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Big Boys up Front: Votes are in with a little Xs and Os!

Texas Bowl: Rutgers v Kansas State
Stapleton (#53), Stephenson (#63), Fladell (#72), and Sosa (#77) were all solid starters on the line.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

There is a legend from my High School’s annual thanksgiving football rivalry pre-game where one year (guessing 1975) at the morning breakfast, one of the offensive linemen ate 24 pancakes. Naturally he was in the now outlawed “wedge” for the opening kickoff and promptly regurgitated a significant portion of the two dozen. What is unclear however, is if it proved to be an effective blocking tactic.

Until told otherwise, none of the big boys of Rutgers Football did anything quite like that, unless I missed it! Last Wednesday you voted on the most cohesive offensive blocking units in Rutgers Football history. Here are the results with some thoughts below.


Best offensive line in RU Football history?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    1913: Hall of Fame coach’s first season success.
    (2 votes)
  • 1%
    1919: No Paul Robeson, no problem!
    (2 votes)
  • 4%
    1953: Most All-Americans. End of story.
    (6 votes)
  • 0%
    1958: Paved the way for skill position guys.
    (0 votes)
  • 4%
    1961: Road graded enough to be undefeated.
    (6 votes)
  • 3%
    1976: Undefeated again without a Hall of Famer.
    (5 votes)
  • 61%
    2006: Combo of team success and individual talent.
    (84 votes)
  • 12%
    2012: Big East co-champions, for real.
    (17 votes)
  • 10%
    2014: These guys did it in the Big Ten!
    (14 votes)
136 votes total Vote Now

Gold: 2006. 63% of the vote, wow.

The combination of team success and NFL success made this such an easy choice for OTB readers. The 2006 Mike Teel was not yet close to the 2008 second half Mike Teel, so this team relied on power running and only once (Cincinnati) did they need to abandon that game plan at any time during the entire year. The lasting memories of the offensive line imposing their will in games like Illinois and Syracuse is probably why they are most deserving. When the other team knows you are going to run and they still can’t stop it, that’s all about the offensive line. Some highlights that don’t even do it justice are here.

The Rutgers dive play between center and guard was devastating to the point it seemed Scarlet Knights could get minimum three yards to that spot whenever they wanted, so the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Cameron Stephenson and signed Darnell Stapleton. Stapleton was an immediate starter as a rookie on the Super Bowl champs. Mike Fladell and Pedro Sosa returned for another year on the banks before joining NFL training camps, though they would not play in regular season games. Jeremy Zuttah is the only starter not pictured in the title photo, but he went on to a lengthy Pro Bowl NFL career, retiring last season. For more on each member of the group check out the 2006 media guide here.

Silver: 2012. 13% of the vote.

It was good to see this group get some solid love, after rewatching the available film I’d definitely put them second. The first loss came when Gary Nova just chucked interceptions without pressure against Kent State, a game where the offense really moved the ball well other than the picks. Jawan Jamison’s injury turned the tide of this season, because before he went down, Rutgers could get three yards between left tackle Kaleb Johnson and left guard Antwan Lowery whenever they wanted. I don’t think the offensive line forgot how to block as they lost the final three games, but still earned a share of the Big East title. The final streak began when Rutgers just played it way too conservatively (not wanting to show anything) against Pitt thinking all that mattered was the Louisville game, when of course the Cardinals lose that day and Rutgers would have coasted into a BCS game.

So that sets up the showdown for a BCS berth in what amounted to the Big East championship game. Rewatching clips from the Louisville game (most painful game of my life, worse than even 2006 WVU), the Rutgers offense for the most part moved the ball well. The Cardinals knew they could not contain Rutgers big play receivers one on one downfield so Louisville’s defensive strategy was not to blitz and try to force Rutgers to run the ball or throw the ball underneath so their big hitters like Calvin Pryor to come up and make plays. This was their way of reducing the impact of the Rutgers offensive line, even though the receivers still turned short gains into big ones, namely Mark Harrison and Brandon Coleman’s ridiculous touchdowns. The game was lost by the momentum of Teddy Bridgewater going out of his mind despite injury that inspired his teammates and of course, Tim Wright not only dropping a pass that would have got Rutgers way closer to field goal range but knocking it up in the air for an easy interception.

So then there’s the rainy Russell Athletic Bowl which was a let down for both participants. Jawan Jamison, like Paul James later, is simply a master at setting up blocks. Unfortunately, he did not play in this game so the defensive genius Frank Beamer deployed a solid game plan evident in Virginia Tech’s highlights and Rutgers highlights. Beamer attempted to flood (the pun never gets old) the Rutgers backfield by slanting his defensive line and linebackers on virtually every play. When defensive linemen slant, they are basically selling out to that one side. Rutgers offensive line did need some time in the first half to figure out that they should not reach block and instead just get a body on whoever was slanting in front of them. Running backs with good vision know this and will adjust their timing and angles to slip right behind a blocker or see the space to make a defender miss in. There were just so many bodies in there it was difficult, though a solid tailback probably would have been able to fall forward when not much was there and capitalize more frequently when the perfect playcall was made. At times Rutgers did break big gainers due to the gambles of the Hokies not paying off.

This was a failure of the Rutgers coaching staff to adjust at all OR the fact that their healthy running backs, particularly Savon Huggins simply couldn’t set up or read blocks. Unlikely they would have thought the Hokie DBs were too good to throw against. More plausible is the Rutgers staff thought they should just play it safe and hope the defense could win it Waterboy style.

Bronze: 2014. 10% of the vote.

The most controversial result on this list was summed up well by TrollsDestroyedNJcom that in fact even during a Big Ten win (like Michigan), Gary Nova was making plays, “Perfect example…Michigan game…what looked like a sure sack, Nova turned into a TD throw.” Though I agree that at times Nova covered for imperfect offensive line play during the 2014 season and when he was off his game the team was blown out a few times, this particular play was not an offensive lineman “getting beat”. The highlight is below as Nova faces a man-to-man cover zero blitz.

Michigan plays man to man coverage on every Rutgers player who runs a pass route with no safety help. It’s true that even though normally you shouldn’t leave a guy in the middle unblocked, Nova and the offensive line had communicated well enough to know that there would be a free rusher. Justin Goodwin (#32) is the back who elects to block the blind side blitzer instead of Frank Clark (#56) which allows Nova to see the free man. This may have been either by design or an instruction Nova made to Goodwin before the play.

It was still an incredible play for Nova to avoid the sack of the All-American Clark, demonstrating pocket presence that cannot be taught, and I’m so glad this play was specifically referenced because it shows that you don’t have to be perfect. The 2014 team was not perfect, but they were a good enough team to win the majority of games when they were simply not completely overpowered. Let’s hope the 2018 team can do the same.

Kent State v Rutgers
Kaleb Johnson was a four year starter on the offensive line at three different positions.
Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

For the second week in a row, there was no controversy on the format.

Notable: The undefeated squads (1961 and 1976) earned 4% of the vote each. These teams were tough to grade due to the lack of film and at times, questionable quality of opponents. That being said, a case could surely have been made for either one of those teams because who knows? If they had to do more against better teams, they may have. We’ll never know.

Missing in action: I don’t want to be the person to report to Rutgers football old timers that the 1958 team received ZERO votes.

It was surprising that we didn’t have more comments. Was the topic too boring? Were people so steadfast in their preconceived opinions? Was it just a busy week for our strong commenters? Let us know!

Thanks for participating and look for another opportunity to vote this Wednesday. The category this week is not entire defensive backfields, but who was the most complete defensive back in Rutgers Football history! The hint for this week’s movie theme is ... Cadre Cola. Let the debate begin at DBU!

For all those who continue to vote, comment, and shake off criticism ...