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Football season slipping away following loss to Cincinnati

Bottoming out does not always have to be a bad thing. Seven months ago Rutgers men's basketball was a punching bag, and right now you will not find a team that plays harder. Now, RU fans should not go overboard in their enthusiasm yet. Decreased expectations can only help the program, and future losing streaks and down cycles are inevitable. For the first time in years though, there is cause for optimism, which is more than one could honestly say about the team in some time.

This example serves as a useful case in point for the Rutgers football team after yesterday's lopsided loss against Cincinnati. The right lesson to take from that is not "oh, I guess Rutgers is a basketball school now." It is not time to mope, or to curse and vent.  It is to ask how, constructively, can Rutgers football once again be put in a position to succeed with a quick turnaround in 2011. That is the topic on everybody's mind today, considering that Rutgers just lost to the Big East's (previously) coldest team.

Cincinnati is the Big East's version of baseball's Florida Marlins, and now comes to the time to ask how exactly Rutgers turned into the New York Mets. We were supposed to by the ones trying to do things the right way. This is not the time to cry over spilled milk. Rutgers football needs to undergo a critical, candid self-evaluation, and then analyze, learn from, and address the factors culminating in such a bad season.

Mike Rice's early results are impressive, but he has the benefit of having one of the best staffs in the country to make his job of coaching and recruiting that much easier in his rebuilding job. In contrast, while Rutgers football has spared no expense when it comes to academic support, and have far outpaced basketball in updating and modernizing facilities, Greg Schiano's staff cannot touch Rice's when it comes to credentials. Only one football assistant on staff has worked at another major conference program. Some of these hires have worked out, but others clearly have not. After the Cincinnati loss, Coach Schiano has little choice but to clean house on the offensive side of the ball after the season.

Offensively, while the raw passing numbers against Cincinnati looked good, and produced a lot of points, that total was somewhat misleading. Chas Dodd found Mark Harrison quite a bit, but you have to take into account that Cincinnati's defense is an utter mess. Due to falling behind early and offensive line ineffectiveness, Rutgers quickly had to abandon the run. That made the offense one-dimensional, and further exacerbated all of the ongoing protection issues on offense. The inability/unwillingness to run placed increased pressure on the Rutgers defense. It is textbook, football 101 strategy against a spread to play ball-control offense, and try to keep them off the field.

I did not have issues with the play calling so much as I am continually frustrated with the player development on offense. Cincinnati clearly shows that running a spread can be effective, but with Rutgers the team is seemingly trying to fit square pegs into round holes. They lit up Cincinnati because their defense is profoundly horrible, but they are not doing anything against anyone halfway decent. Do not be fooled by last night's box score. The fundamental problem with Rutgers football right now is still centered on the offensive side of the ball.

That is not to excuse last night's miserable defensive performance, perhaps the worst ever produced by a Greg Schiano defense. Only a week ago Rutgers had mostly held Syracuse in check, although no-doubt aided by SU's awful play calling. Specifically, Syracuse played right into RU's strengths with their ultra-vanilla offense. Rutgers could get comfortable and attack the quarterback, which is precisely what Cincinnati has not allowed the past two years. When the Bearcats spread defenses out, the worry becomes less about going after the quarterback and more about surrendering the inevitable holes in the zone, which came on virtually every play last night.

For his faults, Greg Schiano remains a pretty good defensive mind, so how do explain what just happened? I can think of a few reasons. Without Eric LeGrand, the defensive tackle position on defense has very little depth. Rutgers was generating a fair bit of pressure in the first quarter, but Cincinnati's no huddle clearly tired them out as the game went on. Unfortunately, LeGrand's absence is going to be an even bigger obstacle on the field in 2011, when he would have been counted on to be one of RU's best players and inevitably a team captain.

Cincinnati has faltered this year because, despite their strong talent at the offensive skill positions, their offensive line is a freakin' mess. Not Rutgers-level bad mind you, but undoubtedly one of the worst in the country. Take away that handicap, and it is little surprise that their offense was unstoppable. It is not just about sacks. If Zach Collaros is uncomfortable and has to force throws, a good portion of those completions to Armon Binns and D.J. Woods sail off into the sidelines instead. There would be less time to the secondary to make mistakes in coverage. Not only does Isaiah Pead have to deal with more safety help in the box, but a fresher line would be far more effective.

Other notes, abridged this week because I want to forget this game as soon as possible:

  • Possibly the only thing worse than the game was ESPN+'s broadcast. Not having the game in HD is old hat at this point, but the broadcast's production values were terrible, with frequent on-screen mistakes. The Z-grade, clearly-inexperienced announcers did little better.
  • It was another bad game for tight end D.C. Jefferson. I hope his talent can win over his inexperience in 2011.
  • Teddy Dellaganna sat out again injured. Does anyone know why Joe Lefeged stopped returning kicks after some early success?
  • If there was one defensive bright spot, Justin Francis made a few plays. He always seems to have a knack for doing that. Now if we had more than Francis and Scott Vallone returning next year. I wish the staff would work more youngsters into the mix, especially now that a bowl bid is out of the picture.
  • Mohamed Sanu has always been impressive as a passer, and I remain convinced that he could start at QB for a spread option team.
  • Dodd works play action well. Why does Kirk Ciarrocca call less of it for Tom Savage?

Victory against Louisville this week is not out of the question, in fact I would not be surprised at all by a win. The damage has been done though, both from this loss and from the cumulative effects of a forgettable, miserable year. Rutgers football is deeply troubled at the moment, and heads are probably going to roll as soon as the season ends. Coach Schiano is more than capable of getting out of this mess, which has undeniably hurt the program, but has not yet created insurmountable obstacles. This is fixable, but the solution requires an acknowledgment of past mistakes, and commitment to address those faults accordingly. Time will tell what happens, but I think Rutgers football will be in for a hectic and eventful December. Resolution is right around the corner, but could not seem further away in this fog.