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Rutgers Film Review: Preparing for Kansas’s run game

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Don’t sound the alarm yet on this Rutgers season.

NCAA Football: Texas State at Rutgers
Morris and Hester are key to the matchup at Kansas.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Several of our contributors at OTB gave their thoughts about last week’s defeat at Ohio State. For those that avidly read our blog you probably already know that in blowouts the score doesn’t matter to me whatsoever. The takeaways come primarily from whether or not the underdog showed signs of improvement in the keys to the game; for Rutgers last weekend these results were a mixed bag. Upon rewatching the game coupled with analysis of the Jayhawks’ big plays the matchup still seems to be a good one for the Scarlet Knights.

Last week heading into the OSU matchup, we broke down film of the the Rutgers passing offense as the biggest key to the game. The biggest takeaway I had was that after Texas State failed to press the RU receivers, the wideouts simply were not ready for that against Ohio State. So it will be interesting to see if they can do better because the RU offensive line absolutely should not get manhandled by Kansas.

This week, the biggest key to the game is whether or not Rutgers defense can stop the Kansas rushing attack. In Kansas’s season opening loss to FCS Nicholls State, they only ran for 56 yards. This past Saturday though, Kansas played a nice game and handily defeated Central Michigan, their first FBS road win since 2009. The Jayhawks completed 17 passes for a pedestrian 145 yards, but they gauged the Chippewas for 216 yards on the ground. Kansas asserted their will from the very beginning of the game.

14:55 remaining 1st quarter. 0-0. 1st and 10 for Kansas

Kansas lines up with twins left and the H-back right. Pooka Williams (more on him later) gets a carry on his first collegiate play.

Notice the free weak side backer who has to make this play.

Note how the entire line blocks down leaving the weak side linebacker as the man the runner simply has to beat. Williams makes that weak side linebacker miss and gets to the second level before the other two linebackers get off their blocks to set up a 2nd a 3. The unblocked backside safety doesn’t even get near the play until it is over. The Jayhawks did an excellent job in several situations of strategically not blocking certain defenders over the course of the game. It will be incumbent on the unblocked linebacker, likely returning Big Ten tackling leader Trevor Morris to make plays like these. If he doesn’t, the safeties better read run plays correctly (more on that later).

14:45 remaining 1st quarter. 0-0. 2nd and 3 for Kansas

On the very next play, Kansas hurries to the line then capitalizes on Central Michigan crashing the middle hard. Perhaps quarterback Peyton Bender saw something on film that allowed him to execute read-options so effectively.

Note how wide open the edges are here.

Khalil Herbert easily bounces outside for another solid gain before being stopped by the strong safety who saved a monster gain. Note how the Kansas offensive linemen are on the taller, leaner side so Rutgers defensive linemen will need to stay low and fight pressure. Also important to notice is how on the first two plays, Jayhawk receivers drove their men back big time. Coach Beaty noted in his press conference how important this downfield blocking was to their offense.

Kansas’s first drive failed after back to back incomplete passes. While playing up tempo, their subsequent four drives all stalled due to incompletions, sacks, or penalties (mostly in pass protection). After good field position and a personal foul, Kansas was approaching field goal range but faced a 3rd and medium in their next opportunity.

5:18 remaining 2nd quarter. 0-0. 3rd and 6 for Kansas

The Jayhawks first TD came in the pass game, but it was due to Central Michigan respecting the run or possibly just disrespecting the pass. In the tweet above, you can see the defensive back takes one step toward the play action and is burned badly deep. There was no safety help as all defenders for the Chippewas were playing run-first, even on a 3rd down and six probably daring Kansas to drop back to pass. Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender did a nice job recognizing this and making the play to Kerr Johnson Jr.

The game remained the same on the scoreboard with a 7-0 Jayhawks lead early in the 3rd quarter. After being gifted good field position on their first drive, a missed field goal was the last straw for Beaty and his staff. It was time to take the training wheels off the true freshman four star prospect Williams who spurned offers from his home state LSU Tigers and nearby Mississippi State.

10:19 remaining 3rd quarter. 7-0 Kansas lead. 1st and 10 for Kansas

Kansas goes with double twins and Williams takes a delayed handoff. Central Michigan shows a “robber” look with one deep safety and a linebacker in a middle zone. All four receivers are being covered man to man, which makes it easier for all of them to block.

Williams goes straight up the middle as the guards and tackles blow their men back and the center easily blocks the middle linebacker. Williams could choose one of three different open lanes five yards ahead of the line of scrimmage.

Notice how no defender can defeat a block.

He makes just a simple head fake to indicate he’s going to the bottom of the screen tricking the bottom side safety and allowing the left slot receiver to impede the progress of two defenders to the ball carrier. A subtle stiff arm at high speed and somewhat weak tackling effort by #5 results in the second score of the game. Watch the entire highlight in the tweet below.

NOTE: A breakdown of how Kansas took advantage of overpursuit by the Chippewas in the Kansas City star provides more on this.

On the subsequent possession, Kansas came up with an INT on a 3rd and long and from there it was a one-sided affair. Two plays later Pooka got loose again.

9:08 remaining 3rd quarter. 14-0 Kansas lead. 1st and 10 for Kansas

After a completion to Steven Sims Jr. (a reliable target) for 11 yards to open the drive, Kansas sets up three receivers right which they hadn’t done much of. In a light version of the statue of liberty, Williams takes a delayed handoff and has all kinds of real estate. Notice how the offensive line is manned up, but none of them have driven their men back from the line of scrimmage 41 yard line. In fact, only one lineman has held his ground at all.

So much green here for Williams.

From here Pooka makes a nice move to slip a tackle much like he did on the previous touchdown and no one else gets a clean shot on him. Again great downfield blocking by the Kansas wideouts. And in less than two minutes on the game clock 7-0 has become 21-0.

In his first career game, Williams Jr. tallied 125 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. This was absolutely not a mirage. Williams did not play in the season opening loss to Nicholls State due to an “eligibility issue” and as their best home run hitter. Oddly when pressed to confirm his status moving forward, coach Beaty actually did not. He instead restated that Williams was ineligible for the season opener due to an eligibility issue. So on the surface, Pooka should be good to go now. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t coach just say it?

Conclusion

Kansas did not do anything fancy in this game. They weren’t running reverses, jet sweeps, crazy counter action, tosses against the grain; just solid zone blocking and backs making often just one key unblocked defender miss.

  1. If Kansas wants to play with tempo, Rutgers needs to make them pay like Scarlet Knight opponents did in 2016, when the defense has little time to rest after quick three and outs. Central Michigan had tons of opportunities in the first half and failed to score a single point. Once Kansas can ground and pound, the Rutgers offense will be forced to take advantage of all their opportunities and that is not something they have shown this season.
  2. If Kansas is forced to throw the ball a lot, like they have been the last few seasons, they should struggle even against a banged up RU secondary. Though Kerr Johnson and Sims are pretty reliable, the quarterback is not a big time passer. Several passes went to no one even with minimal pass rush. With a zone blocking scheme, defenders either need to win their individual matchups to get off blocks, or the unblocked men (likely one LB and a safety on every play) need to diagnose plays quickly and be sure tacklers. One edge Rutgers has is that their experienced defensive backs are better at shedding blocks than Central Michigan for sure. For all those Saquan Hampton fans out there, he needs to close ground and make tackles in this game. Deonte Roberts cannot let a center just come up and block him in wide open space, either.
  3. Once Kansas was ahead and Central Michigan decided they needed to throw the ball to catch up (while Kansas realized they should not throw the ball), this game got out of hand. The Jayhawks only had nine takeaways in 2017, but already have seven this season in just two contests. Rutgers even if they are trailing in the second half need not panic.

Yes, Kansas is coming off a win. Yes Rutgers struggled to contain Indiana’s run game the past few years predicated on a running back rotation that needs to be fresh to make people miss just like the Jayhawks. Yes Rutgers gave up 50+ last week. Despite all that, I think this is a bad matchup for Kansas.

Rutgers defenders tackled better against Ohio State than Central Michigan did against Kansas. Rutgers defenders should have enough experience to not overpursue like the Chippewas. Rutgers defensive backs should be able to man up and use some cover zero, corner blitzes, and disguised coverages to disrupt pre-snap reads from Bender. Rutgers offense was terrible against Ohio State, but they will surely do better than Central Michigan. There’s no guarantee Rutgers wins this game on the road against a Power 5 opponent, but they can’t ask for a better Power 5 opponent to get back on track against. If they don’t, feel free to sound the alarm. Until then, have some confidence Jay Niemann will deliver a game plan that will work as long as Rutgers offense can give the defense some breathers.

If you disagree, let us know why in the comments section!