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Hope: Reviewing Sitkowski’s critical plays against Indiana

A few mistakes, but overall quite impressive.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Rutgers
Sitkowski had time on this play which he didn’t always have.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a week makes. Though our writers were split on who should start at quarterback, Rutgers Head Football Coach Chris Ash and Offensive Coordinator John McNulty elected to stick with true freshman Art Sitkowski against division foe Indiana this past Saturday. Let’s review some key plays from the game and see how much improvement Sitkowski made in this performance.

10:46 remaining 1st quarter. Game tied 0-0. 3rd and 9 for RU at IU11

After Rutgers was gifted a first down on their first third down of the series, the Scarlet Knights moved the ball down the field steadily. Sitkowski converted one third down pass to Blackshear in the flat who had to stiff arm a man to move the chains. That was enough to give him confidence on the next third down try.

The play resulted in the first touchdown for a Rutgers wide receiver all season as the protection gave Sitkowski enough time to fire the ball to Shameen Jones in the back of the end zone. As you can see from the tweet above, it wasn’t a rocket, but still a firm throw that the safety never saw. It was only a half field read and Indiana covered it exactly how Rutgers would have liked, but nevertheless Art was patient and found the open man. This was his best throw in the past three weeks for sure at that point.

7:27 remaining 1st quarter. Game tied 7-7. 1st and 10 for RU at RU28

After Rutgers defense could not get a stop on a third down, the Hoosiers scored to tie the game. Rutgers got the ball on the 28 after an Isaih Pacheco kick return, but Sitkowski called timeout with the play clock winding down despite a split back set that seemed ideal against a nickel 40 front. An experienced quarterback probably just hands the ball to a running back quickly for a gain of a few yards. These timeouts are killers when Rutgers should have had the play ready to go with it being the first on a drive, but better they called it than get a delay of game penalty.

Split backs with Blackshear in motion.

After the timeout, Rutgers comes out in the same set. Indiana goes with a traditional 4-3 look as their hybrid safety/LB is up near the line of scrimmage. Sitkowski makes the right read and sends Blackshear in motion to give Rutgers an advantage to the top of the formation. This causes the middle linebackers and safeties to cheat to their left, especially when Shameen Jones and Raheem Blackshear both run routes to the middle of the field.

This turns out to burn Indiana, as Jerome Washington runs a corner route to the space vacated by the wide receiver to the bottom of the screen (Bo Melton I believe) who runs a “Go” or “Fly” pattern down the sideline. Sitkowski’s pass required Washington to adjust so he could get it over the linebacker at the second level, but in front of the corner coming back to the play.

Washington is wide open between the second and third level of the defense.

This was a huge play for several reasons. #1, Indiana realized they might need to bring more than four men to get pressure on early downs #2, Sitkowski has the arm strength to easily fire one between the second and third levels of defense, a throw Giovanni Rescigno or even Peyton Ramsey for Indiana would have to really step into with a lot of might, and #3 Jerome Washington is not your average tight end as he runs the route like a wideout and has solid hands after adjusting to the ball. By completing a pass like this on first down, it should give Rutgers more space to run the ball on first down moving forward. For example on the very next play Rutgers gets three yards on a run up the gut despite Indiana sniffing it out.

After Sitkowki throws to the same route tree incomplete on 2nd as Indiana has star safety Jonathan Crawford on him in man to man coverage, Sitkowski is blitzed on third and his pass batted down at the line. Rutgers is forced to punt, but it was not a three and out and the offense has made one play to build on during the series.

Rutgers didn’t do much on the following series and Sitkowski threw a pass on a third and about seven. Indiana sent seven with a man cover zero that Rutgers did not pick up as Jon Hilliman could not block both free rushers. It was lucky not to be strip sacked or intercepted.

After Indiana went up 21-7, Rutgers came out firing and Sitkowski hit Raheem Blackshear running toward the sideline beyond the first down marker for a gain of 11. I hate the term “can make all the throws”, because it is overused quite often so I won’t go there. BUT this was a throw Gary Nova may not have ever made, one that makes Scarlet Knights fans flash back to Mike Teel. And of course on the very next play Rutgers again plowed for four yards up the middle.

8:44 remaining 2nd quarter. IU leads 21-7. 2nd and 7 for RU at RU44

Rutgers looks to be in a run formation.

Excellent play call by McNulty here. First Washington and Max Anthony shift to the right. Then after everyone is set, Anthony motions back to the left. This is a great running formation used so effectively by the 1997-98 Denver Broncos to pull the strong safety away from both receivers at the top of the screen. Indiana combats it with a 4-3 stack with linebackers ready to flow to either side on a run play.

Indiana blitzes, but Rutgers is in max protection to pick it up.

At the snap, Indiana blitzes the slot corner with the other two linebackers sitting in a middle zone waiting for a run play up the middle or the backs (Anthony and Blackshear) to flare out. Anthony actually screens his own man in Cole before flaring out which prevents Tariq from being able to save Art from a blindside hit. The strong side linebacker has to stay with Jerome Washington, so one safety is forced to provide help toward the bottom of the screen.

This leaves two men (a corner and a safety) to cover two wide receivers. Strong safety Juwan Burgess follows Bo Melton deep and with no safety help, cornerback Raheem Lane is forced to give ground to Shameen Jones. Sitkowski reads this perfectly and fires the ball just as Jones breaks his route on a deep in. With so much space, it’s an easy completion with an accurate throw from a quarterback with average or better arm strength. You can see below how much space there is. Jones has time to catch the ball and take at least two steps before the defender can touch him.

Only three Indiana defenders are even in the screen with so much space for one corner to have to cover.

The next 3rd down Rutgers faced was near the goal line. Art was sacked on first down, then threw a near interception on second. Shameen despite his length cannot reach over a defender to steal a TD like Plaxico Burress used to do in the NFL. Fans were irate because the third down throw was an almost identical jump ball but this time to Jerome Washington who was running away from where the ball was ultimately thrown. On both plays, the Indiana defender was in perfect position in front of the receiver on the far side of the endzone. You can’t really fault Washington here because a quicker ball that would have allowed him to shield the defender would be the only way to convert on his route. Art began the drive five for five chucking the ball all over the field, so an incompletion and INT to cap the drive removed any momentum RU generated.

Instead of a touchdown or at least cutting the deficit to 21-10, Rutgers turned it over still trailing 21-7 midway through the second quarter. They would not get the ball back before half other than for a kneel down.

In the second half, the Rutgers defense ended up pitching a shutout. On the first and second drives, Rutgers was forced to punt with Sitkowski getting very little opportunity to make plays. Of note was a completion to Jon Hilliman that went for 13 yards on a 3rd and 14. RU ultimately ran the ball for the first down on 4th and 1. This was a simple screen pass, but Sitkowski threw it perfectly into Hilliman’s hands which allowed him to turn upfield and gain yards rather than be tackled near the line of scrimmage had the throw been off the mark. These simple completions right on the money is an underrated part of Sitkowski’s game when he’s in rhythm. Unfortunately after a penalty, Rutgers was forced to punt.

Rutgers got the ball back after an Indiana fumble (great strip by Tyreek Maddox-Williams) but needed only three plays to go 55 yards for a touchdown, primarily due to Isaih Pacheco’s near perfect halfback option pass to Jerome Washington that went for 39 yards. Rutgers scored to make it 24-14 with more than ten minutes left to play in the contest, plenty of time had Rutgers possessed a high powered offense.

After an interception in the end zone by Damon Hayes, Rutgers got the ball back with 7:47 remaining in the game, down by 10. After an incomplete pass when Art was hit quickly and completion for no gain on 2nd down, Rutgers’s hopes fell on the arm of Sitkowski to mount two more scoring drives.

7:06 remaining 4th quarter. IU leads 24-14. 3rd and 10 for RU at RU20

Twins left with a single back. TE Travis Vokolek slightly flexed to the right.

Rutgers lines up with two receivers left both pressed by Indiana corners. The front is in a 4-3 stack with the strong side linebacker in man to man coverage with Travis Vokolek leaving one high safety. Sitkowski reads this play well knowing his route combination at the bottom of the screen will draw the safety to help on Vokolek leaving Bo Melton one on one with #17 Raheem Layne.

Melton comes back to the ball and needs to make a move to get the 1st.

The pass rush disrupts Sitkowski’s timing on the comeback to Melton. Since the ball is late, Melton has now run two yards short of the first down line and is forced to beat his defender to get the necessary yardage. Bo does and Rutgers moves the chains. If you rewatch it, Sitkowski had no room to step into his throw and had to fire an absolute rope off his back foot, which he did. The throw was to the correct read and very accurate but since the pass rush disrupted the timing, Art had to rely on his playmaker to finish the job. Overall though, plays like these will help score points. As long as Art doesn’t make a habit of throwing off his back foot, this may go a long way in his development.

After a short toss to Blackshear, Sitkowski finally had a meaningful completion to slot man Eddie Lewis for the first time in the game on 2nd and 8.

6:13 remaining 4th quarter. IU leads 24-14. 2nd and 8 for RU at RU35

Rutgers goes trips right in one of IU’s favorite formations.

Rutgers sends three receivers right with a back to Art’s left. Indiana counters with a 40 front and two linebackers up at the line of scrimmage. The third linebacker is in press coverage near the bottom of the screen. It’s difficult to see exactly where the two high safeties are set up as they are out of the frame. Indiana rushes all six men at the line, including the linebacker #6 once he realizes Blackshear has not leaked out of the backfield. So Indiana now has five guys covering four but the bottom side safety has his hands full with Travis Vokolek coming straight at him.

Art pump fakes to draw the linebacker up.

Sitkowski pump fakes to bring the linebacker up to defend the quick screen. The cornerback also bites, so two men are covering one and the bottom side safety now has to defend Vokolek running down the seam and Eddie Lewis down the sideline.

Lewis is wide open on the sideline.

The safety smartly takes Vokolek leaving Lewis wide open and Art hits him down the sideline. Unfortunately, Sitkowski hit Lewis’s outside shoulder rather than in stride down the field which may have went for a touchdown. In Sitkowski’s defense, throwing to the sideline shoulder makes sense here. If both Indiana safeties flowed to the bottom side, the near side safety would have been closer to Lewis and far side safety in the area of Vokolek. Therefore throwing to the outside would make sense. The pass rush was initially picked up by RU, but Art did not have more time to do anything fancy as I believe he was hit yet again.

Great play call, great read, and Rutgers is now at midfield with a chance to still trim the deficit to one score and plenty of time left. After another first down, Melton could not come up with a slightly underthrown ball in the end zone. The ball was not perfect despite Art having time (seemingly for once), but I think next year Bo makes this play. The play call was again great as a safety Jonathan Crawford had to cover Melton AND Travis Vokolek, so a toss to Vokolek also may have gotten the Knights six points. On second, a half coverage, half Jon Hilliman not being able to block a linebacker long term resulted in a key 3rd and 13. Time is becoming a factor as RU is still down two scores inside of five minutes to go in the game.

4:54 remaining 4th quarter. IU leads 24-14. 3rd and 13 for RU at IU41

Indiana is in a man coverage Nickel.

Rutgers sticks with two receivers to the left, and tight end flexed to the right. Indiana counters with nickel that appears to be cover two man under. So Sitkowski will have have to rely on receivers to one side being able to open some space with two men going against three. Everyone in the stadium knows it’s a pass and since Rutgers has struggled to contain Indiana on obvious passing downs, Sitkowski knows he needs to get the ball out fairly quickly. The play is incomplete to Washington on a ball that was broken up, but had a shot for the first down. It was the best Art could do upon further review so Rutgers was now on the brink.

4:47 remaining 4th quarter. IU leads 24-14. 4th and 13 for RU at IU41

Rutgers favorite formation late in the game with Melton and the tight end on the same side.

Melton and Vokolek come out on the bottom of the screen. Indiana plays the same look as they did on third down. Rutgers runs the same play they did at the seven minute mark (see above) and Melton again comes up with a catch, spin, and reach past the first down marker to keep Rutgers alive.

Sitkowski only got two more official passing attempts in the game the final being on a 3rd and 16 where he tossed to Eddie Lewis short of the first down. Lewis dropped it on a play that probably was just trying to get enough yards for Justin Davidovicz. Despite the long 52 yard attempt, Justin hit it anyway to cut the lead to 24-17 as 3:52 remained in the contest.

Ultimately, Rutgers could not get a stop and never got the ball back. It was a valiant comeback that fell short in the end, but Rutgers looked for more than half their possessions like a competent offensive team. If they can put forth the same effort against Illinois and protect Sitkowski a little better, expect more points. It was a weird game because Rutgers only got 8 possessions for the entire contest. They scored on three, threw one INT in the red zone that should have resulted in points, and only had one three and out on offense.

Having rewatched, Sitkowski played good if not great in this game despite throwing for only 154 yards. He was under a lot of pressure which comes from trailing and being forced to pass the ball so much. The key moving forward will be keeping the score close and running for a few more yards to set up more manageable third downs OR hitting a few long bombs. On the plus side, even when the defense knew a pass was coming based on score, down, and distance Rutgers still was able to convert some first downs. As a fan this is marked improvement and the last time Rutgers offense showed any signs like this, it was the 2014 regular season finale against Maryland.

Rutgers still has a ways to go to being an average Big Ten football team, but at least the threat of intermediate passing and making a 2nd half comeback has returned to the offensive arsenal on the banks.