When Rutgers entered the locker room down 35-6, I texted Aaron, “this is unwatchable”. I mentioned to my wife that if this was a boxing match or little league baseball game, it would have been stopped. The frustration was so much it bled outside the realm of Rutgers sports as I was honest about how the food she made for breakfast really wasn’t very good, when normally I can at least put a positive spin on it.
The game was pretty much over when Rutgers received the second half kickoff. As seems to be a theme of the season, Raheem Blackshear ran for 7 yards on 1st down, but then lost 3 on 2nd, setting up a 3rd and 6. With Giovanni Rescigno in the game, we all knew that inevitably he would probably scramble toward the sticks for at least a shot at moving the chains. Gio, who does look like the additional muscle may have slowed him a step, slid just short of the first down marker. In fairness he did seem to loosen up and run better the longer he was in the game.
Rutgers went for it on 4th and 1 (aggressiveness not seen much from the coaching staff this year) from their own 34 yard line and Jon Hilliman was able to get two for the first down. It was what a Big Ten team should be able to do against a MAC opponent on a key short yardage play. All of a sudden there was a little hop in the step of the Rutgers offense which for this 2018 team seemed rather surprising.
On first down, Rutgers tried to parlay the momentum, but Gio’s pass was incomplete to Shameen Jones. Gio’s read was right but he didn’t fire the ball on time, before Jones came out of his break. This was one of a few examples where his limitations from a year ago were on display as he had to really step into his throw for some extra mustard and was hit as Rutgers failed to block four men with six. On 2nd down a questionable “chop block” call on Max Anthony set up a 2nd and 25. Specifically on the call, I don’t understand what was a chop block about it. If they wanted to call illegal block in the back, I could have bought that.
Rather than whining and just sending out the punting unit on 2nd down and 25 which was what most fans had to be thinking at this point, Gio completed a short pass to Jon Hilliman for 9 yards. First thought was that it was surprising Rutgers was able to complete a short pass without difficulty. What made it more impressive was that Buffalo wasn’t just sitting back in a prevent and bodies were flying around creating heavy traffic. Mike Maietti had a real nice legal block from an odd angle and everyone on the offense seemed to be in sync. Naturally, the play was called back for Mike Lonsdorf’s holding downfield around the spot Hilliman was brought down. The call was right, but not an egregious hold and set up a 2nd and 26 since it was a spot foul.
Again, Rutgers didn’t just throw in the towel on the drive. Instead, John McNulty dialed up a deep pass that caught Buffalo napping as Bo Melton got behind the defense.
Unfortunately, Gio does not have the arm or consistent reps of Tyree Jackson and instead of this being a momentum generating an 80 yard touchdown (think Jawuan Harris v New Mexico in 2016), Melton had to come back on the ball and knock it away to avoid an interception. For what it’s worth, this was the third time I can remember this year that Melton did an excellent job playing defense on a poorly thrown ball. Heck, they moved Jawuan Harris to defense the year after he led the team in receiving so anything’s possible!
Check it out from another angle that shows a good deep ball would have been an easy touchdown.
So here we go again. Rather than Rutgers just try some draw play on 3rd and 26 that goes for 5 yards and punt, John McNulty called one of the few plays in the playbook designed to gain the first down. Gio made a perfect throw to a streaking Jerome Washington (who was awesome yet again in this game) for a gain of 24. In the image below, notice how the top corner was defending Eddie Lewis and Shameen Jones, so this play could have gone for even more yards. Instead Gio threads the ball perfectly to Jerome Washington past a diving #22 and Washington does a nice spin off a big hit to get three more yards after contact.
Rather than mess around on another 4th and 2, Rutgers ran up to the line and Hilliman powered behind the line and found a small crease for another 4th down conversion. Once again, Rutgers imposed their will over a non Power five opponent in short yardage. For Chris Rock fans out there it felt like, “I feed my kids! That’s what you’re supposed to do!”
Then the coaching staff did the right thing even though the play didn’t work out by getting the ball to Blackshear. The play came via an unconventional diamond bunch to the right in the hope Raheem could take advantage of a slightly tired defense for a big play, but he lost a yard. This is the type of throw that with so many bodies, the quarterback must hit the receiver quickly right in the hands or bodies will close in to make the tackle. Against Texas State, this was the type of throw that made you see Art Sitkowski’s accuracy. The accuracy that fans keep asking me about and demonstrates the one facet of the potential Sitkowski brings in the long term.
Nevertheless on 2nd and 11, Gio fired one between the second and third level defenders for another completion to Melton to the Buffalo 40. The drive ultimately stalled, and with all the penalties ended up only gaining 33 yards on three first down conversions (two of which came on fourth down). That said, this drive is what Rutgers offense had not done in mixing run and pass since the season opener. It featured everything you want to see other than points: creative ways to get the ball to Blackshear, hard inside running from Hilliman, a few nice throws by Gio, a deep shot downfield, a clutch play by Washington, and some ability to gain yards even after the offense is “off schedule”. When facing any team that is not a Big Ten Titan, these are the type of drives we need to see at minimum a few times each half rather than three and outs or ones where the team gives up when in 2nd or 3rd and long situations.
Again, Rutgers did not score points and was still down 35-6, but the energy helped set the stage for what was almost a shutout from the defense in the 2nd half. (The only Bulls score came when Rutgers turned the ball over on downs at their own 6 yard line.) The Rutgers offense came out two drives later and generated a 70 yard touchdown drive in part because they were able to find a few things that worked well enough earlier to build upon after talking it over on the sideline.
Then somehow on the following drive was inside the 10 yard line with a chance to cut it to a two score game with about 12 minutes to go. A touchdown there would have at least given RU a chance against a tired Buffalo defense. A lucky bounce here or there and at least there’s a shot, sometimes along with momentum all you need in college football. And at least worth watching. Unfortunately, hyped freshman Raiqwon O’Neal was blown up twice in place of star left tackle Tariq Cole and Rutgers came away with no points, still down 35-13.
I’m not saying Buffalo didn’t call off the dogs a little bit in the second half. Nor am I saying this sliver of hope will one day become high-powered offense. But what I am saying is that the third quarter demonstrated at least competent offensive football that indicated Rutgers practiced during the week. More importantly in the big picture, it allowed many of the young players on the Rutgers offense to build some of their own individual confidence.
It’s not how many times you get hit, but how many times you can get back up. After you get back up, you better have learned something or you end up right back on the street, mat, or wherever else the confrontation is taking place. Had Rutgers performed in the second half the same way they did in the first and lost by a margin of 67-6 for example, no one could have blamed Pat Hobbs for making a change on the spot. Hobbs insists he would never make an in-season move but if there was ever a time to do it, Saturday September 22 was almost it. Instead, the glimmer of hope that the offense can at least be competent was enough to give the Knights something to use moving forward. Can they?