Last week, rather than watching more film on Illinois (doing that before Kansas game made it more painful), I watched some happier highlights of past Rutgers contests instead. One of the video recaps that youtube autoplayed was the 2013 comeback win over Arkansas. In that game, a redshirt sophomore Tight End was simply awesome. Tyler Kroft made six catches for 133 yards and a touchdown. Interestingly, Kroft actually made his first career catch at Arkansas the season prior which went for 42 yards.
It would be unfair to expect Travis Vokolek to become as good as Kroft or any of the other great tight ends in the last 25 years of Rutgers football like Marco Battaglia or L.J. Smith. And after Travis made his first career catch at Indiana last season, lightning did not strike twice as his breakout did not happen against the Hoosiers two weeks ago. Instead a week later, Vokolek finally showed the potential the coaching staff was raving about all offseason that relegated serviceable tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart to third string.
With star tight end Jerome Washington banged up, Vokolek got more action than he had seen this season. Despite the extra snaps, Vokolek had yet to register a catch until late in the 2nd quarter. Rutgers was in an identical game situation to the previous week, trailing 24-7 and time running down in the first half. Rutgers faced a crucial 3rd and 4 from their own 38 yard line because if they went three and out before punting, Illinois might have time to put the game almost officially out of reach with another score.
On the play Art Sitkowski calmly found Vokolek for a 6 yard gain, and then Illinois really went into a defensive shell, prevent, deep cover 2, whatever term you like to use to describe it. Sitkowski, operating uptempo, completed his next three passes and Rutgers was in field goal range (more on that tomorrow.) With 1:21 remaining in the half, the Scarlet Knights called timeout facing a 2nd and 5 from the Illinois 25.
It’s unclear how many plays were called in the timeout, but it’s possible RU lined up its next three. The first was a six yard completion to Vokolek for a first down. The second was a 12 yard completion to Bo Melton to get RU to the Illinois 7. So that set up a first and goal with a tad over a minute to go as the clock had stopped temporarily after the previous two plays went for first downs to move the chains.
Rutgers didn’t waste time and Sitkowski found Vokolek for a touchdown to bring life back into the stadium. Check out the highlight in the tweet below.
The play was simple. Illinois did not blitz, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Sitkowski read the coverage quickly and delivered the ball high so the 6’6” Vokolek could go up and get it. A 17 point deficit was quickly down to 10 and it showed how quickly a team with an effective passing attack can move the ball when they are firing on all cylinders.
These are the type of plays that Rutgers was unable to defend against Indiana the previous week and ones that you see in the NFL every Sunday. If the QB throws to the exact spot a tall receiver can leap from, usually the defensive backs and linebackers have no chance other than hope the ball is bobbled and make a last ditch effort to rip out. Rutgers may not have tall wide receivers, but a number of players at the tight end spot could emerge to make plays like these, Vokolek most likely at this point in time.
Rutgers got the ball to begin the second half hoping to narrow the deficit even further and Sitkowki hit Vokolek on the second play of the half for 22 yards to move the chains and get Illinois on their heels again.
Sitkowski read the blitz and hit Vokolek as his hot receiver to defeat the pressure. The other receivers were all running deep routes so it was critical that Vokolek was ready for the ball quickly and made the play. Since there was so much space, Travis rumbled for extra yards. This is what Rutgers needs to do to stay in games when opponents bring pressure.
The final stat line, 5 catches, 47 yards and a touchdown is not mind blowing, but by far the best game of Vokolek’s young career. After Chris Ash, Coach Okruch, and Coach McNulty all praised his play all throughout the spring, it was nice to see it finally show up on game day. The tight end position is possibly more crucial than any on the Rutgers roster outside of quarterback for the rest of 2018 and Vokolek is a big reason why.
If the Rutgers season continues on its current trajectory and losses mount, all Rutgers will be playing for is pride and the future. Players like Vokolek who could be contributors on better teams in that future need to develop. Hopefully for several players on the Rutgers roster a few years from now, we can look back at a single moment or game from the 2018 season as where he turned the corner or “had everything click”. Maybe this game against Illinois will be that game for Travis Vokolek.