There were multiple reasons that Rutgers suffered an embarrassing 16-13 loss at the hands of Eastern Michigan from the MAC on Saturday. Mental mistakes led to nine penalties committed, including the Dorian Miller “hands to the face” call that pushed Rutgers out of field goal range with just seconds left in the game. The coaching decisions, particularly on offense, were questionable at best. The players came out flat and looked like they underestimated Eastern Michigan, a team that was 0-58 against power five teams entering this game. However, one aspect of the loss brought up a reminder that during this current eleven game losing streak, the longest for Rutgers in almost two decades, quarterback play and scoring points has been a consistent issue throughout it.
While expectations for Louisville grad transfer Kyle Bolin shouldn’t have been sky high, it was fair to expect he would be a significant upgrade from the play Rutgers received at the most important position during the previous two seasons. After Saturday’s performance in the loss to Eastern Michigan, Bolin is not fulfilling that hope. One of his strengths was said to be accuracy. After completing 24 of 34 passes for 71% against Washington, it seemed to be the case, despite Bolin throwing two key interceptions in the game. However, many of those completions against Washington were designed short passes, as Bolin barely threw downfield in the game. Against Eastern Michigan, Bolin took a big step backwards.
Bolin completed just 17 of 37 passes for 46% and threw another two interceptions. On the pick he threw on the second to last drive, Bolin’s tendency to stare down receivers reared its ugly head. He looked tentative all day and his timing was off most of the game. His alleged pinpoint accuracy was not present. Even when he was able to move the ball through the air some late in the fourth quarter, he was throwing passes too high and missing open receivers at times, not leading them on passes, which disrupted routes and missed chances for runs after the catch. Taking a sack on the final play of the game in your opponent’s end of the field with a chance to tie is a painful way to lose and his awareness to get rid of the ball quicker was absent.
Not that you needed advanced statistics to understand that it was a bad performance, but that information only reinforces it. Bolin’s adjusted QBR in yesterday’s loss was 10.1 on a scale to 100, where 50 is considered average. If you want to understand QBR in more detail, it is explained here.
After having the worst offense in college football last season, only scoring 13 points against Eastern Michigan on Saturday gives cause for major concern that things won’t be much different moving forward this season either. Rutgers was just 4 of 16 on third down conversions in the game. The inefficiency of the offense is not all on Kyle Bolin, as the play calling was a major issue as well.
The inability of Rutgers to establish the run game in the first half was a major reason the offense performed poorly. Offensive coordinator Jerry Kill has always been a run first coach, but he has shown to be very conservative in the first two games of the season. It made more sense against a potent defense and top ten team in facing Washington in week one. On Saturday, the game plan was clearly to pound the ball up the middle early and it was fair to expect the offensive line could create enough push for Gus Edwards and Robert Martin to run effectively. It didn’t happen and the offense scored just 3 points in the first half. Rutgers failed to react quickly enough and did not attempt to take advantage of their playmakers downfield very often when they did pass.
Kill made an adjustment at the start of the second half by running more on the outside and it worked, as Rutgers produced a field goal and touchdown on their first two drives after the break. Gus Edwards was finally able to run up the gut on his 23 yard score, but it was because Kill varied up his play calling more so, something that didn’t happen in the first half. Still, there were questionable calls after halftime as well.
Substituting in Johnathan Lewis in the opening drive of the second half on 2nd and 8 from the Eastern Michigan 18 yard line made no sense. After predictably running, Lewis was tackled for a two yard loss and Bolin had to trot back on the field with a worse situation than he left, looking at 3rd and 10 and forced to make his first pass of the drive. It went incomplete and Rutgers salvaged a field goal, but still trailed 10-6 and missed a major opportunity to change the tone of the game. They finally scored a touchdown on their next possession with the Edwards score, but as we know, Rutgers lost by 3 points and failing to take advantage of that drive was a big reason why.
One major frustration was the offense forgetting about their best playmaker on the field. After Janarion Grant caught his second pass of the day on the first play of the second drive of the game and he scampered for a 40 yard gain, he looked like his old self and seemed primed to have a big day. While Grant did lead Rutgers with 8 receptions and 91 yards receiving in the game, he was infuriatingly absent in the play calling until late in the 4th quarter. Bolin attempted only one pass to Grant after his big play until the first drive of the 4th quarter, which went incomplete.
It wasn’t until the second to last possession of the game, with Rutgers trailing 13-10 and less than seven minutes to play that the offense finally leaned on Grant. Bolin threw four times to Janarion “The Great”, who caught all of them for 47 yards, two of which went for first downs on the drive. After starting on their own 7 yard line, Grant’s last catch of the drive got Rutgers to the EMU 27. Of course, Bolin threw his second interception on the next play, intended for Jawuan Harris, who made a great hustle play running down Brody Hoying at the Rutgers 5 yard line and keeping the game alive.
Tight end Jerome Washington, who I think can be a major factor for this offense, had a big 27 yard catch right before the Edwards touchdown run midway through the third quarter. He had three catches for 54 yards at that point and was an obvious physical mismatch for Eastern Michigan. Maddeningly, Washington never saw another pass come his way the rest of the game.
I don’t know if Kyle Bolin is the answer at quarterback this season for Rutgers. After struggling badly against Eastern Michigan, how much can we really expect from him once Big Ten play begins? Was it just a bad day or a sign he isn’t the answer? I agree with getting Lewis some experience, but shuffling him in for one play in the middle of a drive doesn’t help him or Bolin. If you want to play Lewis along with Bolin, let them each have their own drives to lead. It’s not fair to either to substitute them for one play here and there.
If Kill doesn’t think Bolin will be successful throwing the ball downfield, then try someone else. Lewis has a cannon of an arm and it’s okay to let a true freshman air it out. Look across the college football landscape, as young quarterbacks are successful every year. I’m not saying Lewis is 100% ready, but how long do head coach Chris Ash and Kill stick with Bolin? It’s not an easy answer. Bolin has impressed everyone in the program with his leadership and work ethic. He was elected captain by his teammates. Giving up on him too early could fracture the locker room. It would also be a negative advertisement for future grad transfers that might consider Rutgers.
At the same time, Lewis is the future and if this becomes another lost season, which yesterday sadly suggests it might be, then getting him experience now makes sense.
Of course, there is another option. Gio Rescigno is no Joe Montana, but he was also effective at times last season, nearly leading upsets of Indiana and Minnesota, in which he threw four touchdowns combined in those defeats. He certainly struggled with accuracy like Bolin has and also threw multiple interceptions in two of the six games he saw significant time in. Unlike Bolin, Gio does offer more of a dual threat option, something that Lewis does as well.
I don’t know what the answer is at quarterback for Rutgers. I do know all three options are better than what Rutgers had to work with the previous two seasons. However, that doesn’t mean the offense will actually be good with any of them if the approach doesn’t change. The biggest takeaway from yesterday’s loss was that Ash and Kill need to reevaluate the direction of the offense. While it would be great to see Rutgers flourish in the run game, getting playmakers in the pass game like Grant and Washington involved is a must. Calling more vertical pass plays, like the occasional slant and more play action passes doesn’t seem like a groundbreaking idea, but utilizing the playbook with any creativity has been noticeably absent in the first two games. If Bolin doesn’t give them confidence in the passing game, then make a change. Right now, it seems the offense is playing not to lose and is failing to be aggressive with their best weapons.
I’m not giving up on the Ash Era yet and I agree with Dave White that there are a lot of similarities to this coaching regime with the early Schiano days. Heck, I was a student at Rutgers the last time the program was on an eleven game losing streak, during the much bleaker Terry Shea days. As fans, this is just another setback we have to endure. However, it’s completely fair to expect more from this team. Losing to Eastern Michigan is unacceptable. While there were multiple issues in the game, the offensive approach and peformance should shoulder the most blame. Scoring 13 points against a MAC opponent spells major trouble ahead of Big Ten play. If Rutgers is going to salvage the season, something has to change on offense and quickly.