Sitting two weeks away from a new season, there would not be enough time to look at all the statistical breakdowns to explain what went wrong for Rutgers in 2018. Simply put, it was bad - really bad. Today, though, we will look specifically at how quarterly breakdowns of point differentials could be a stepping stone back to respectability.
After an 11 loss season, it should be no surprise that Rutgers was outscored in every quarter last year. Point differentials broke down like this: 1st quarter (-51 points), 2nd quarter (-92), 3rd quarter (-52), and 4th quarter (-20). Therefore, Rutgers averaged trailing by 12 points by halftime in every game. In order to improve on a solitary victory, that number needs to be cut drastically. Considering that information, it is nothing short of a miracle that five losses were by 14 points or less.
This team has a number of challenges ahead of it. Scoring more points, and limiting opponent’s points, is obviously chief among them. I know, understatement of the year. However, a telling sign for the improvement of this squad will come with how long they can stay in the game. When a typical game involves being down two scores at the half, it’s no wonder we had a lost season.
We previously discussed how a focus on gaining more first downs would be a critical characteristic for this season. That goes hand in hand with a desire to slow the game down in the first half. Look, its no secret that Rutgers doesn’t exactly put up video game numbers. In a bubble, there’s no shame in that. Maximizing your strengths and limiting exposure to your weaknesses are what wins games (and get coaches paid). And there are many ways to win a football game. The strongest aspects of this version of Rutgers football are the running game and short passing attack. Embracing that style of play will ultimately benefit this team, although the threat of the deep play still needs to be there.
A drawback to leaning on the short-yardage game, however, is that it is not conducive to a second-half comeback, a situation that was all too familiar a year ago. While the realistic expectation should be that we find ourselves trailing more often than not, a major emphasis on first-half pace in games is going to set this team apart from 2018. Borrowing from basketball for a moment, you often hear about teams making you “play their style”.
This is just what Rutgers needs to accomplish this season for any measurable amount of progress. They aren’t built for the high-flying, down-the-field type of action, at least not yet. That’s why it is so imperative for this team to come out of the gate strong. That doesn’t mean scoring points in droves, it just means executing the offense more efficiently and wearing down those staunch Big Ten defenses a little more.
Conceivably, there won’t be as many turnovers committed this season, too. Regardless of who starts (or finishes) at quarterback, the talent level at the position should be better than last year. Opponents scored a whopping 86 points off Rutgers turnovers in 2018. While it’s impossible to eradicate that number (heck, even Rutgers scored 27 points off turnovers), I think it’s fair assume we really have no where to go but up from there.
Coach Ash and Coach McNulty have their fair share of work to create a better product in 2019. While all of their preparations have the overall goal of winning games, a paramount sub-goal needs to be at least matching our opponents on the scoreboard in the first half through style of play. An uphill climb before halftime is a daunting task for any team, but especially the Scarlet Knights, as we will begin to touch upon.
Another interesting fact from last season - Rutgers scored 16 points in the third quarter... total. That is a statistic that not only highlights a frustratingly poor offense, but also indicates a worrying inability to make halftime adjustments, being out-coached, or perhaps both. Clearly, this staff is striving to be better this season. Aside from not being blown away in the first half, there must be an introspection on how to adjust during the game. Granted, playing from behind as early and as often as they did, naturally coincides with abandoning the game plan, and forcing attempts at big plays - none of which benefited a Rutgers offense with so much inexperience and weak spots.
A successful and committed effort to keep the games closer before the half will naturally have a positive influence, but a better mid-game evaluation of what works, and what doesn’t work, is absolutely imperative. It isn’t impossible, after all the third quarter (55 points) was the second-best scoring quarter in 2017.
The game against Massachusetts will be a telling sign of where this team is. The team has been working hard on fundamentals in a second consecutive season under the same offensive coordinator, but if they continue to have first half struggles and coming out flat after halftime on a regular basis, it will be a footnote in another long year for Rutgers football.