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Rutgers outlasts Syracuse for hard-fought victory

How fitting was it, that on a day that Syracuse branded N"ew York's College Team Day," Staten Island's own Edmond Laryea walked out of the Carrier Dome a hero? The sixth-year senior, a coaches' favorite who has battled numerous injuries throughout his career, was only playing after cramps forced starter Khaseem Greene to the sidelines. Rutgers had just seemingly shot itself in the foot yet again, settling for a field goal as a result of questionable play calling. If Syracuse tasted the end zone, Rutgers would go home a loser in possibly its last game ever in Central New York. Laryea would not have any of that, stripping the ball from explosive Syracuse back Antwon Bailey, and furthering Rutgers's campaign of redemption to put 2010 firmly in the past for good.

This may be the understatement of the year, but yesterday's game was not pretty at times. Both Rutgers and Syracuse committed countless turnovers, and were not far off from many more. Each team squandered countless opportunities to win the game that were handed to them on a silver platter. Rutgers repeatedly drove down the field in the first half with little to show for it on the scoreboard. Syracuse squandered multiple momentum-swinging turnovers, and a crucial Ryan Nassib turnover in the red zone negated what was about to be a sure victory. In that respect, this contest was in many ways a repeat of the 2010 game between Rutgers and Syracuse in Piscataway, with the main difference being that this time Rutgers benefited from special teams miscues instead of succumbing to them. Believe it or not, these are two solid football teams.

One thing that did not make an awful lot of sense yesterday was all the criticism directed towards the Rutgers coaching staff. Greg Schiano handles the defense, and preaches aggression on special teams. Those units did their jobs yesterday for the most part. Not every decision was sound (Schiano showed far too much confidence in San San Te given his shaky track record), but some of the knee-jerk criticism in the moment was far over the top. Pulling a shaky and inconsistent Chas Dodd for true freshman Gary Nova worked out well. There may be repercussions to that hook in the coming weeks, but Dodd was clearly rattled, and is still a work in progress. Likely, the same qualifier still applies to Nova. A third straight year of quarterback controversy as not exactly a welcome sight, but it's a better discussion to be having than trying to dissect a loss.

Another coach who showed more good than bad yesterday was offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Look at the underlying stats! RU squandered its large yardage edge in the second half, but still had a significant advantage in first downs and time of possession. It's not clear what fourth quarter/overtime the critics were watching, but Cignetti sticking with the run early despite its lack of success had two clear objectives. One, it tired out the Syracuse defense for the second half. Rutgers dominated the fourth quarter, and that was not by accident. This also had the added bonus of keeping the opportunistic Knight defense fresh and rested. RU could have just as easily scored 16 points with Kirk Ciarrocca and the spread from hell, but if they do that yesterday, they lose 40-16. Come on! RU ran 31 more plays than Syracuse!

Secondly, the strategy kept Syracuse defensive coordinator/mad blitzing scientist Scott Shafer from being able to tee off on Chas Dodd, which is what basically ended up happening in the second half. If Cignetti can be faulted, it's mainly for abandoning the run in the second half, which allowed Shafer to rattle Dodd and disrupt RU's pass protection. You understand the temptation, because RU needed to put up points after SU's second touchdown, but in retrospect, it was a bit of a panic move. The constant low-percentage shots downfield are just as annoying now as they were under John McNulty, although they are nice when they connect once in a blue moon, and maybe RU eventually gets hot again ala 2008. It makes sense that Cigs wanted to establish a downfield threat and pick on Syracuse's injured secondary, but Rutgers again squandered too many downs. Still, if that's the price we have to pay to avoid not overexposing the defense, it's well worth the cost.

Syracuse recorded five sacks, but in vacuum, the pass protection wasn't that bad. Syracuse blitzes a lot, and at least one was from Jawan Jamison not picking up his man. Chas Dodd had plenty of time to throw in the first half; the problem just was that it was at the cost of Jamison continually hitting a wall at the line of scrimmage. Once that threat of a run to keep SU honest was out with RU down by a few scores, RU became completely one-dimensional, and THAT's when Shafer really started bringing the house. There clearly are still significant OL issues, but a lot of the focus here is misguided. Against most teams, they'd be fine. Using tight ends/fullbacks to chip helps in that respect, as does not taking a ton of five and seven step drops. Everything sure would be a lot better if RU could actually run block, if only so play action was more of a legitimate threat.

Additional thoughts:

  • Chas Dodd was clearly rattled by the pressure. Again, he's a true sophomore, and will have his ups and downs. As shaky as he was (very, very fortunate to not avoid more interceptions), he at least had a decent half before immolating in the third. Dodd wasn't nearly as bad as Ryan Nassib yesterday. Interestingly enough, Schiano was non-committal as to the starter against Pitt in his post-game comments. Gary Nova showed surprising touch on his deep passes given his reported lack of arm strength, but honestly, that's more of a concern with defensive backs possibly jumping routes on his out passes. He was not rattled in a hostile environment, very much resembling the passer seemingly never lost at Don Bosco Prep (with the notable exception of clock management.)
  • Neither Jawan Jamison, nor Savon Huggins can run behind this OL right now. Huggins and Jeremy Deering didn't see many touches. Jamison can't really be faulted for coughing up the ball following Dyshawn Davis's MONSTER hit (actually, one of two on the day, along with a few sacks.) Bet that New Jerseyan was miffed about not getting offered by his home state school? Frank Cignetti seemed to be lining the backs out wide a lot. Joe Martinek had a nice day on the ground and as a receiver, but one wonders when looking at the running game how RU would fair with more of a blocking option.
  • What more can be said about Mohamed Sanu? Syracuse was focusing on him all game, and he still caught a touchdown along with making a highlight-reel sidelines catch. Quron Pratt had a nice little game as well. Mark Harrison caught one bomb (getting the benefit of a push-off, as tall receivers are apt to), but he and Brandon Coleman keep missing those deep catches by inches. Once again, the tight ends were invisible, and D.C. Jefferson negated a big play with a bad blocking penalty far from the action.
  • Nate Hackett is a crummy offensive coordinator and all, but Greg Schiano's defense rose to the occasion. Steve Beauharnais was all over the field, with probably his best game since his monster stretch late in 2009. Tackles Scott Vallone and Justin Francis are usually standouts, and defensive backs like Logan Ryan did a nice job of bottling up the Orange skill players when challenged.
  • Not a great day for the referees on both sides. RU was gifted a roughing the kicker penalty (should have been running into the kicker), and Harrison's big catch should have been offensive pass interference. The fumble call on Nova was ridiculous. While he is a dolt for trying to throw the ball away while in the grasp, his arm was clearly moving forward on the replay; it wasn't even in question. Some fans were also saying that Steve Beauharnais was unfairly penalized on Marcus Cooper's field goal block. There was contact that happened far from the play, which is always awful, but that rule exists to reduce injuries. Perhaps Stevie B was pushed into an Orange player, but it was not clear on the replay.
  • While it is unbecoming for anyone associated with Rutgers to acknowledge Syracuse as a football rival, who among us is not breathing a sigh of relief of avoiding a year of second-guessing, and being able to firmly defend our recruiting turf in the NYC metro area? This game was a slugfest, as this series has been of late in games not involving Greg Robinson. Doug Marrone's team was undisciplined yesterday, and their roster is thin, but Syracuse is heading in the right direction. Their luck just ran out momentarily yesterday. It just is not going to happen at RU's expense. Anti-Yankee bias is so pervasive in college football that their prospects in the ACC are being unfairly discounted. Syracuse football will do fine, and we should wish them well for escaping a conference beholden to Providence College.
  • This was just as important for program momentum for attendance (which will be depressed by Yom Kippur), and should help things next week for Pitt. As for that game, who the heck knows at this point? The Panthers have a plethora of weaknesses, but Ray Graham is crazy good, and who among us doesn't wish he were wearing Scarlet? A hearty thanks for shutting up the perennial conference paper tigers in South Florida however, and for all of the work Steve Pederson did over the summer attempting to save Big East football while John Marinatto and Villanova were successfully destroying it.
  • Other thought from yesterday: both UConn and Louisville are bad, but at least the Cardinals have hope for 2012. Paul Pasqualoni might join Minnesota's Jerry Kill as one of the two BCS conference coaches who only last one season before being fired this year.
  • Hey, ESPN+ finally has HD! The Big East Network announcing team was as bad as ever though. Why can't they bring back Dave Sims, who actually was good at his job? It's not like the Mariners are doing much of anything in the postseason.
  • The official game report says Myles Jackson and Daryl Stephenson burned their redshirts.
  • Thank goodness there are no more stupid sideline audibles, although any Mohamed Sanu-related trickery is still terrifying - both for its low percentages, and the possibility of Sanu getting injured. And that's from someone who thinks Sanu is a respectable passer and could play quarterback for a spread option team.
  • The moment where Greg Schiano looked like he was going to pull a Dave Wannstedt and go for it on fourth down in overtime was positively frightening. Schiano has his pluses and minuses as a coach, but he usually had Wannstedt's number for a good reason: his decisions usually aren't that inexplicable. Still, I'll be recuperating at Robert Wood Johnson's cardiac ward for the next several days if anyone needs me.