Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann was under a lot of fire last year (though not as much as Drew Mehringer), but he has rebounded nicely in 2017 to the point that some OTB commenters have worried he could get scooped up by another, bigger program. I’ve been very impressed by the defensive game plans, even last week when RU was defeated after confusing Penn State early in the contest. The plan against Purdue was probably the number one difference in that victory, and ever since that game, I had the Indiana game circled on my calendar thinking Rutgers would certainly employ the same tactics. BUT ...
The current forecast for Saturday’s tilt in Bloomington between Rutgers and Indiana is 58 degrees at kickoff, 75% chance of rain, and 17 mph winds. So like any good armchair quarterback, fantasy sports guru, Vegas odds-maker, or coach creating a defensive game plan, I’m glad I checked.
At safety, K.J. Gray was out last week as it’s believed he is still in concussion protocol. He could be back against Indiana. Saquan Hampton returned to limited action in a small role a week ago. So small I didn’t properly include him in my defensive report card, but his role should grow, if healthy. During the game week press conference, both Ash and Niemann hinted that if Gray, Hampton, and Hester are good to go, Jawuan Harris could move back to aid an ailing passing offense.
At cornerback, Zane Campbell appears to be the slot corner with Dacoven Bailey getting some snaps in obvious passing downs. Bailey is primarily a wide receiver, so his role on defense is situational because he doesn’t get full time in the defensive meeting rooms.
In the front seven, all linebackers appear to be healthy enough to play meaningful roles other than Tyreek Maddox-Williams. On the defensive line, Kemoko Turay looked healthier last week than the week before. Sebastian Joseph is still recovering from a broken hand, but has continued to play with a cast as needed.
Blessuan Austin and Maddox-Williams remain out for the season but by this juncture, most teams have at least two presumed starters done for the year. so Rutgers as a whole on defense is about as healthy as can be expected.
Indiana’s running game is led by freshman Morgan Ellison, but there is a major statistical drop off after that. Mike Majette is the third back and has played well against RU the last few years when he can get in space. So the dilemma Niemann faces is whether to play linebackers and safeties tightly in the box and dare Indiana to throw downfield or play back and wait for the Hoosiers to make a mistake. The danger here is that with less bodies in the box, Indiana’s backs will have more space to make plays, especially as the Hoosier line has shown good ability to pull and block players at the second, even third levels.
Indiana has two excellent receivers, Luke Timian and Simmie Cobbs, Jr. Cobbs is a beast at 6’4, 220, so when a smaller DB is on him, a safety will need to be on alert on that side. Timian is more than capable of beating single coverage, all Indiana’s backs can get loose in the passing game, and they have an underrated tight end in Ian Thomas. So overall, it’s pick your poison, but the elements could be Rutgers’s number one ally in this contest. Rutgers defense has been able to generate interceptions and pass deflections which become more of a possibility when the quarterback’s throw may get blown away from its intended trajectory.
Indiana can pile up yardage, but is also susceptible to getting off schedule. So if Rutgers can have a good day on special teams (tougher to do in bad weather) they will make Indiana drive the length of the field where something can go wrong. Rutgers has also been able to get tough once opponents near field goal range and holding opponents to three points in the red zone.
If the weather was expected to be good, I’d be very confident Rutgers would employ the 30 fronts used against Penn State and Purdue where the rush end (usually Turay) would be standing up rather than in a three point stance, normally rushing but occasionally dropping into coverage. Then the opposite linebacker often crept up to the line upright also so there were five players at the line of scrimmage. With no in line tight end, it was difficult for backs to identify who was coming as the 4th man which had consequences in pass protection and in the run game. C.J. Onyechi had his huge tackle for loss on Saquon Barkley on a play like this. As did Darnell Davis Jr., pictured above.
If Rutgers has their 4th man standing up, it’s easier for a blocker to get leverage to block him. So Indiana should combat this by playing tight end Thomas on the line itself, which may force Rutgers to play four down linemen. If Rutgers front three can occupy five blockers like they did against Penn State and Purdue, Indiana will likely need to keep Thomas in to block and reduce his impact as a safety valve. If not, then before starting his pass route, Thomas will only have to chip the defensive end making it easier for the offensive tackle to block. That is of course unless Kemoko Turay is fully healthy because when he is, no one man can block him “easily.”
If RU can get pressure and or occupy the entire line with Wilkins, Bateky, Joseph and their backups, there will be plenty of options for the LBs and safeties. Rutgers may need to play four down linemen or could a card they have not done yet this year, a 3-4 look that has count them, 4 linebackers. That would be a gamble against an evenly matched opponent, but I trust Jay Niemann at least discussed the possibilities. With so many healthy ‘backers, some of which have shown promise on special teams, perhaps this is the day Tyshon Fogg or Olakunle Fatukasi get time alongside Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris. I doubt this could happen, but Niemann has surprised us before.
The importance of three healthy safeties is that not only do you always need a backup if a starter were to get injured, Rutgers has already shown a package of plays where all three are on the field. Sometimes this is a nickel package with Ross Douglas effectively a safety, while other times especially against Purdue we saw Hester, Gray, and Harris all in at the same time. Hester’s athletic ability allows him to “make plays. Gray’s size makes him capable of covering most (though not all) tight ends. Harris’s quickness allowed him to play man to man on wide receivers. These three safety sets are useful when your team does not have a plethora of corners who can play man to man on an island. Of course if Rutgers needs seven DL/LBs to stop the run, they won’t be able to do as much with three safeties. Even in that instance, Ross Douglas is athletic enough to be a linebacker, but shift to safety or even slot corner.
With the available personnel and opponent, Rutgers will seek to play a conservative game much like they did against Purdue. Expect the corners to play press coverage with two high safeties and linebackers assigned to running backs. They will try to force Indiana into third down situations where anything can happen. Indiana has struggled to run the ball in rushing situations, so expect risks downfield even if they are just to draw a flag or short, contested throws to Cobbs and Thomas where Rutgers may have trouble getting enough position to knock the ball away.
Expect a cat and mouse game that comes down to what it usually does, defensive line play. If Rutgers can stop the run without stacking the box, they are in good shape. If RU can get a pash rush with only four men, they should be in good shape. If neither are true, but the weather is bad, that could work also. If not, Indiana’s offense will likely produce gains for enough chunks of yards they don’t need to worry about being on schedule. Rutgers’s defense has enough versatility to absorb some injuries, bad luck, bad calls, and individual matchup disadvantages. Unfortunately, the Scarlet Knights as a whole have limited margin for error and will lean heavily on the defense for any chance at winning.