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Rutgers Football Film Review: A closer look at the back 7

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DBs/LBs report card against the Hoosiers and Spartans

NCAA Football: Indiana at Rutgers
Jones TD were 36 of the 420 yards allowed through the air.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Immediately after the final onside kick was recovered by Indiana, I expressed to those around me that Rutgers loss to Indiana was due to one thing: the seven (7) straight three and outs from the Scarlet Knights offense (not a misprint). All when they had a chance to extend their lead or later retake it. Then I started looking at the stats that were a complete mixed bag: 420 passing yards?, 3.3 yards per carry but 147 rushing yards??, Rutgers made 93 tackles in 1 game?!?! including 13 for loss?!?!?!?!?!

The Indiana game was rough enough and having to re-watch Michigan State was death by a thousand paper cuts. That said, I had to make sense of the uneven performance of the linebackers and safeties. In both games the panel of one noted pluses and minuses based on what coaches preach and review in the film room: assignment, alignment, technique.

Key play #1 v IU: 1st and 10, ball at IU 41, 11:29 left in Q1, game tied 0-0.

On the first Touchdown, RU was not set prior to the snap so it was not clear who had the outside containment. Roberts ended up chasing the QB running off tackle to his right and as the MLB who should be aligning the team he gets the blame (assign -1/align -1). IU up 6-0.

Key play #2 v IU: 3rd and 11, ball at RU 37, 10:06 left in Q1, game tied 7-7.

IU had 3 receivers bunched to the left, with a WR right and RB to the right of the shotgun QB. RU was in it’s base cover 2 with Maddox-Williams on the inside receiver. RU rushed 4 and the RB stayed in to block giving the QB plenty of time. Hampton and Maddox-Williams (assign +1) went with one receiver who went deep left. Austin (tech -1) got caught too far behind his man who cut inside thus picking off Austin with Hampton and Maddox-Williams (tech -1).

This still should have been ok because Cioffi was the other half of the cover 2 but took a poor angle (assign/tech -1) allowing the catch then made things worse by missing the tackle (tech -1 more). This miss and subsequent bump accelerated Jones in the opposite direction of Austin who had recovered nicely (tech +1). Neither Maddox-Williams nor Hampton (tech -1) noticed quickly enough and were blocked by one guy allowing Jones to score. IU up 13-7.

Key play #3 v IU: 2nd and 13, ball at RU 23, 4:48 left in Q2, Indiana up 13-10.

RU was in nickel, Indiana had 2 receivers right plus two backs (one an extra lineman) to the right of the QB. Four lineman downblocked to the left occupying 3 RU DL. The pulling guard ran right past Pinnix-Odrick, attempting to make a second level block on Trevor Morris as Deonte Roberts (tech +1) had already gotten outside after the QB pitched too early seeing Pinnix-Odrick (align +1, assign +1) in his face. The Running Back cut back to avoid Roberts running right back into Pinnix-Odrick (tech +1) who spun him around aided by Joseph (tech +1) hustling in pursuit who went for the strip. The ball ended up on the turf and Davis (assign +1) in back side pursuit scooped and score 6. This was a 10 point swing with IU in FG range. RU 16 - IU 13.

Key play #4 v IU: 2nd and 13, RU 40, 6:41 left in Q3, RU up 24-13.

This was killer #1. RU was in nickel, Indiana had 2 receivers right plus two backs (one being a TE) to the left of the QB. A play action fake didn’t fool anybody, but RU had no pass rush. The QB made the only throw he had which was a deep sideline throw to the right. Wharton was engaged with the receiver (align +1), in good position (assign +1), but he never looked back (tech -1) and the receiver jumped over him making a great catch then falling into the endzone without stepping out of bounds with Hampton (tech -.5) taking an angle that was one step off of perfect. RU 24-19.

Key play #5 v IU: 1st and 10, RU 39, 2:09 left in Q3, RU up 24-20.

RU was in nickel, Indiana had 2 receivers right plus two backs (one being a TE) to the left of the QB. A simple dive left went the distance as everyone on Indiana blocked someone. Rutgers players were standing too upright (likely due to the fatigue of so many aforementioned offensive 3 and outs) and were just washed out of the play. Both Hogan (tech -1) and Roberts (tech -1) did not hold their ground at all and were forced outside creating the running lane. Hampton had a late shot to make a play but could not with a free lineman 35 yards downfield coming right at him. IU 26- RU 24.

Key play #6 v IU: 3rd and 5, RU 10, 5:11 left in Q4, IU up 26-24.

IU was in shotgun with only a flexed TE and RB to the left of the QB. RU was in a nickel with a 40 front. At the snap Roberts moved to his left in a zone at the line to gain. Morris was in a delayed blitz. Hester took the TE on a slant over the middle leaving RU vulnerable to the wheel route which was the responsibility of Turay (assign -1). Turay initially pass rushed as he saw the RB’s first step looking more to be that of blocking but then the RB ran into the open space and Turay could not recover. It was simply the right play call by Indiana against the defensive play call by RU. This is the risk you run of a guy who hasn’t played much football in his life while also being injured most of the year.

Key play #1 v MSU: 3rd and 4, ball at MSU 32, 14: 25 left in Q1 Game Tied 0-0.

Michigan State decided to pass RU rushed 4, MSU kept in an extra back to block. The pass to Scott was at his feet and he may have not gotten the first down anyway. Every LB/DB (Assign +1, Align +1, Tech +1). Defensive line gets no credit here as they put no pressure on the QB (partially fearing a run) and completely relied on the back 7.

Overall on the first drive Michigan State looked overall as dysfunctional as Rutgers has for the last 2 seasons (other than when Carroo was on the field). Still 0-0.

Key play #2 v MSU: 3rd and Goal, ball at RU 2, 8:21 left in Q1, Game Tied 0-0.

On the first 3rd down the Spartans faced on the drive, MSU had 3 receivers left, 1 TE right, with 1 RB to the right of the shotgun QB. RU was in base defense Man Spy Cover 1 (safety cheating to the 3 receiver side) with two linebackers assigned the QB and RB respectively. RU slanted right leaving Cioffi on the tight end all alone as Morris (assign +1) vacated his position to pick up the running back flaring out. Cioffi did his best (tech +0) to stay with the TE but had no LB help (Roberts in spy: assign +0) or safety help (Hampton on other side: align -1). A perfect throw to the back of the endzone and Price caught his first TD. MSU up 6-0.

Key play #3 v MSU: 2nd and 12, ball at the 50, 5:34 left in Q1, MSU up 14-0.

This was a well-designed play and one I hope RU adds to their playbook. MSU had 2 backs and 3 tight ends in the game. Rutgers was in Cover 1 with Hamilton and Pinnix-Odrick stunting on the strong side. They key block had to come (and did) from Delton Williams who had to fill the spot vacated by the pulling left guard on the aforementioned stunting Pinnix-Odrick. With that block, O’Connor had plenty of time because of the traffic to his left, Pinnix-Odrick being blocked, and Hamilton not rushing upfield as he worked to ensure he had the outside contain. All three linebackers stayed home, fooled by the pulling guard on the counter play-action fake so they simply waited for the two running backs to flare out which never happened.

The Rutgers DBs initially held their assignments, but Cioffi (tech -1) poorly tried to jump the route expecting he had safety help over the top but Hampton (assign -.5) had drifted to help Damon Hayes. A perfect play call and perfectly executed over the shoulder pass to the opposite sideline turned into 6. Result MSU now up 20-0.

Key play #4 v MSU: 3rd and Goal, ball at RU 4, 7:14 left in Q2, MSU up 21-0.

Rutgers was completely on the ropes and really needed a stop to halt some of the momentum and give themselves a chance to regroup. MSU was in a weak I formation at the center of the field. Rutgers was in a base Cover 1 with Hester as the 8th man in the box on the tight end. MSU down-blocked to the right, doubling both RU DTs. The H back had RU DE Darnell Davis who initially maintained outside containment on the opposite side by simply standing on the edge until he saw the play-action fake to the right at which point he tried to bull rush. The H back’s block was just enough to slow him down allowing O’Connor to bootleg to his left.

The Rutgers LB on that side (appearing to be Roberts: tech +1) flowed properly preventing a QB TD run, but Hampton (assign/tech -1) got caught in no man’s land perhaps not confident Roberts would take the QB leaving him unable to assist Hester chasing the TE on a crossing route. Hester had an initial jam (assign +1) and was overpowered yet was still in decent position (tech +0) but had to try jump the route. The ball was thrown perfectly to a good receiving TE and it was now 27-0.

Note, there may have been guys who had a few plays including special teams that may be omitted. The special teams aspect applies more to LBs and DBs than any other position group since they participate in the most units but I did not cover that here.

Linebackers: (Roberts C, Morris C-, Maddox-Williams B)

The linebackers did just not enough in the game against Indiana, but were not good enough against MSU. Against IU the defensive line was occupying a lot of blockers (what’s new?) and the linebackers did respond with plenty of (assisted) tackles. Morris 10 (5 solo), Roberts 8 (3 solo), Maddox-Williams 4 (1 solo) on paper is not encouraging. Roberts did add a pick.

Michigan State employs more man than zone blocking and they did a better job (partially on scheme alone) of man blocking against RU’s front. Therefore, the linebackers had to take on a lot more blockers, especially linemen. They did not succeed and what is even more disparaging is that when they did get to the ball carrier in a lane, multiple times players were knocked backward and had to hold on for dear life. This happened to Tyreek Maddox-Williams (6 tackles) once, but Roberts (17 tackles!?!?!) was also victimized. Morris (11 tackles) still needs to get stronger and this isn’t the first game we have seen like this from him. Roberts and Morris playing before they are fully ready is discussed in the 2015 recruiting class review coming next week.

Defensive backs: C (Hester C+, Cioffi C-, Hampton B-, Wharton B-, Austin B, Hayes B+,) Unit synergy C.

The defensive backs had been steadily improving since week 1, but still have a lot of room for improvement as evidenced by the game against Indiana. The starting corners stuffed the stat sheet: Austin (3 PBU, 7 tackles, 1 sack), Wharton (7 solo tackles, 1 TFL, 1 blocked FG). Hayes 2 PBU was also notable but just goes to show how many completed passes and perimeter runs reached the secondary.

At safety, it was nice having the top three safeties all in uniform for IU ... the first time this year? Hampton had a nice INT. Against Michigan State we saw bad angles and resulting tackling that have plagued this team for the last 4 years, Hester (7 tackles) and Cioffi (only 1 tackle) getting victimized time and time again. Hampton is a little better but as called out against Indiana isn’t a surefire tackler quite yet. Wharton (4 tackles, 1 QB hurry) and Hayes (10 tackles, one for loss starting for an injured Austin) played OK, surrendering key completions but not completely blowing assignments so there is room for hope.

The communication has improved even though a few places mentioned above highlighted mistakes. (In the earlier blowout against Washington, it was horrendous resulting in so many long gains in the passing game for the Huskies.) Three key plays listed above showed that a perfect throw will beat a defense almost every time exemplifying why RU’s offensive struggles are so crushing.

Overall assessment: My initial thought on the Indiana game still proved to be the biggest culprit which Michigan State picked up on and completely stonewalled the RU offense for all four quarters. That said, the defense needs to make a few plays to flip field position or shift momentum which they absolutely did against Indiana but did not against Michigan State. It will continue to be difficult to really compare RU’s defense to that of other B1G teams until they have some semblance of an offense that can give the defense a rest, get the other teams offense out of sync waiting on the sidelines, and most importantly put itself in some obvious passing situations where the defensive linemen can attack the QB rather than having to wait to react in the event of a run. This M.I.A. pass rush puts a lot of pressure on the back 7 as you see from the key plays listed above.

One season ago in the middle of training camp, 3 starters and 1 backup were kicked off the team thrusting true freshmen into the secondary. Then this year all three starting linebackers had to be replaced. This is not a recipe for success. With another spring under their belts and virtually everybody back, these units will look better in 2017.