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Rutgers/FIU recap

Going through the DVR or ESPN 3 today was already a remote possibility because of not having a four day weekend. After last night's awful offensive performance against FIU, Rutgers fans will not even want to relive the game's defensive highlights. It was a largely forgettable affair, but one that the Rutgers football team and coaching staff must urgently dissect over the coming two weeks before UNC rolls into Piscataway.

Last night's offensive performance (172 total yards, three turnovers) was so bad that I was genuinely curious to see where it ranked on the pantheon of recent offensive futility here. Mike Teel famously went into a funk after his meltdown against UNC two years ago to this very game, not snapping out of it until six weeks later against Pittsburgh. Everybody thought that was rock bottom for the offense, but cracking 200 yards on that side of the ball would look pretty good right about now.

While Tom Savage does not have the benefit in playing with Kenny Britt, who was always by far the best player on the field in those games, his performance against FIU was worse than anything we saw from Teel in 2008. It was more reminiscent of Teel in 2006, and Rutgers no longer has a bruising running game to hide that glaring weakness. Mike's game that year against Ohio (6 for 16, 83 yards, 3 INT)  will probably remain unmatched as the team's worst QB performance in recent memory, but unfortunately that is at least now a valid comparison.

The question on everybody's mind today is just, well, "what the hell is wrong with the offense?" The run blocking remains awful. Television viewers usually could not see downfield, and hence can't tell whether any receivers were open, but Tom Savage sure seemed to spent a lot of time hanging back in the pocket and going through his read progression. Supposedly the team's gameplan had to be thrown out because FIU's new defensive coordinator acted nothing like they had expected. It sure looked like that; but isn't that failure an indictment of the Rutgers coaching staff? How do you explain a subpar performance last week against Norfolk then?

Empirically, panic is the worst possible response to any sort of crisis. Right now the season is being evaluated off of only a two-game sample size, and there are certainly a multitude of valid causes or explanations to explain the current offensive malaise. It's not one general failure, but rather, death by a thousand paper cuts. However, one cannot escape the conclusion that the current course of action is both not working, and not by any means sustainable as the team's schedule grows tougher in the coming months.

Yes, the Rutgers offense is very young, but most of its players do not appear to be progressing on pace to where they ought to be (as compared to the FBS average) at the moment. The offensive game plans are not producing effective outcomes. While it's impossible for fans to determine who should be at fault, anybody's first instinct here is to question the offensive coaching staff, and their supervisor in head coach Greg Schiano. Whatever the cause, something clearly is not working at the moment, and the necessary corrections need to be made over the coming bye week.

Honestly, I expected a close game going this one. 19-14 would have been fine under different circumstances, but not after watching that catastrophe. At least the Knights came away with the win, and nobody will care how if they keep that up, but it's definitely time to worry now. The Norfolk State game was never really in doubt, but this one was. Rutgers would have absolutely lost to a better opponent last night. The Rutgers defense is good, but the offense is unconscionably bad. The offense is young, and will improve with more experience, but the schedule is about to get a lot tougher too. They can't exactly count on a 2008-style turnaround at this point, even if those have happened in the past.

Even though FIU struggled last year, I do like Mario Cristobal from his time at Rutgers, so hopefully they will make this near-loss look not as bad in the coming weeks. They have a tough OOC slate coming up, with consecutive road games at Texas A&M, Maryland, and Pitt. Hey, with yesterday's upsets (Minnesota, VT, and even Georgia Tech considering that Kansas just lost to a FCS team), you never know. Everybody's still trying to get a handle on how good most teams are, without a great basis for comparison this early into the season. Hey, at least the rest of the Big East teams have their own fatal flaws to deal with.

Based on FIU there aren't many reasons for optimism against UNC. Home field advantage will help, although not as much if the crowd is sitting on their hands or despondent over falling into an early hole. LSU was as bad at Rutgers on offense last year, and they moved the ball on an undermanned Tar Heel defense, but who knows at this point how that's going to play out with all the suspensions and such. You won't be able to garner much against an option opponent in Georgia Tech.

Here are a couple thoughts about various tweaks and adjustments:

  • Obviously it would be great to get tight end D.C. Jefferson more involved in the offense, who continues to make the most of his limited touches. That Sanu pass out of the Wildcat was a thing of beauty, and D.C. also had that long reception last week. The media is always mentioning how great he looks in practice. He could have had another big play if not for a Savage overthrow. Even with his poor play, there was not a scarier moment than when Savage rolled his ankle.
  • Most of Sanu's damage came in the Wildcat. That early checkdown was ugly, and Savage's bomb into double coverage was awful. It was good to at least see Harrison involved early. Deering was targeted, and had a drop.
  • It was questionable whether Laryea's supposed effectiveness against Norfolk was the result of their defense tiring out, but he again seemed to help the running game a lot when he was in last night. Wasn't sure why they went away from that after it looked somewhat effective.
  • I wouldn't mind seeing a few high percentage plays either to get the offense into a rhythm. Rollouts would be good if PA is ever a threat. The FIU defense was crowding the line a lot last night, so I wanted to see a few quick slants, if the receivers could handle them. I'd also like to see RB screens balanced out throughout the game, but Jordan Thomas dropped a few of those in the opener. Maybe they should try Thomas on an inside draw now and then.
  • The OL depth chart is reshuffling in interesting ways with Watkis out. Antwan Lowery took over for Caleb Ruch at right guard, so that is something else to watch going forward. I remember a really bad inside rush in the third quarter, and forget who was in at RG at that time. Pass protection isn't exactly 2006/2007 grade, but it's not as profoundly bad as the run blocking right now. FIU's defense lived in the Rutgers backfield all night, and rarely guessed wrong. The fumbled snap at the start of the second half was on Howard Barbieri, who had a couple botched ones on the game. That killed RU's momentum and let FIU score.
  • Thankfully Martinek's injury isn't serious. He is what he is, but most of last night's struggles again go on the OL. Thomas had the second gear that Joe lacks, but he looks more like a receiver at this point with his lack of power. It was reported last week that Casey Turner is going to miss an uncertain amount of time. He could have been a big contributor this year out of the backfield. A redshirt is far from a certainty if he comes back, considering that Rutgers could really use another runner right now.

In contrast to the above, last night's defensive performance was rather good.

  • Allowing 371 total yards is rather misleading. The offensive provided awful field position all night long, and more importantly, failed to sustain drives and eat up the clock. The defense looked awfully tired as a result, with the Miami heat not helping in that respect. They don't miss that many tackles fresh.
  • With all of the aggression on defense, they're not a great match up against a passing spread. FIU is no Cincinnati and still gave them fits. We'll need a new game plan for the remaining spread offenses on the schedule.
  • Look at it like this: the defense forced five turnovers (plus the two punt blocks). If the offense was anywhere close to average, they convert some of that into points early, and eat some clock. Then the defense can play with a lead, forcing FIU to pass, and really go after Wes Carroll.
  • That being said, I thought the pass rush was pretty good (Silvestro and Vallone forced the pick on the very first play of the game). I counted several hurries, which should eventually start turning into sacks. There were a couple breakdowns, but a lot of that does go on the offense for the above reasons. Freeney, a DE, was in coverage on that Harden reception. Noonan, LeGrand, and Francis again made a few plays.
  • Again, it's Lowery and Beauharnais carrying the day in the linebacking corps, with Abreu quiet and nondescript.
  • The bottom line is that they only gave up 14 points, and weren't responsible for a good portion of that. Last week's success on third down wasn't sustainable, and the second half proved that you can't always live and die by forcing turnovers.
  • Joe Lefeged was the player of the game with his interception, two forced fumbles, and two blocked punts. Certainly, coverage and run support are very important parts of playing safety, but he has a nose for the football that brought to mind Courtney Greene. Brandon Bing had his pick, but also gave a few passes back in coverage. There were a few misplays by Rowe too. There was a very questionable non-call on Bing for PI, but it seemed like our receivers were getting mugged too. Khaseem had his moments. Usual caveats apply when evaluating DBs, considering that the camera does not pan downfield on every play.
  • T.Y. Hilton has shaky hands, but he is shifty. Shades of Yamon Figurs or Josh Cribbs when they played Rutgers. We we had him.

Other thoughts:

  • It was a decent bounce back game for Te. It's too much to expect the really long kicks, but Rutgers needs him to at least hit the low 40s ones.
  • Dellaganna has a good leg, but I'm scared that his long windup is going to get blocked at some point. Didn't even try much in the way of directional kicking. That Sanu punt was pretty sweet too, as a nice wrinkle.
  • Hilton is dangerous and all, but those short kickoffs were more trouble than they were worth in terms of field position. For what it's worth the one long kickoff actually worked.
  • Man, the announcers were terrible, as they were all throughout last year. I sure do miss Dave Sims, who was great. The broadcast graphics had frequent errors, and game plan not bothered with HD wasn't great either.
  • The spread on this game kept dropping as kickoff approached, and Vegas proved to be right this time.
  • White on White or Scarlet on Scarlet uniforms usually are bad luck, aren't they?