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Rutgers should scrap the spread

My impression is that many popular voices in the college football blogosphere (i.e. Matt Hinton, Brian Cook, and Chris Brown) are reflexively pro-spread, reacting to the perception that the media and/or the NFL are to dismissive of the myriad of non-traditional offensive formations clustered into a concept called the "spread", which often refers to widely disparate attacks. Every so often these and other writers will go out of their way to highlight how the naysayers are wrong and such, hailing the superiority of the new thinking.

In response here I'm not trying to make a general claim about spread effectiveness. This is merely an attempt to give one counterexample, which I do not intend in any way as a definitive argument with broad application. Rather, in one specific instance (although there are similar rumblings out of West Virginia on Jeff Mullen and Bill Stewart), implementing the spread is directly correlated with a deterioration of on-field performance. My belief is that it is the most significant contributing cause of Rutgers football's poor offensive performance over the past year and a half.

In this context, the "spread" isn't exactly even that unconventional. I'm referring to Rutgers running an increasing number of plays out of the Shotgun formation with three or four wide receivers. Here's how the team's offenses have fared each year under Greg Schiano in terms of total yardage.

Year Ranking
2001 115
2002 117
2003 71
2004 40
2005 44
2006 58
2007 18
2008 39
2009 97
2010 113 (to date)

Being worst in the nation in 2001-2002 owed a lot to personnel, but those poor performances cost Bill Cubit his job. Cubit ran more of a West Coast Offense. His replacement, Craig Ver Steeg, preferred to run a conventional attack, but Ryan Hart and the supporting cast back then were better suited to more of a dink and dunk passing game. John McNulty replaced Ver Steeg down the stretch in 2006, to almost immediate results. McNulty was admittedly too in love with throwing low-percentage deep passes, but I liked him overall as a coordinator, and the numbers bear out him being the best Rutgers OC of the past decade.

Bad offensive line play goes hand in hand with the poor offensive performances of the past two years. OL coach Kyle Flood deserves as much, if not more credit than anyone for the program's recent success. He put together three years (2005-2007) of brilliant line play. There was a dropoff in 2008 with three seniors leaving for the NFL, but the young line largely lived up to expectations, improving by the game as the season went on. At that point there was little to no cause for alarm.

Going into last season Rutgers lost a lot of skill position talent (QB Mike Teel, WR Kenny Britt, WR Tiquan Underwood, TE Kevin Brock) to the pros, but the entire offensive line returned, including sophomore AA and future #11 overall pick Anthony Davis. The bigger change was that the offense started to transition away from its past pro-style approach, into more of a spread attack under new co-offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who had famously tutored Joe Flacco at Delaware. While it's not possible to prove a direct causal link, the temporal correlation is hard to ignore. Whether the problem is with the scheme itself or members of the coaching staff, something must be going very wrong to produce the #113 offense in the country.

Not only is the present setup not working, but it's proven spectacularly ineffective. Rutgers is young on offense, and has had a few injuries, but there's no good explanation as to how the unit could be this bad. If the team's offense was even below average, Rutgers would have a winning record right now, and would not have had to sweat out games against inferior competition. There must be a confusion, a mismatch so fundamental that it leaves RU's protection schemes fatally flawed. When you can't pick up rushers, don't leave much protection back to protect the quarterback, and frequently call low-percentage, slow-developing deep passes, it's no wonder that the team ranks dead last in the country in sacks allowed. That remains the case even after Rutgers was forced to mostly throw screens against USF.

For whatever reason, the current setup has not worked out, and Greg Schiano has to make staffing changes after the season to right the ship. There are a myriad of examples from across college football to show the extent of how a good or bad coordinator can impact a team. Ron Zook at Illinois looked to be dead in the water, and has seemingly saved his with assists from Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning. Steve Addazio has proven to be an inadequate replacement for Dan Mullen at Florida. Conversely, Rich Rodriguez built a fabulous offense at Michigan, but their 114th-ranked defense has been that team's Achilles heel.

This is not meant to be a personal missive against Kirk Ciarrocca, or lay all the blame at his feet, but the current setup isn't working and needs to change. Rutgers needs to hire a new offensive coordinator for 2011, one who both (A) has a proven track record of success with a major conference or NFL program (meaning a bigger financial commitment will be necessary), and (B) commits to implementing more of a conventional offensive scheme. While the offensive line has been by far the worst unit for Rutgers this year, I lean towards giving Kyle Flood one more reprieve due to his past success, a desire to keep some continuity, and the difficulty with directly attributing blame for everything that's gone wrong. That's a matter of opinion however, and no team unit this year has performed well enough to be completely above criticism.

As to who could come in next year, that won't be entirely clear until this winter's coaching carousel starts moving into high gear. Louisville and Syracuse for example were able to find some good assistants (Mike Sanford and Scott Shafer respectively) off of the scrap heap. That will probably be a fruitful avenue, but it remains to be seen which programs will clean house besides Minnesota. I.e., any dreams of pulling Mark Whipple away from Miami may not be very realistic. There are other coaches with ties to the Northeast (UVA OC Bill Lazor, Vikings QB coach Kevin Rogers), or perhaps Coach Schiano could open his rolodex and get a recommendation from one of his friends in the profession.

Regardless of what happens, something has to give. Schiano isn't in any danger of being on the hot seat, but he is not above criticism, especially if he decides to stand pat. He is many things, and maybe a little stubborn at times, but he is not blind. The current setup is not tenable, and not functioning on any level. Rutgers needs to make at least one, if not multiple staffing changes after the season in order to resume the program's upward trajectory from the past few seasons. Not making any changes to the status quo are unfathomable, and the hope of cleaning house and starting anew in 2011 is one factor keeping me invested over a final month of the season that's likely to be full of the same Rutgers offensive futility that has been on display all year.