In the last two weeks, the Rutgers defense had similar performances at the macro-level: an inability to get stops in the first half and then shutting out the opponent in the second half. Yes I know Buffalo got one TD in the second half, but it was after the Scarlet offense turned the ball over on downs at their own six yard line. But how similar were these performances really?
When diving deeper, the way in which the Buffalo Bulls and Indiana Hoosiers accumulated points in the first half the last two weeks could not have been more different. The Bulls gauged Rutgers with big plays, much like we saw against Kansas. The Hoosiers though methodically moved the ball down the field, converting third down after third down and not allowing the Rutgers defense to get to the sidelines. The end result was a half that saw each team get only four possessions with Indiana scoring on each of theirs for a 24-7 lead at the break.
So the question is, how did Indiana convert virtually every third down in a half many of which were more than short yardage? Chris Ash referenced this several times in his postgame press conference. Let’s examine the key third down plays from the first half in this week’s film review.
9:54 remaining 1st quarter. RU leads 7-0. 3rd and 5 for IU at RU47
Indiana lines up with trips to the right and a single back to quarterback Peyton Ramsey’s left. Rutgers counters with a nickel out of a 40 front. The deep safety is out of the picture. Rutgers is in great position to defend a quick screen to the trips side and if Ramsey hands to running back Stevie Scott, Indiana only has five players to block six which would require Scott to break a tackle OR bad pursuit by t he RU D. So likely the play will be either A. QB keeper up the middle, B. slant to the far side receiver who has a size advantage, or C. a rollout to the right where a deep out / post is the most likely route to get open.
Rutgers gets a great jam by Avery Young on an island at the top of the screen though Ramsey doesn’t even look in that direction. Rutgers also generates pressure with a zone blitz that drops #97 Mike Tverdov into coverage that allows Trevor Morris to come as a free rusher through the A gap, Deonte Roberts to come through a wide open B gap after he sees the back stayed in to block on the top side AND Olakunle Fatukasi blows right past the left tackle around the outside.
The route tree from the bunch included the front man #86, (Ramsey’s first read) going down the sideline who was picked up by Saquan Hampton and unable to cut in because Kiy Hester as the deep safety was ready for him to break in. The second read is #15 well covered by Wharton and being funneled right to Tverdov. So Ramsey’s only choice is to throw one to #5 Harris who might have a chance to get a step on Damon Hayes and will be just around the line to gain. Hayes was responsible for anyone in the bunch breaking outside and therefore a half step behind as two receivers went inside. Hayes recovers pretty well, so well in fact that when the receiver slows down because the ball is too high and behind him a tad, Damon runs into him and gets a little tied up. This is not a penalty to blame the coaching staff for a lack of discipline, though I understand they do add up.
To sum this play up, it was a well drawn up zone blitz by defensive coordinator Jay Niemann and ten of the eleven players executed perfectly on the defensive side with good pressure AND coverage. The funny thing is that if the ball was thrown better, Hayes probably swats it away OR had Hayes not recovered so quickly, there would have been less contact and the ball flown harmlessly incomplete OR if the ball was caught it would . So bad luck and a generally fair call by the referees allows Indiana to continue the drive.
8:41 remaining 1st quarter. RU leads 7-0. 3rd and 10 for IU at RU31
The Hoosiers are on the fringe of field goal range and facing a third and long after back to back incompletions. So a short gain likely makes the kick easier and fairly successful outcome even if they don’t get the first down. The Hoosiers decide to utilize an identical formation to the previous third down attempt. Rutgers lines up the same way as well except Fatukasi is now on the near side end.
The bunch on the bottom runs different routes than the previous attempt. Hayes picks up the outside breaking receiver. Hampton picks up the deep sideline. Hester is there to help Wharton on the seam. On the top side, Avery Young takes a short in-route which sets up all of our least favorite plays from last season, the wheel route.
Rutgers only rushes four so Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts have the responsibility to take the back if he comes to their side. The other is in a QB spy / middle zone like Tverdov was the previous time. With no one open and Tverdov coming around the outside, Ramsey is forced to step up to his left and then scramble as Olakunle Fatukasi disengages from his man once Ramsey moves laterally. Roberts executes his assignment perfectly to stop a scramble and Fatukasi cleans up from behind. The crowd goes bonkers, but a late flag comes in.
Trevor Morris is called for holding the back out of the backfield which is a huge momentum shifting play. The back didn’t run a true wheel route down the sideline but instead was around the 25 yard line which was well short of the sticks. BTN didn’t really even show the penalty on the replay but from the initial view, it seemed questionable at best. This was a bad call that resulted in an automatic first down. It may have also been a little bit of “give back call” after Indiana was livid after Saquan Hampton was not called for pass interference or holding on the previous play. Rewatching Hampton, he did get a hold of some jersey though the ball did end up being uncatchable on the previous play. So this did seem like an old school “give back call” that used to be more prevalent before the implementation of replay.
7:33 remaining 1st quarter. RU leads 7-0. 3rd and 5 for IU at RU16
Indiana puts a bunch to the top of the screen. Rutgers counters with a 40 front, but the strong side linebacker is only on the fringe of the box. After the annoying “hurry up and wait”, the Indiana sideline sends the play call. Rewatching his reaction, I think Stevie Scott may have tipped off that he was getting the ball. This is something the Rutgers video staff may have picked up and shared with the defensive players at halftime.
The entire Indiana offensive line blocks down to their right. With Deonte Roberts on the fringe of the box he is way too far away from the play to get to the near side. Trevor Morris is picked up by the center after he chips Julius Turner.
Hayes reads the play perfectly and closes ground quickly from the safety position to meet Scott at the 14 yard line. Indiana coaches drew this up knowing that only Hayes would make this tackle unless Roberts read it perfectly and shifted right before the snap. Damon is a pretty good tackler for a corner, but is still inexperienced at safety. It makes you wonder if a more experienced safety like Hampton or Hester were lined up where Hayes was if the Indiana coaching staff would have still called the same play. Nevertheless Stevie Scott is a load at approximately 230 pounds and breaks the tackle on his way to the end zone.
This play does not fall completely on Hayes. Another thing to notice is that Deonte Roberts was on the side away from the play so Trevor Morris as the weakside linebacker was in the center of the formation. Morris piles up a lot of tackles, but Roberts is more comfortable reading plays quickly from the center of the formation and may have been there to help faster. Also, Jon Bateky completely beats the right guard to the C gap, which opens up the B gap even more. Had the right guard not been beaten so badly, Bateky may have been able to get an arm on him. Of course, the right guard once beat, did the right thing and let Bateky run himself out of the play. The same can be said for the right tackle who simply lets Mike Tverdov run around the outside.
Many football fans of college and professional teams should use this play as an example of why pass rushing on every play can backfire. The defensive linemen on run plays are taught to hold their ground and clog running lanes which makes it tougher to pass rush. Indiana recognized that Rutgers’s ends were just running around the outside earlier in the drive and used their momentum to simply run themselves out of the play.
I’ve mentioned this before that Hayes always does seem to be in the middle of the action for better or worse. In this case. it was worse, with a calculated risk in rushing the QB rather than playing run first. This was the 10th play on a 75 yard drive and as a former defensive lineman, I can tell you that pass rush is much easier when you are tired that holding your run gap against an offensive lineman shoving you as hard as he can. Kudos to the Indiana offensive coaching staff for designing this play and calling it when they got the defensive alignment they wanted. Even then, Rutgers had a chance to make the stop, but failed. The game is tied 7-7 after the extra point.
5:26 remaining 1st quarter. Game tied 7-7. 3rd and 10 for IU at IU12
After Rutgers punted and pinned the Hoosiers deep, they forced Indiana to another third and long after a huge pass rush on first and great pursuit on second. If Rutgers could get a stop, it would give them good field position as Indiana would be punting from the back of their own end zone.
Indiana goes trips right with a single back left, but this time the outside receiver is at the line of scrimmage. This means either one of the slot receivers could come in motion. Rutgers plays back with Isaiah Wharton giving a four yard cushion and both safeties well behind the line to gain. Rutgers shows a 50 front with Damon Hayes creeping toward the line as the 7th man in the box. With this alignment it’s going to be tough to get the ball to the top side receiver and Rutgers is in good position if the running back runs a wheel route like they did earlier in the game on a 3rd and 10. With so many men in the box, a quarterback run is also not a great idea, so Indiana is likely going to throw either a screen to the right or create some space on the right seam with some traffic.
Indiana does not throw deep successfully very often, but had taken a few shots already to back up the defense. Rutgers brings Trevor Morris up the A gap but the running back picks him up just in time. Mike Tverdov comes around the outside but Ramsey at this point has a pretty good clock in his head to get rid of the ball just in time. The Indiana coaches also probably know exactly how long a rush around the outside takes and the timing of this route from Donavan Hale.
As such, Hale runs a 12 yard hitch. Despite Damon Hayes and Avery Young being in the area, Hale leaps up about half a yard beyond the line to gain and high points the ball perfectly. Hayes and Young hit him before Hale can land, but he holds onto the ball and Indiana achieves a key first down.
This is a tough one because you really just have to tip your cap to the offense as the defense executed almost perfectly forcing a quick throw. Ramsey got rid of the ball quickly and threw to a spot. Hale had to run to the exact spot AND catch the ball at its highest point AND secure it with two defenders hanging over him. This is an example of a play that teams can run when the quarterback and a big receiver have perfect timing and accuracy. Coming into the game Indiana was 33rd in efficiency on offense despite being one of the least explosive teams in the country and this play demonstrates how perfect execution is required which they had several times. Hopefully one of Rutgers tight ends or taller wideouts can develop the same rapport with Art Sitkowski to help Rutgers execute better themselves.
2:57 remaining 1st quarter. Game tied 7-7. 3rd and 9 for IU at IU40
Rutgers defense forced yet another third and long with the game still tied. Indiana had the ball at their own 40 yard line so they probably were not in four down territory yet. This time Indiana goes with the same formation as their earlier touchdown except the outside receiver is on the line with two slot men at the top of the screen. Rutgers shows a 40 front and Deonte Roberts begins to cheat toward the top side receiver grouping. Trevor Morris and Avery Young are pretty tight on the receivers while Damon Hayes is inside the box from the safety spot at the bottom. The play clock mysteriously sticks on 3 seconds for somewhere between three and five seconds or else Indiana would have been flagged for delay of game. Instead they snap the ball with one second on the play clock. Rutgers was at home so this doesn’t seem to be any “home cooking” as we called it back in high school, but rather bizarre no one caught it nonetheless.
Rutgers only rushes four but generates a tenacious pass rush. Ramsey is forced to step up in the pocket and may have even been hit as he threw. The back is pretty wide open in the flat, but Trevor Morris was giving cushion rightfully so. Deonte Roberts seems to be in transition of picking up the receiver from Morris and Avery Young. The ball is thrown at the perfect time, which is lucky for Indiana as Ramsey was about to be sacked. Had the ball come out half a second earlier or later, it would probably have been incomplete.
Again, great job by Ramsey on this to somehow avoid being sacked and finding a receiver exactly at the marker. Ramsey and the receiver executed well even though the other nine players on the Hoosiers did barely enough to salvage this first down. The one criticism I have of Rutgers on this play is that even though Indiana sent three receivers deep, they had shown no ability to complete the ball downfield. So Rutgers defensive backs and linebackers could have played a little tighter. That being said, even Rutgers players were probably surprised how quick the pass rush was in the backfield on this play.
1:54 remaining 1st quarter. Game tied 7-7. 3rd and 1 for IU at RU40
Scott powers for a first down on the 11th play of the drive. IU is now 6 for 6 on third down conversions.
0:30 remaining 1st quarter. Game tied 7-7. 3rd and Goal for IU at RU6
This is the play where Rutgers stopped Scott short of the goal line and initially it was ruled a fumble that Rutgers returned it to the 10 yard line. The fumble was overturned and Indiana was given the ball at the half yard line. A sneak by Ramsey was ruled a touchdown although it was very close and on the first play of the second quarter. IU was lucky it was ruled a touchdown because there would not have been enough evidence to overturn it otherwise. Even when they failed to convert on third, they got what was needed on 4th.
11:57 remaining 2nd quarter. IU leads 14-7. 3rd and 8 for IU at IU48
This is a dagger. Rutgers offense has punted twice in a row and the defense is starting to get tired. After two nice stops, it’s third and long AGAIN. Indiana has their trips right. Rutgers is in a very basic 40 stack with the nickel to the top side where there are three receivers. Two deep safeties, one on each side should help on deep routes. Rutgers opts to zone blitz with Deonte Roberts getting free off the strong side. Roberts almost gets the sack as Ramsey steps up just in time. Mike Tverdov has the middle zone but is too shallow to take the receiver that Tyshon Fogg allowed too much space to. Ramsey gets the ball over Tverdov in front of Kiy Hester and Ty Fryfogle gains 27 yards before being brought down.
This was a decent call defensively from a scheme perspective, but having a redshirt freshman in space on crossing route is probably not ideal. Overall though it was not a completely blown assignment and Rutgers was half a second away from a drive ending sack yet again.
9:21 remaining 2nd quarter. IU leads 14-7. 3rd and Goal for IU at RU2
Indiana completes a touchdown to J-Shun Harris in the flat and is now eight for nine on third downs. It’s now 21-7 and Rutgers is reeling.
After that on their fourth drive of the half, Indiana converted with Scott on a third and one, then gauged Rutgers with the quarterback run up the middle for 18 yards on a third and 11 from the Indiana 32. The quarterback run was set up by many of the plays listed above. Indiana was ten for eleven (not counting one called back due to penalty) before Kevin Wilkins batted down a pass to force a field goal on Indiana’s fourth drive of the game. Finishing a half ten for twelve on third down is quite impressive.
Jay Niemann had me questioning him possibly for the first time as Rutgers defensive coordinator during the first half last weekend at the time. Fortunately after the second half donut, the more I realized that a season ago Jay came out with great game plans at beginning of games but rarely did Rutgers have much left to pull out of the hat in the second half. When opponents have the lead, especially on the road, they will dial back in the second half. So of course we should take this with a grain of salt, but there was marked improvement in the second halves from the first in each of the past two games. Also for questions about whether the coverage was too soft, overall no, though at times Rutgers respected Indiana’s deep balls a little too much.
I’ve been really hard on the Rutgers offense because without scoring in the high 20’s, you won’t win many games this day in age. But in this game, the defense had to come up with a way to get off the field in the first half. They could not until it was 24-7 and the whistle blew to signal halftime. Having rewatched the film though of the first half, it was not Armageddon. The entire defense is not broken and at least offers some amount of optimism heading into a critical three game stretch before the brutal November.
We’ll see what happens against the Illini this weekend in what is a must win game. Illinois is not nearly as efficient as Indiana on third down, which may be just what Rutgers needs to get a victory, as long as the RU offense can take another step forward.