense was largely stuck in the mud. That is quite the accomplishment. Todman is an explosive boom or bust back, and Rutgers did a very good job against the run (esp. on first down) outside of the long TD. Endres is really impressive, and that group is going to score a lot of points the rest of the year.
UConn fans are upset about supposedly giving the game away, and there are points for and against that notion. By the box score, and just from watching, Rutgers dominated. The Huskies gave up 11.4 yards per pass and could only muster up 4.5. Case closed. Their strategy was clearly faulty in two ways however. Blitzing had been effective in the second quarter. It's not their natural gameplan, but why get away from that? My guess is it's because the Rutgers OL is so bad that they had a decent chance of rushing with four or five, and badly needed to drop more bodies back in coverage. The truly inexcusable part was with calling three straight runs after RU failed with its 4th down conversion. Rutgers had just marched down the field, and UConn is responding by trying to kill the clock instead of acknowledging the coming shootout. That was just awful, and very poorly handled.
- Half a day later, overturning Stroud's fourth down catch still doesn't make any sense. Not only was it a catch, but there was no indisputable evidence to overturn the call! That could have cost the game. Rutgers was driving, and UConn scored a field goal on the subsequent drive to end the first half.
- Speaking of which, I would have taken the points on the fake field goal, but it wasn't a bad idea in principle. That could have worked if not for the overthrow.
- Have to be kicking ourselves for not being 5-0 now, or at least 4-1. It can't all be Dodd, but that Tulane loss is still going to sting even if Rutgers finishes with a good season. At least Zach Frazer cost UConn the Temple game.
- Now that play action, rollouts, screens, etc.. are being called, how about dusting off the third and long draw?
- The only real complaint with Dodd is that he could cut down with the overthrows. There were a couple passes were he deftly fit the ball in between two defenders. That's good, but don't get too cocky or those could start turning into picks.
- Thomas and Martinek aren't a bad combination, and you wonder what they could do with better blocking and more traditional run plays. Really curious to see what Casey Turner can do though if he ever does come back this year. What else is there to look forward to if nobody is going to even acknowledge that De'Antwan Williams is still on the team?
- Manny Abreu has looked pretty good for the past few games. Antonio Lowery is interesting. It seems like he gets matched up against receivers too much in coverage, and misses some tackles, but makes up for those faults with big plays.
- Duron Harmon subbed in for both Khaseem Greene and Joe Lefeged when they were momentarily felled.
- Going for runs and the kneel at the end instead of trying for a touchdown was extremely risky considering how Te has looked so far.
- Come to terms with the fact that the crowd will never get in until the second quarter and you'll be happier. The weather probably won't be as good at the remaining home games.
- Mason Robinson's return on the second TD drive was dangerously risky, but paid off.
Crisis averted for now, but Rutgers isn't quite out of the blue just yet. Chas Dodd has to come back and show he's not another flash in the pan. Army had an awful secondary last season, the next week's game should be an opportunity to pile up some good statistics if he can stay upright. With Rutgers having so much team speed on defense, they usually look good against the Triple Option, with the biggest worry being how their overmatched OL will be sure to take repeated cheap shots against defensive linemen.
Army is a team on the rise, and will get their share of points and yards. The key will be to stay disciplined on defense, and keep the Black Knights under their season averages in both respects. Rutgers needs to build up an early lead, force them to pass, and control the clock on the day. As of now, RU should be in a good position to score a win in the first ever college football game at the new Meadowlands Stadium. They should have been in a good position to beat Tulane though, so nothing can be taken for granted. Take things one game at a time for now, and just be happy that Rutgers still has an opportunity to be right in the thick of the Big East conference race. We've received a momentary reprieve, and would be well advised not to squander this second chance. There may not end up being a third.