Rutgers began the season Friday with a win over UMass and held the Game 2 weekly press conference Monday to preview this week’s matchup with Iowa.
Here’s my five biggest takeaways from listening to the press conference. As per past disclaimers, I am acknowledging in advance that because coaches try to avoid bulletin board or scouting material for opponents, much of the media commentary is likely excessive assessment. I may be overanalyzing or taking a leap in the conclusions per just a few small phrases from the Coach. Watch the full Chris Ash in the embedded video below.
1. “I thought the communication was really good from the offensive line perspective, as well.”
Ash gave a pretty typical opening statement, none of which really caught my ear other than the mentions of the offensive line. Ash indicated, “I thought the o-line probably played one of its best games an offensive line has played since I’ve been here. They were clean.” UMass showed a lot of different looks and brought a lot of different people without any certainty in a week 1 game.
Dave’s take: There’s several keys here. The first is the “communication.” Several writers, including myself, felt that Rutgers settled on their starting five offensive linemen WAY before they needed to, rather than allowing position battles to heat up in summer training camp. The upside of the approach Ash and position coach Pete Rossomando took is that it gave the group more time to jell, allowing more time for improved communication among the starters. Rewatching the game a bit, Ash was correct that the number of protection breakdowns was quite low. Credit to center Michael Maietti.
I watched a lot of football on Saturday and several close games were heavily decided by big plays made due to offensive line breakdowns including the Northwestern-Stanford game and most notably the North Carolina-South Carolina contest. Rutgers faces Iowa in Week 2 and the Hawkeyes flashed some pressure off the edge with a four man rush, but the big plays from the defensive line mostly came on blown blocking assignments from their opponent, Miami of Ohio. The Scarlet Knights led by McLane Carter and Maietti calling the protections need more of the same to avoid the same fate as Miami (OH) did against Iowa.
2. Question: “Did you take over the defensive play calling after the first quarter?” Answer: “No.”
The very first question after Ash completed his opening statement was whether he took over the defense after they surrendered 21 points in the first quarter. The logical follow up was whether or not Ash was involved at all. He answered, “I’m always involved in the defense, but no, Andy Buh is calling the defense. I’m always involved in the defense, always communicating with the defensive staff. That will always be the case with my background.”
Dave’s take: It appeared to me that Buh was still calling the plays, but the next time I watch the film will pay much closer attention.
The more interesting element to me would be hypothetically, even if Ash had decided his coaching life is on the line and he needed to take ownership, would he admit it? It would be a double edged sword. If Ash did admit, that shows recruits and current players to hit the panic button already. If Ash did not take over and Rutgers continued to get scored upon, his detractors would point to a lack of urgency that plagued the team a year ago.
From my vantage point, the defense was hurt by a lack of discipline with three absolutely unneccesary penalties and poor safety play. Neither of those is related to the defensive play calling.
3. “They recruit guys, like you mentioned that fit their culture, fit their program that, they can develop and they are not worried about headlines and stars or worried about fits and the ability to develop. It’s been a pretty consistent and successful formula.”
Ash gave a lengthy response to a question about how he in the past indicated he would like to model his program after Iowa. He started his answer by saying Rutgers is not close, though he probably will never feel Rutgers is “close enough.” Then he spoke the praises of Kirk Ferentz, his staff, and the Iowa program as a whole. It was pretty typical complimentary stuff from one coach to another.
Dave’s take: In the past, we have discussed what programs Rutgers should model themselves after. Michigan State always comes up followed by Northwestern, Wisconsin, and one time I wrote, Oregon. Maryland took that idea with their infinite numbers of uniforms, Under Armor sponsorship as opposed to Nike, and running the same offense as the Ducks.
Iowa is not discussed enough. Their classic uniforms, a sign of the steadiness with Hayden Fry and now Ferentz is quite impressive. Their season opening performance featured less mistakes than probably any other team that played this past weekend. Rutgers has their work cut out and if we do see a regime change on the banks, I will be sure to do a piece on the pros and cons of trying to replicate the Hawkeye way.
4. “... the players have to go out and execute and that’s what it’s about. It’s not about, you know, coach-against-coach.”
Ash fielded a question about how impactful it will be that the Hawkeyes have former Scarlet Knight defensive coordinator Jay Niemann as a defensive assistant on their staff.
Dave’s take: Give me a break, of course this matters. Think of the line from Rambo delivered by Colonel Trautman, “I recruited him, I trained him, and I commanded him for three years in Vietnam.” Sounds like Coach Niemann with Tyreek Maddox-Williams or Tyshon Fogg (two years). There’s definitely a HUGE advantage that Niemann knows the strengths and weaknesses of Rutgers’s defensive personnel, particularly the linebackers. Coaches watch film for months trying to figure out the exact information about an opponent that Niemann already knows. This is Ash’s defense, no dramatic changes since Andy Buh replaced Niemann.
Some of this information includes Rutgers having the same offensive terminology as a year ago (a problem we haven’t had in a while). Niemann is super smart and cooked up some great game plans during his time on the banks, particularly in 2017. Then Niemann’s defense faced off against John McNulty’s offense every day in practice LAST year. Sure if two years had passed this would not matter as much, but Rutgers has the same personnel outside of quarterback.
If this didn’t matter, why would the New England Patriots steal plays and sign every veteran of consequence from their AFC East rivals for some period of time to interrogate him about his former squad? Belichick’s genius is coming up with new, drastically different game plans every week to reduce the opponent’s preparation effectiveness. And if this did not matter, why would coaches watch film at all? That matters more at the pro level than the raw emotion of college football, but seriously coach?
Niemann’s departure had nothing to do with Xs and Os or knowledge of his personnel, it was based on the lack of discipline in tackling from the linebackers and secondary we saw in the first quarter Friday.
5. “A number of different things, but they will both be factored in our offense as we move forward.”
The question was direct as to whether the lack of reps for Shameen Jones and Eddie Lewis was injury, performance, or situationally related. It was prefaced by mentioning how there were many receivers who saw action, yet two of last year’s starters who were listed on the two-deep watched most of the game from the sideline.
Dave’s take: Yes, this is a classic example of potential overanalysis from the media, but it can only be viewed as a reason for optimism. First and most obviously, Rutgers was trying to take advantage of the smaller UMass defensive backs. The game plan was obviously to use Daevon Robinson and Isaiah Washington a lot to force the Minutemen to keep safety help cheating toward them and get mismatches for Bo Melton and Raheem Blackshear. If the opponent has bigger DBs, like perhaps Iowa this week, Eddie’s quickness may be needed.
The underrated part of this is probably the chemistry between McLane Carter and his receivers. Since Carter was running with the second team until recently, his rapport with Washington and someone like Paul Woods is logical and appeared to be evident during the game itself. It wasn’t just the times those players were targeted, but the confidence in the reads Carter was making. Plus, other than Woods as an exception, if QB and WR are not on the same page, why not use the taller guys who leave more margin for error and can block better, i.e Mo Jabbie.
My question is if something happened to Melton, who would fill his role in the offense? We saw how catastrophic the injury to Janarion Grant against ... you guessed it, Iowa, was since Rutgers had no replacement in that game or the rest of that season. Is it Lewis? Is it Jones? Is it Blackshear or perhaps Aaron Young?
I’m overjoyed that Rutgers is not just doing the same thing over and over again we saw the past two seasons hoping for different results. McNulty was great at exploiting matchups and having roles for a lot of receivers and tight ends a decade ago. This points to more of that which I harped on all offseason.
Let us know your thoughts on these takeaways and find link to Ash speaking below.
Offensive Coordinator McNulty:
Defensive Coordinator Andy Buh: