Chris Ash’s home debut at Rutgers did not go exactly as planned. After a terrible start that put Rutgers down 14-0 early in the first quarter, the team fought back to go into halftime tied, but still were making too many mistakes. However, after the half Rutgers finally dominated Howard the way we all hoped they would from the opening kick. They won going away with a 38-0 second half score, which included over 300 yards rushing and holding Howard to 5 total yards in that frame. With Rutgers winning 52-14 and delivering Ash’s first victory as head coach of the program, here are five thoughts I have as the team turns the page to week 3 and New Mexico.
Slow Starts Will Be The Death Of This Team
Rutgers has developed a terrible trend after just two games and that is performing very slow out of the gate, falling behind big early. After trailing Washington 24-0 after the first quarter of game one, Rutgers fell behind by two touchdowns yesterday. Thanks to Janarion Grant’s 84 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Rutgers scored their first points in the opening frame this season. However, Rutgers has now been outscored 38-7 in first quarter action through two games. Turnovers deep in their own territory are a big part of this problem, but I’ll address Chris Laviano in a minute.
As we saw against Washington, this team cannot afford to fall behind by so much against top teams. As we saw yesterday, the power spread is predicated on the run game and getting into a rhythm by dominating time of possession. Rutgers was able to come back against Howard, but they are easily the weakest opponent the Scarlet Knights play all season. Rutgers cannot continue to fall behind by multiple scores against anyone in the Big Ten, as well New Mexico next week. Despite the Lobos heartbreaking one point loss last night to rival New Mexico State, they have scored an average of 39.5 points in their first two games. Rutgers must start games ready to go or it’s going to be a long season.
Tackling And Run Defense Regressed In Game Two
One of the few positives taken from the Washington game was that Rutgers tackled much better than they did all of the previous season. They also did a great job against the Huskies run game, holding star Myles Gaskin to under 60 yards rushing in the contest. Howard then proceeded to run it down Rutgers throats early in the game, as running back Anthony Philyaw rushed for over 100 yards in the first half alone. Both Howard quarterbacks were effective running the ball early as well. Rutgers was getting embarrassed, missing tackles and getting trucked by the opposition, with Anthony Cioffi getting flattened at one point.
The good news is Rutgers came out in the second half and dominated the line of scrimmage. The defensive line wore down Howard and the team tackled much better. However, Rutgers can’t afford to have another half this season where they tackle so poorly or they will get blown out by any opponent they are playing. New Mexico will be a big test for this defense, as they run the option and have rushed for 649 yards in just two games. There are a lot of areas Rutgers needs to improve in, but tackling was one we thought would be much better with Ash in charge. This needs to get fixed fast.
Janarion Grant Is More Valuable To This Team Than Leonte Carroo Was
We all remember last season, when the reality was that the Rutgers offense only went as far as Leonte Carroo could take them. When he was out due to suspension and injury last year, it felt like Rutgers had little chance to score and do damage against their opponents. Carroo left with the most touchdowns for any receiver in program history and he is irreplaceable. After two games, it’s fair to wonder if Rutgers has any receiver on the roster who can emerge as a true deep threat in the passing game.
With all that being said, Janarion Grant has proved after two games that he is even more valuable to this team than Carroo was last season. Grant’s versatility is the difference, as he leads the team in rushing yards, receiving yards, and return yards through two games. He has 409 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns. He can line up all over the field on offense, and has taken snaps directly out of the wildcat formation. The only two things he hasn’t done yet is catch an intermediate to deep pass, or throw a pass himself. Remember, last season even when Grant wasn’t featured on offense like he is now, he threw a touchdown pass in his only attempt.
Without “Janarion The Great” yesterday, Rutgers would have struggled the entire game against Howard. He is the offense right now and coordinator Drew Mehringer must continue to use Grant in different ways to give the opposing defenses multiple looks to prepare for. After his first three touchdown game of his career, Grant is now fourth in program history with 4,005 all-purpose yards. He has ten games of at least 150 all-purpose yards, and Rutgers really needs him to achieve that mark at least another ten times this season. Seriously.
The Offense Needs Multiple Running Threats And Chris Laviano Isn’t One Of Them
The power spread offense needs multiple players to be effective in the run game. Running backs Josh Hicks and Robert Martin, who made his season debut yesterday, are performing right where they have their entire careers, as they both average a familiar 5.4 and 5.5 yards per carry respectively. Grant has a sick 11.2 yards per carry average on 12 carries, and had touchdown runs of 58 yards and 21 yards yesterday.
The problem is that Chris Laviano, who has struggled in multiple areas so far through two games, has not been an effective runner. For the power spread to operate to it’s full potential, the quarterback needs to be a legitimate running threat. The plot thickens as backup Gio Rescigno and true freshman Tylin Oden both saw action yesterday and were very effective in the run game.
Rescigno was triumphant in his lone drive, as he broke three tackles and ran for a 42 yard touchdown that was impressive. Now, I don’t think he breaks those tackles if it came against Big Ten defenses, but Gio is certainly a strong running quarterback. He also ran for a 36 yard touchdown in one scrimmage during training camp.
Oden adds another level of intrigue, as Ash decided to insert him into the game in the 4th quarter and burned his redshirt in the process. This was part of the plan for sure, as Ash indicated in his postgame press conference they wanted to see what Oden could do in a game. He rushed for 55 yards on 9 carries, averaging 6.1 yards per rush. Yes, those numbers came late in the game against an FCS opponent. What impressed me most was his poise and confidence in running the offense, and the power with which he ran. He very much looked the part.
Ash made it clear, Oden has a lot to work on, which includes him learning the offense more in-depth and being effective in the passing game. He did not attempt a pass yesterday. Laviano has stuggled in ball protection early, as he has four turnovers in two games. If that continues, expect Laviano to ultimately lose his job at some point. However, for right now, even if he can correct the ball security issue, it’s fair to expect we will see Gio and Oden featured in certain run packages moving forward. For Mehringer’s offense to be truly effective, the quarterback needs to be a major threat to run. While Laviano did have an 18 yard rush yesterday, he doesn’t have the same burst as the other two. He also took a terrible sack that moved Rutgers out of field goal position. It will be fascinating to watch Ash and Mehringer handle the quarterback position next week and the rest of the season.
A True Second Receiver Must Emerge
Grant leads all Rutgers receivers with 11 receptions and 80 receiving yards. The problem is that no one has stepped into the number two role as of yet. While it was encouraging to see seven different players register a reception yesterday, no one had more than two catches in the game. After Grant, the two players with the most receptions are tight end Nick Arcidiacono and running back Justin Goodwin, who each have 6 catches on the season. While Carlton Agudosi and Andre Patton each caught touchdowns against Howard, they have combined for just 6 receptions and 74 yards through two games. That’s not enough production from the two seniors.
As the competition ramps up, Rutgers cannot have a one dimensional pass offense. We saw the negative effects of that last season when it was Carroo or bust in the pass game. For “Janarion the Great” to be effective against teams like Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan, who are coming after New Mexico, there needs to be other receivers who can do damage as well. Against Washington, Patton and Agudosi never got separation from their defenders and were a non-factor. This is a major concern with this offense.
Promising younger players like Jawuan Harris, who had his first two catches of his career yesterday, including a 29 yard touchdown, and true freshman Dacoven Bailey, may become more of a factor as the season develops. The point is someone needs to, because Grant isn’t the deep threat that Carroo was. We saw how Washington swarmed to Grant when he caught multiple bubble screens last week, leaving him little room to run after the catch. Someone needs to step up and become a legitimate second receiver for whoever is quarterback, whether it’s Laviano, Gio, or Oden. Right now Rutgers needs more playmakers than just Grant, or it will be a struggle on offense all season.