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Rutgers Special Teams Review: The Momentum Changer Against Nebraska & How to Compete with the Buckeyes

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How their performance contributed to a heartbreaking loss

Rutgers v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The watch party was abuzz. Rutgers was beating Nebraska 10-7, in a Vegas upset. QB Kyle Bolin was showcasing his best performance yet. With about five minutes left in the half, Bolin sailed a perfect throw to sophomore WR Dacoven Bailey to set up a first down. The pass was dropped, leading to a 4th down punt, which would signal the beginning of the end for our ill-fated Scarlet Knights.

Nebraska’s DeMornay Pierson-El would return the punt for 63 yards, setting up a 5- yard run for Mikale Wilbon on the next play. Aaron mentioned this play in his initial game reaction, and includes the final Nebraska touchdown as the moment that cost Rutgers the win. While I agree that the touchdown and costly error by Kiy Hester were the nails in the coffin, the punt return was the momentum changer of the game. All the air was sucked out of the party I had attended, and I’m sure of the stadium where Rutgers cheers had previously been audible.

It was particularly frustrating for me, as improvements in punt coverage, and not allowing long returns, was one of my special teams keys to the game. Rutgers will continue to move forward, and learn from their mistakes. With that, here is the Peach and The Pit v. Nebraska, and the keys to keeping the game in hand against Ohio State.

The Peach

After recording blocked kicks two weeks in a row, there were not many stand out plays last week against Nebraska. With that said, the continued sweet spot, or “peach,” has been the improvement in the kicking and punting game. After an initial rough start, kicker Andrew Harte has improved each week, with an 80% FG completion percentage, and a long of 39 yards. There is still room for improvement in his long game, but he is becoming reliable in short attempts. Punter Ryan Anderson and KO specialist Justin Davidovicz continue to improve as well, with Davidovicz recording touchbacks on 10 out of 22 attempts. While the defense deserves much of the credit for keeping Rutgers in the game, starting field position is another key piece of the puzzle. Coach Ash seems to agree with this assessment, as evidenced in his response to being asked about the performance of the specialists in his press conference from earlier in the week:

“No, it hasn't been a surprise. That's what we saw in training camp. That's what we expected when we signed them and they agreed to come here. We expected them to be, you know, good players, good punter, good kicker. We saw that in training camp. You know, Ryan was probably further ahead than Andrew during training camp. But as Andrew has gotten game reps and game experience, I think his confidence has grown and he's gotten really good. It has helped our special teams.”

“Again, it gets back to Justin Davidovicz has helped our kickoff team. Ryan is starting to punt the ball better and it's helping our punt team. Obviously we had the issue Saturday but it wasn't the punting situation. And then Andrew is helping us with field goals. We're gaining confidence to go out there and try to kick the ball from anywhere from a 25- to 30-yard line feeling like we have an opportunity to put points on the board. And last year, you guys know we were punting in those situations a lot, and at the beginning of this season, I probably would have thought about punting in those situations, too, but now I'm starting to gain more confidence because of what we see out of Andrew. It is helping the football team.”

The Pit

The aforementioned 63-yard punt return is the clear winner of “the pit” this week. Ash has spoken in-depth about changes and focus on tackling style, and there was a clear need of improvement in this area from last season. While tackling has improved, there is still yardage being gained on almost every attempt. There are quite a few true freshman contributing to special teams play, which also helps to account for the mistakes that are happening on the field. The 63-yard return occurred in part to a clear missed tackle by Bo Melton. Ash and special teams coach Vince Okruch will need to continue to work on reducing arm tackling, but it is important to remember that (hopefully) with time, these highly talented youngsters will get more experience and improve. The talent upgrade, and the resulting increase in performance with experience, is a very exciting notion.

Final Grade: D+. Without any big plays, and with the big punt return, I am concerned about this units ability to compete with B1G competition. This week, in my opinion, was a regression.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Andrew Harte. Paying homage to the kicking team, Harte continues to improve week over week. Improvements in his long game would make him a very valuable tool for the offense.

Freshman to Watch

Justin Davidovicz. With so many talented freshman on the roster, Justin Davidovicz has been slightly less heralded than the rest. David Bonagura registered 4 touchbacks in 2016. Davidovicz has already kicked 10 in 4 games. The kid has a golden leg.

Keys to Keeping the Ohio State game in Hand

Not much has changed since last week, especially given Rutgers did not execute on most of the keys listed.

1). Win the field position battle, and accurately execute KO’s and punts: Davidovicz and Anderson will need to put the Buckeyes out of immediate scoring range, and effectively execute plays.

2). Improve FG range: To be victorious, we will need every possible point, so Harte will need to continue to build confidence and improve his range. He is proving himself reliable in the short game, but additional scoring opportunities are needed against the Buckeyes defense.

3). Release the Grant inferno: While pooched kicks have been the norm to avoid a Grant return, he has yet to have any big returns this season. According to NJ.com, Grant is still questionable to suit up this weekend, despite an initial optimistic outlook from Ash. If he is healthy, I REALLY want to see another one of these:

4). Correct return coverage errors: Missed tackles still abound, and I would love to see aggressive play in terms of tackles for a loss and negative yardage. The 63-yard punt return put all the momentum in Nebraska’s corner last week, and the Buckeyes don’t need any additional advantage.

I wish I could predict an upset, but it’s just not realistic. What we can hope for is improvement from last week, and last season’s shut out. I will be there rooting on my beloved Knight’s despite our current disappointing relationship status.