The first game of the season is always a bit strange and Rutgers did not disappoint, coming back from a 21-7 deficit to defeat UMass by rattling off 41 unanswered points to roll 48-21. It seemed like Rutgers found their answer at quarterback with McLane Carter and there was some optimism heading into Week 2 at a ranked opponent in Iowa. The Hawkeyes were fresh off a 38-14 win over Miami (Ohio) in Week 1 themselves.
Those who read my columns regularly know that allowing a score on the opening drive is not a big deal to me at all. The opponent practices, too, and usually scripts their opening plays so they should have perfected those during that week. How it happened though, leaves something to be desired.
Iowa grinded out one first down and on the 5th play of the drive hit an explosive play with a 58 yard touchdown to former Rutgers commit Ihmir Smith-Marsette. On second and four, a pass down the seam where Avery Young tried to audible the coverage when Smith-Marsette went in motion then came back was not picked up by Malik Dixon on the deep route. Rutgers has four safeties who have seen time this year that never saw meaningful action prior to this season. That is clearly a weakness and Iowa smartly took advantage of the inexperience with this play:
The first half was a little slow after the opening tally. Rutgers moved the ball 30 yards on their opening drive before punting. It would mark the first of seven consecutive drives that resulted in punts as the teams both tried to play things conservative. As that was taking place, Rutgers had the better of the field position game on the leg of Adam Korsak, who landed SEVEN punts inside the 20 yard line on the day, repeatedly pinning the Hawkeyes back.
Less than two minutes into the second quarter, Iowa embarked on an 11 play, 97 yard touchdown drive. The key play came on a 4th and 1 QB sneak from their own 44 yard line where Nate Stanley was able to keep the drive alive and avoid what potentially could have been a huge momentum shift. Stanley was far from perfect on the drive but did complete two passes that each went for 25+ yards, the second of which set up Iowa on the RU 7, where they punched it in to take a 14-0 lead with 8:13 left in the half.
After two short throws and a sack by All-American A.J. Epenesa on third down, Rutgers punted for the 5th consecutive possession. Iowa mustered just 16 yards on the ensuing drive, but it was enough to get a field goal and take a 17-0 advantage. There was 3:50 left to play in the half and a first down run by Isiah Pacheco resulted in just a one yard gain. After an incompletion, the biggest play of the game came on third down. Epenesa got pressure in the obvious passing situation and McLane Carter launched one into traffic over the middle hoping for a pass interference or miracle catch. The ball was picked off by Djimon Colbert and it is reported by Keith Sergeant of NJ Advance Media that Carter injured his throwing shoulder when trying to make the tackle.
Iowa registered a field goal as time expired in the opening half to take a 20-0 lead into the locker room. At the half, Rutgers had thrown for just 22 yards and neither team had run the ball very effectively, but the difference was Iowa had completed the aforementioned long passes. We do not know right now how bad the injury to Carter is or what the conversation was in the locker room during intermission.
What we do know is that when the second half began, it was Art Sitkowski at quarterback. After the teams traded punts, Sitkowski made his only positive pass completion of the day, hitting Pacheco for 23 yards to advance the ball to the Rutgers 49 yard line. His next pass was nearly picked, then he completed a ball to Blackshear for no gain, and threw the ball to no one in particular on 3rd down.
After the teams traded punts yet again, Rutgers was backed up in the shadow of their own goalposts, but avoided disaster before punting. Iowa hit two big pass plays (again both in the seam) for Smith-Marsette’s second touchdown of the day against his hometown team who he decommitted from prior to signing with the Hawkeyes.
With the game now 27-0, the Rutgers offense showed their first signs of life since the opening drive for all intensive purposes which is not saying much. They converted two first downs on the drive after having just three up to that point if memory serves. Naturally, the perfect play call from John McNulty looked identical to the Iowa 33 yard catch and run on the previous drive, but Sitkowski was off target with his throw and hit the safety in stride. It was Sitkowski’s first INT of the season.
Iowa methodically moved the ball 61 more yards and nailed a field goal to complete the scoring in the contest. After both teams exchanged the ball, Johnny Langan fumbled on his only carry of the game after achieving the line to gain and Iowa knelt the clock out.
Key stat(s): Iowa threw for 244 yards to RU’s 41. That’s pretty much all that mattered in this game.
Additional Takeaway(s): I noted several of my immediate thoughts in the instant reaction. Of course much like the coaching staff I need to re-watch this game to assess everyone’s performance, however at the time we had not heard about Carter’s injury. Assuming he can play, McLane is the quarterback for this team as neither Sitkowski nor Langan did anything to inspire confidence as legitimate other options. The fact that Rutgers went down so quick last week worked to their advantage because they had no choice but to just go for it. This game I wonder how much they told Carter to dial back his throws after the three INTs last week, but it seems he needs to have the free reign to be a gunslinger or else, per the limited sample size. Just watching the game, I thought the rest of the offense was serviceable. With “Good Gary Nova” I think Rutgers wins this game, that’s how much quarterback play matters.
I want to love Art Sitkowski, I really do, but his feel for pressure and timing is just completely awful. I understand when the defense stunts and five offensive linemen can't block five people, that is not totally the quarterback’s fault, but the play that did it for me was the screen pass when Rutgers was deep in their own territory. Iowa showed blitz from Niemann (the son of Jay) off the edge, so far away from Raiqwon O’Neal that he had no way of getting out there to get in his path and was also responsible for the man right in front of him. Sitkowski did not audible, which would have been ok if he got the ball out in time. I’m not sure if the staff gives Art the ability to audible that play, but he either has to just do it or know/feel the rush coming. Jared Goff ran plays like this at Cal where a man would be completely unblocked, but Davis Webb could not, and he’s a player who is also in the NFL and oddly enough began his career at Texas Tech. Can't blame Webb though for transferring, this guy who replaced him, Patrick Mahomes, is pretty darn good.
Defensively, giving up 30 points when your offense doesn't help you at all is quite impressive. The defense really stymied the run game despite Iowa’s vaunted offensive line. Iowa ran for 194 yards, but well more than half of that came in theater stages of the game when RU was worn out. The defensive line did a pretty good job to fight pressure, freeing up the linebackers to make tackles. Tyshon Fogg looked great and Drew Singleton pretty good himself. The only real Kryptonite for this defense right now is the coverage specifically when linebackers are passing off receivers to the inexperienced safeties. A quarterback with almost perfect timing in Nate Stanley was the perfect guy to exploit this weakness. The safeties will get better with experience, but in the interim we might need to see faster linebackers to shrink those windows. The straight man to man coverage was very good, the only blemishes came on penalties where receiver and DB were going at one another and the zebras gave the offense the benefit of the doubt.
Other than that the kick return team should just take fair catches to get the ball to the 25 and avoided disaster, the special teams were awesome in this game. Korsak punted 10 times, pinning Iowa inside their 20, seven times, a few of those which ended up inside the 5. Iowa only returned two punts for a total of 11 yards. The special teams went from uneven to midseason form in the matter of a week.
B1G Boy Football: Isaih Pacheco (ten carries, 42 yards) and Raheem Blackshear (six carries, 30 yards) both ran the ball fine. If you throw in Aaron Young’s one carry for seven yards, the top three backs all averaged more than 4.2 yards per carry which isn’t bad at all. Rutgers in retrospect could have gotten more on the ground.
Next up: Rutgers has an early bye week before hosting Boston College in two weeks on September 21.
Look for more coverage of this game and the news heading into the BC game here at onthebanks.com
Check out the links below: