One of the beauties of sports is the overwhelming access to information to allow anyone to analyze the game we love. As even the most casual Rutgers fan could tell you, there are many phases of the game that will require improvement in order to snap an eleven game losing streak and help right the ship. While the defense last season was decent, but not great, they at least finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed and opponent’s completion percentage. The offense, however, was a different story - not surprisingly finding themselves last in most offensive statistic categories in a very forgettable season. Below, we will look at how one statistic in particular, first downs, could be one of the most important areas of improvement for the 2019 squad.
Over the course of a 1-11 campaign, the Rutgers offense showed a myriad of challenges that they had difficulty overcoming. A lack of any sort of offensive production was the cornerstone of a disastrous year. Youth and inexperience across the board (only Giovanni Rescigno, Tariq Cole, Jonah Jackson, Jerome Washington, and Nakia Griffin-Stewart logged any sort of meaningful time as upperclassmen) resulted in conference-worst outputs in completion percentage (48.9%), passing yards per game (132.2), touchdowns per game (1.4), total offense (266.3 yards per game), and turnovers (2.4 per game) en route to an offensive efficiency rating of 14.4 by ESPN (124th of 130 FBS schools). It’s easy to look at any of those numbers and decry them as essential to improved play this year, and you wouldn’t be wrong either.
Today, though, we will look at how a focus on achieving more first downs per game could be the most understated stat to a better showing in 2019. Rutgers gained 15.2 first downs per game last year, also finishing last in the Big Ten in that category. For perspective, keep in mind the “middle-of-the-pack” teams (Penn State and Michigan - 21.5 per game) and the “next best” team (Maryland - 16.9) as benchmarks. In order to climb out of the basement, the offense will need an 11.2% improvement; and a whopping 41.4% increase just to be average in the conference. The “what” is the easy part, but what about the “how”?
It is certainly not an easy undertaking for an offense that barely mustered any life a year ago. Despite averaging those 15.2 first downs per game, only four times did they surpass that mark. And only three of those games - Illinois, Texas State, and Indiana - saw them gain more than 15 first downs by passing or rushing, not by penalties. All of them were among the best offensive games of the year, with the three best completion percentages of 2018, and touchdowns scored through the air and on the ground in each contest. Despite the fact that the running game has a distinct edge over the air attack, it will be imperative to have a more balanced offensive strategy this season. With the core group of skill positions returning (as well as the anticipated emergence of Johnathan Lewis and Matt Alaimo at tight end and freshmen Aaron Young, Kay’ron Adams, and Isaiah Washington) the offense has the opportunity to flash some brilliance if they can execute on plays to move the chains.
That daunting task will rest squarely on the shoulders of the offensive line. Although they will be without Tariq Cole and Jonah Jackson, the unit will return five players who started at least two games last year (including Michael Maietti and Kamaal Seymour who started all twelve). Add in redshirt freshman Raiqwon O’Neal, who is slated slide in to the vacant left tackle position, and there are five or six players who are serviceable, just as Coach McNulty said last week. By the end of training camp, he anticipates a handful more will be game-ready, and they are working on developing different techniques than what we saw last season to accomplish what they expect from a Big Ten offensive line. If nothing else, McNulty has proven throughout his career to adapt his coaching style to maximize the abilities of the players under his purview.
A more reliable offensive line would mean everything for this team - bigger holes to run through and more time for the quarterback and receivers to execute the game plan. How many of those 22 interceptions would have been drive-sustaining plays with mere fractions more of a second to read the field? Combine that with a year’s experience under his belt and the game slowing down for him, and Art Sitkowski’s (who was under center for the entirety of each of the Illinois/Texas State/Indiana games) natural ability has the chance to shine. Furthermore, even an extra yard or two on running plays would do wonders for the prolonged efficiency of the offense. Gaining chunks more yardage to avoid the dreaded third-and-long situations that were so common a year ago is paramount. In turn, of course, that will result in more first downs and less turnovers.
It goes without saying that more first downs has an immense impact on the game, and not just for the offense. Extending time of possession gives the defense some much deserved rest, and many of those vaunted Big Ten offenses off the field. It may be difficult to convince someone that a defense carried a 1-11 team, but with such an anemic offense, that is exactly what happened. Five of those eleven losses were by two possessions or less. In hindsight, that seems incredible. Just imagine what could have been if the offense had maintained drives long enough to take two possessions away from the opponent in those match-ups.
Extending drives with first downs needs to be a primary focus for this team this year. Scoring, yardage, and those “sexy” stats will come with execution. The ability to sustain drives will absolutely be the underlying characteristic of an improved Rutgers offense if we are to see those numbers tick upwards towards respectability this season. Now, let’s move those chains!