In 2004, John McNulty took a position on Greg Schiano’s Rutgers coaching staff. After three seasons as wide receivers coach, Schiano promoted McNulty to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. For those two seasons in 2007 and 2008, Rutgers maintained the defensive prowess that elevated the program from the doldrums to a perennial bowl participant, but added the most explosive offense in the program’s history. During McNulty’s first year as offensive coordinator, Rutgers became the first team in NCAA FBS history to have a 3,000 yard passer, 2,000 yard rusher, and two 1,000 yard receivers.
Now the two former colleagues will call plays against one another in an official game for the first time as Rutgers travels to the Horseshoe on Saturday. Before I get called out on the fact that McNulty served on the Michigan staff in 1993 and 1994 while Schiano was the DB coach at PSU, neither coach was calling the plays in either of those games. In 1998, McNulty was the Jaguars wide receiver coach when Schiano was coaching the Bears DBs, so at least their position groups were going head to head in that one.
Let’s dig into how much this actually matters with some film from the season opening wins by both squads to illustrate.
Do both coaches run the same schemes as Rutgers did in 2007-2008?
McNulty started his press conference by saying, “There are some similarities to the system he ran here, but I think it’s a little bit different,’’ “(Schiano is) a little bit more reliant on the personnel to just go play hard and play fast, and they certainly do that. They’re physical, they create a lot of challenges schematically as well. I don’t know if it’s a total recall from 10 years ago and going against each other in practice and all that.” Check out Aaron’s full recap of the game week Rutgers press conference here.
The takeaway: McNulty will try and take advantage of Ohio State playing fast, perhaps with counters or misdirection.
Schiano added a good point as well, “[McNulty] knows the verbiage, and I’m sure he’s going to tell his players that, so we’ll have to change some of the words we use on the field, some of the calls, so they’re not aware exactly what’s happening.” For a full transcription of Schiano’s game week press conference click here.
The takeaway: Switching up nomenclature isn’t a huge deal, but could cause an error here and there even if they weren’t 18-22 year old kids trying to execute. Schiano may prefer to call certain defensive plays more than the past, but his system is very similar.
How much does this coaching matchup really matter?
Ohio State is filled with four and five-star talent, which gives Schiano and the Buckeyes more options. They gave up three touchdowns due to bad tackling which most teams improve from week 1 to week 2. So expect OSU to do a much better job avoiding gauging runs up the middle like they did against the Beavers. For an underdog to have a chance, the key is in the ability to complete passes. Going man on man with Ohio State in the trenches will not end well. So all the plays this week will be in the passing game because if Rutgers can’t pass, they probably won’t be able to run either.
McNulty’s ability to throw different formations with a lot of motion is essential to Rutgers’s ability to have a chance against the Big Ten elite. This is a 3rd down and 8 situation on the first drive of the game in the scoreless tie. Rutgers comes out in a tight trips bunch right and Artur Sitkowski immediately motions Raheem Blackshear out to the left creating an empty backfield. This was cringeworthy because most inexperienced quarterbacks can’t play without a back as a safety valve, but more on that in a minute. Texas State is in a nickel defense with their slot corner on the man in the front of the bunch.
Blackshear’s motion in the photo above causes the weakside linebacker to shift toward the bottom of the screen and the outside corner appears to switch his assignment to Blackshear. This is a pretty good tell that it’s not a corner blitz or a weakside linebacker blitz. Tariq Cole will take the weakside defensive end standing up and Nick Krimin at left guard will block the main in front of him. Michael Maietti at center is responsible for the Middle linebacker if he blitzes or help right guard Jonah Jackson if it’s only a four man rush. Kamaal Seymour has the strong side DE, and Rutgers is probably content to allow a corner blitz from Sitkowski’s right side because the Rutgers would have two blockers against only the outside cornerback and deep safety. So even before the play begins, Sitkowski should have a pretty good read on what the defense will do close to the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, Texas State drops into a cover 2, man-under look. The nickel corner gives space to Hunter Hayek at the top of the screen and cheats toward Bo Melton who is running a curl at the first down marker. The outside corner has deep help but is late closing in on Melton at the sticks. Jerome Washington is also at the line to gain, so the middle linebacker has to stay with him. Sitkowski’s read goes from right to left and he sees a tight window that will open for a split second. Sitkowski fires before Melton turns around and the timing is perfect to convert a first down.
Bunch formations can be dangerous because the defense can elect to jam at the line or put defenders in position to blitz any number of guys in that vicinity. Expect Schiano to employ a slot corner or safety blitz through the bunch and see if Sitkowski can recognize it quick enough for a hot route.
Last season after Kyle Bolin could not complete these type of plays he was replaced by Giovanni Rescigno. Gio in these instances was often coached to scramble outside the pocket. Then he could tuck it and run effectively in third and medium or complete what Jay Niemann calls a “scramble pass” where the defense is caught on the wrong side of their receivers due to the roll out.
What can McNulty do to offset the talent gap?
This will be a recurring theme late in the season as well. In the example above, Texas State plays it conservative with their DBs way off the ball. Ohio State has the talent to press man and it will be interesting to watch if Rutgers receivers have improved at defeating guys trying to jam them at the line in 2018.
One element to McNulty’s style is how much shifting he employs. This takes discipline as it can result in illegal motions, false starts, and raises risk of players missing their assignment. When done well, this is a way to have the defense tip its hand. Another thing to be aware of is that defenses usually only have two or three coverages that they will audible to. So with good film study, an offense can often figure out what defensive calls will be automatic against certain personnel sets. These coverages are rarely overly complex which simplifies the quarterbacks reads compared with what could be called in the defensive huddle at the outset. Also notice how Rutgers doesn’t waste time immediately following their shifts to give the defense time to adjust.
Let’s look at how McNulty uses full shifts to give his quarterback more of a chance to read a defensive coverage. I’ve chosen the very first play of the game to illustrate this.
Rutgers lines up in a three tight end set. It appears Texas State is not immediately ready for this look and takes a moment to decide if they will consider it strong left or strong right, which every defense will do before every play. Defenses do this to communicate which is the strong side and therefore which linebacker and safety have particular assignments based on the play called.
Rutgers shifts into a no back set, but Texas State is in their normal base defense after seeing three tight ends on the field before Rutgers lined up. With the lack of speed on the field, Texas State corners decide not to press allowing a huge cushion for an easy five yards to several different receivers. Sitkowski will now decide which side he wants to throw to as the routes run indicate he could either go down to #85 Daevon Robinson or up to Raheem Blackshear. Blackshear’s ability as a runner and receiver is key to making the defense respect that both are desirable options for Rutgers.
With this being a quick hitting play, Rutgers tackles Kamaal Seymour and Tariq Cole don’t even hold their blocks, but allow their men to come through. After waiting for the ball to be thrown, they both then head downfield to block the next level defender. This play could have been even bigger than it was as Texas State was in poor position to defend it in every possible way. If Blackshear was a tad more patient, he could have set up his blockers even better. (I also liked this playcall because Art had no time to think after the snap and it built his confidence after his first collegiate completion.)
Ohio State’s defense is more experienced in their scheme as Schiano was there last year than Texas State is in a new system, so the Buckeyes will be able to change their calls to more different looks at the line. Still though, the shifts if done well can dictate what Ohio State elects to do defensively.
How much pressure will Schiano bring?
It’s not a question of “if” but “how much”. General football theory is to blitz against inexperienced quarterbacks and play coverage against veterans. Of course there are exceptions as Art Sitkowski did a pretty good job recognizing pressure. The sacks he did take were often due to missed blocks and more often than not he got the ball to the area vacated by a blitzer.
The best defensive minds like a Jim Johnson or Dick LeBeau in the NFL can get a free rusher due to scheme even without bringing more guys than the offense can block. Take a look at this play by the Ohio State defense as Oregon State is down big and in a passing situation. Oregon State features a back and a tight end lined up next to the right tackle. Ohio State begins in a balanced 4-3 stack, with a strong side linebacker blitz.
Immediately following the snap, the free safety bails into a deep cover 1. The outside and nickel corners man up tight on the wide receivers. The strong safety closes in on the tight end who chip blocks the strong side linebacker #20. The middle linebacker is responsible for the running back and flows toward the line on the play action. This vulnerability to the quarterback option (no one is responsible for him) would be exploited by Oregon State on their 3rd and 4th touchdowns later in the game.
The quarterback has time for his first two reads, but both receivers to his left are tightly covered. Despite the left guard whiffing on his block, the defensive lineman falls down at first. With the running back leaking out to the left flat completely vacant, there is less than a second to get the ball to a place where only he can get it as #20 is unblocked off the opposite side. Knowing that the running back may not go to the left, the quarterback holds onto the ball too long to avoid an intentional grounding penalty which in the end zone would result in a safety.
Unfortunately, it’s a worse outcome for the Beavers than a two-point safety. The running back elects to run straight up the middle where the middle linebacker #5 is just waiting. The quarterback is sacked and fumbles the ball. Nick Bosa #97 recovers for the touchdown as he completely undresses the right tackle on this play.
Sitkowski is not a big time runner, so don’t expect much option with him in the game. If Lewis or Rescigno gets their number called though, Rutgers should attempt some quarterback run-pass options or QB scramble options. Without the QB run in the playbook, Sitkowski will have to make quick reads and hope his receivers can get open quicker than Oregon State did on this play. Ohio State has so much individual talent coached by one of the best defensive line coaches of all-time in Larry Johnson, so the margin for error is razor thin. Being forced into passing situations will not end well for any Buckeye opponent in 2018.
How has Schiano fared against true freshmen?
Sitkowski enrolled early in spring, but he did just play his first college football game. I can’t find the statistic on how well Greg Schiano has done against true freshman quarterbacks on his opponents, but my recollection back during his days at Rutgers was that Greg fared quite well. When asked in the press conference Monday about how to prepare for a guy with one college start, Schiano had this to say, “More than that it is what does it allow the offensive coordinator to do? As a coach you have to scheme against the plays that all 11 guys are going to do.”
What Schiano means by that is a few things primarily. 1. Can the quarterback operate out of multiple formations? 2. Does the quarterback possess the physical tools to complete passes to his receivers all over the field? 3. Does the quarterback understand how to go through his progressions on every play? 4. Does the quarterback understand all the protections?
I’ve chosen a 2nd and 11 early in the second quarter to illustrate how difficult it is for an offense to block five rushers with no back as I referenced earlier. Communication is crucial and the Scarlet Knights were not on the same page here, but it may or may not have been due to Sitkowski. Notice how many elements of this play are identical in the previous one broken down that resulted in an Oregon State fumble in their own end zone.
Texas State employs a 4-3 stack against what looks like a double twins formation for Rutgers with two wideouts to each side. Sitkowski has to guess which linebacker will come on a blitz unless he believes the weak side defensive end has any chance of covering Jerome Washington one on one or the Bobcats are actually in a cover zero with no safety help. Eddie Lewis motions from the right slot to the left.
The weak side linebacker likely has Jerome Washington unless he runs deep and will get picked up by the strong safety. The free safety isn’t really covering anyone or in a position to assist a teammate. The middle linebacker comes as a 5th rusher up the gut (A gap). The strong side linebacker is also in no man’s land, so Rutgers is effectively playing 11 on 9 for all intensive purposes initially. This play is set up perfectly for a dump off to Lewis who has no defender anywhere near him. Blackshear elects to run a seam route, but Cole lets the outside rusher through.
Instead, the protection call was either wrong or someone misses an assignment. Perhaps it is on Art for calling the protection wrong or not knowing the plan was to leave the weak side DE free. Center Michael Maietti also has responsibilities in calling the protection, so maybe he messed up. It’s also possible everything was called right but Blackshear made a mistake by not staying in to block. Or it’s possible the protection was right and Art should have just dumped off to Eddie wide open in the left flat. As you can see without being in the huddle, it’s hard to be sure what went wrong on this play. Art throws an incompletion that could have been intercepted.
As a result Rutgers had a third and long which Sitkowski completed to Blackshear with an uncovered, wide open Jerome Washington but neither player likely could have converted the first down. Rutgers is forced to punt. This sequence shows how Rutgers needs to help out their quarterback better, but Sitkowski has plenty of room for growth, too.
This game is more than just McNulty v Schiano obviously, but to keep the game close Rutgers’s offense will need to move the ball or Jay Niemann’s defense will spend way too much time on the field. McNulty has some tools at his disposal with the playbook and a quarterback who can fit the ball into some tight windows. Ohio State will probably play a lot of cover-1 to try and prevent the big plays that they surrendered in Week 1, especially if star safety and New Jersey native, Jordan Fuller returns from injury. Great offense can make plays against great defense, but the margin for error is quite slim.
Here’s to the Rutgers offense making some plays on Saturday!