This football season, I get to humor the Rutgers fan base (and myself personally) with a weekly film analysis reboot after an extended hiatus. There is going to be no method to the madness and everyone who reads us regularly knows I am a defense first guy, but let’s be honest ... the key to the 2020 Scarlet Knights being competitive at all comes down to quarterback and offensive line play. So I won’t beat around the bush and instead start with some Monday morning quarterback on ... the quarterbacks.
In the season opener against Michigan State, Rutgers debuted a new offense for the 5th time in as many seasons, this time under the leadership of Offensive Coordinator Sean Gleeson. Gleeson’s track record at his last two stops (Princeton and Oklahoma State) was that he would adapt his scheme to his personnel and make things as easy as possible on his offensive line, thus requiring his QBs to be extremely adaptable or using multiple signal callers to accomplish what is required to move the ball for an entire game. Going into the game, Art Sitkowski and Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral were listed as co-starters on the depth chart.
I was shocked RU scored a TD on the first drive when Vedral led the team the entire way because he threw three passes that he’s lucky weren’t intercepted. As the game went on he improved, but it is a concern moving forward.
When watching the game in real time, Vedral did an excellent job working with Nick Krimin who slid from guard over to center to set the protections. The offensive line didn’t maul people but I only recalled twice that Vedral was surprised by a free rusher in the middle. Even when players came loose on the outside he usually knew they were coming and rolled to the opposite direction.
Bo Melton had a heck of a game, only making one mistake I recall and battling for 50/50 balls and extra yardage. Shameen Jones may deserve a game ball because he made two incredible yards after catch plays to move the chains that were probably more important than his game sealing TD. Aron Cruickshank made some great plays and some bad ones. No one else made a strong impression in real time.
Johnny Langan was Johnny Langan and he was absolutely critical in the red zone.
Below are some thoughts on the re-watch.
Vedral showed good command of the offense, though the key play was a Bo Melton bail out of him on a 3rd down. This pass was the key play on the drive that put Rutgers ahead for good as it turned out.
Rutgers faced a 3rd and 6 near midfield. Gleeson called a very balanced formation and the Spartans countered with a 4-3 stacked defense with the free safety way deep outside of the picture. Since I don’t have the all 22 film, you also can’t see the wide receiver and cornerback at the bottom of the screen either. This is a very conservative defensive playcall.
Rutgers calls for a max protection as the back and tight end stay in to block, so Rutgers ends up with seven players blocking just five. At his initial progression, Cruickshank was not open, so Vedral instead looks toward Bo Melton and rolls to the right even though he had a clean pocket. Vedral may have been coached to roll right if no one was open figuring eventually Raiqwon O’Neal at left tackle would be beaten by his man with so much space, the famous “sprint right option” used by Joe Montana and Dwight Clark on “The Catch.” As a result though, Cruickshank comes open on a crossing route and O’Neal does an amazing job protecting the blind side for six seconds. This would come into play later.
Vedral is forced to make an off platform throw, but at his spot on the field even if it was intercepted would have been ok. He also threw the ball to Bo Melton breaking back toward the sideline and Melton did an amazing job fighting to secure it and extend the drive.
After Rutgers was up 7-0, they failed to capitalize on good field position on the first MSU fumble, but the defense handed the ball again on the one yard line after another Spartan fumble. Initially Rutgers failed to score but was gifted three more downs on a pass interference call.
Gleeson inserted Johnny Langan and after a run on first, called a quarterback option run on second down. A very simple read for Langan as I highlighted the weak side linebacker. The weak side and middle linebacker did not flinch on the motion, so fullback Brandon Myers would be blocking the strong-side linebacker and Langan would need to set up his block.
The middle linebacker then made a mistake assuming his safety would take the C gap, but the safety stayed home in case Myers leaked out for a pass. So Langan ended up with choice and found a crease between the left tackle and Myers. Had he gone outside, the safety might have been able to meet him at the spot.
This was a great play and would have went for more, but one yard was enough for a touchdown and quick 13-0 lead halfway through the first quarter.
In the second stanza leading by one score, Rutgers was on the move again thanks to some good running by Isaih Pacheco and yards after the catch from Shameen Jones.
Rutgers faced a 2nd and long just outside the red zone. Rather than just running to the middle and settling for a field goal attempt, Gleeson flooded the left side of the field on a pass attempt. These second and long run-pass options are an underrated part of successful offense which will get more study later in the season.
This is a perfect example of how good coaching can scheme players open and make it easy for the quarterback. With the motion, Vedral sees the top side linebacker start to lean to follow Isaih Pacheco which takes the quick screen off the table. If the linebacker stayed in the box then Pacheco would have gotten a quick throw and had plenty of room before the same linebacker or safety could possibly recover.
So then the second read for Vedral is the free safety who stays back in cover 1. If the safety blitzed, the ball would have probably gone to the top side receiver coming in behind Pacheco.
Instead, Michigan State sends the weak side linebacker as the 5th pass rusher.
Right guard Sam Vretman does a great job picking up the extra man and shoving him outside. This opens two running lanes for Vedral since his back helps Krimin plug the middle. Vedral now is “mano a mano” with the middle linebacker. Vedral takes one step to his left, the LB’s right causing #34 to flow in that direction, then immediately takes off the other direction and the linebacker cannot react in time.
The play is capped off with plenty of running room and after Bo Melton did an amazing job downfield blocking. All Vedral had to do was not a pull a Daniel Jones and trip over his own feet. Just like that, a 20-7 lead after excellent play design and good execution. I was shocked.
The last play in the first half I wanted to highlight was the interception in RU territory that gave MSU a golden opportunity. The pass was intercepted, but luckily its subsequent touchdown return was called back for an illegal block.
It was a simple read for Vedral, but he threw to the wrong receiver. The outside linebacker let the slot receiver go, which was probably a blown assignment on his part but it worked out. Maybe he read Vedral’s eyes? Regardless of why, Rutgers cannot make these mistakes and expect to win.
The second half began with more miscues on both ends and the game was there for whichever team could capitalize. There was a sack and subsequent fumble by Vedral, but Rutgers still maintained an eight point lead as the quarter wound down.
The big play came deep in Rutgers territory and RU facing a 2nd and 7 from their own 23 yard line. If they were playing not to lose, a simple run would have been in order and that’s what Michigan State expected after Vedral’s previous interception and fumble in a similar part of the field.
But this is where you have to trust your quarterback to win the game for you and Gleeson played Michigan State’s tendencies against them. He called another max protection leaving two Michigan State linebackers somewhere between guarding air or in a QB spy in case Vedral wanted to run the ball. Had either linebacker bailed, Vedral would have had a clear running lane, so they could not vacate.
Rutgers had eight players blocking seven initially before running back Avery Young leaked out as a check down pulling the linebacker with him. Since everybody else held up, most importantly right tackle Reggie Sutton out on an island for a good six seconds, Vedral was able to wait for that same crossing route mentioned earlier in the game from Cruickshank to eventually come open.
The ball travelled just 20 yards downfield, but there was no one around Cruickshank and he was able to get yards after the catch into Spartan territory to flip the field getting RU out of harms way. It was mentioned on the broadcast perfectly, that one way to use your speed is long crossing routes because when given enough time they will come open if your receivers have speed, which Cruickshank does.
Even though Rutgers only got a field goal out of the drive, it was a key momentum play to go up by two scores. The drive ended up eating six plus minutes of valuable clock bleeding into the 4th quarter, so this was the play of the game in my book.
I thought about showing the play where Vedral missed a wide open Isaih Pacheco on that previous drive, but with RU ahead the only major play in the final period was the score that iced the game, the Shameen Jones TD.
Rutgers led by 11 so a field goal would be nice, but to truly ice the game they needed a touchdown and may truly have been in four down territory. Again on a second down and long, Rutgers had seven blockers form a wall. Vedral read two defenders on one receiver leaving top side receiver Shameen Jones one on one with his defender.
The ball was perfectly thrown a la the Halloween miracle to Brantley from Fortay in 1992, to the corner where it was either a touchdown or would fall harmlessly incomplete. Jones who played the best game of his career by far and symbolized the struggles under the previous regime as much as anybody, made the play and the outcome of the game was no longer really in doubt. I was so happy for Shameen who re-earned his starting job and made the plays we have been waiting for from him since he arrived.
Vedral played far from a perfect game, but you don’t have to be perfect when the coaching staff puts players in good positions to succeed. He did enough to take advantage of MSU’s mistakes combined with a lack of aggressiveness. It will be interesting to see what additional wrinkles can be added in when opponents study this film and realize they need to do what the Rutgers defense did and force the opposition into specific spaces and potential mistakes.
CAPTAIN OBVIOUS: Noah Vedral did enough to lead the team to a win and that’s all that really mattered when the team had lost 21 straight conference contests.
Reasons for pessimism: 1. RU only passed for 170 yards. 2. Gleeson does not have personnel comparable with most of the Big Ten opponents, so the road will get tougher. 3. Michigan State might not be very good and had their own “new” coaching staff. 4. Rutgers entered the game with only one certain member of the two-deep offense opted out and/or injured, so no reinforcements are coming this season to get more separation in the passing game or open more holes. 5. No way RU gets that many turnovers every game.
Reasons for optimism: 1. A game was played and Rutgers won! 2. There were in game adjustments by Gleeson and his offensive staff that will be needed even more as the season goes on. 3. With the blanket year of eligibility, all of the key contributors could potentially return in 2021 4. Even though the longest tenured OC at RU in the past 12 seasons only lasted 16 games, Gleeson will be here longer UNLESS this offense gets way better every week, a problem I think all of us would gladly accept. 5. Even if Vedral is not the long term answer at least you can see a foundation forming.
My last though is I wonder can Rutgers win a game without winning the turnover battle or if they are forced to pass? Next up is No. 19 Indiana on Saturday at 3:30 ET on BTN.