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Rutgers Funball v Ohio State Film Study: Is it all deception?

It took a spark, but one drive launched a completely different game, how?

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Ohio State
Tight End Jovani Haskins used his height to secure this touchdown.
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

This football season, I get to humor the Rutgers fan base (and myself personally) with a weekly film analysis reboot after an extended hiatus. I reviewed the quarterbacks in the first game against Michigan State and against Indiana looked at how the quarterbacks and offensive line worked together. This week I went into the game just looking for something positive, and that biggest positive was the drive that finally got Rutgers into the end zone. After that more bricks were layered on top of the foundation, but this one drive is what gave Rutgers a reason to believe and is worth revisiting.

Initial takeaways

  • Ohio State was on cruise control in the first half, even if they couldn’t just pound the ball up the gut.
  • Timing routes are the key to move the ball against OSU and that was confirmed by Rutgers.
  • Receivers may have went from the worst positive group on the Scarlet Knight team for three years to one of the best.
  • The offensive line was able to hold their own.
  • Ohio State Head Coach Ryan Day was really humbled in the second half.

Below are some thoughts on the re-watch.

The Drive that changed the game

Rutgers was down 35-3 against the #3 team in the country and after the teams exchanged punts, Rutgers forced another Ohio State punt with 10:38 remaining in the 3rd quarter. Ohio State’s Drue Chrisman pinned Rutgers back at their own 9 yard line. In years’ past, this would make you worried about three straight dive plays possibly resulting in a safety if one of them resulted in a tackle in their own end zone. Rutgers starting quarterback Noah Vedral was just 8-15 for 53 yards at this point, so you can understand why surrender runs would seem likely.

But then, for the second week in a row, something magical happened.

On first down, Rutgers is in their base 11 personnel. In yellow you can see that Ohio State’s coverage has their distance from the receiver mostly proportional to how close they are to Noah Vedral, not respecting his arm strength. So the obvious call here is a run behind Tight End Jovani Haskins (red circle) since if everyone can hold their block, should go for about three yards.

Instead, offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson sends Haskins in motion to the bottom of the screen. This tips off Vedral to the coverage because all three linebackers flow with Haskins, although the top side linebacker adjusts the least and keep his eyes (green arrow) on Kay’Ron Adams in the backfield.

A lot is going on this play, but the green arrow is the player Rutgers is trying to isolate.

Now Vedral knows he has to freeze that linebacker and if he does, Rutgers can complete a pass in his area since he has to respect the run. In the screenshot below, you can see all three Buckeye linebackers maintaining their assignments on Adams, Vedral, and Haskins. So then the read is at the top of the screen where leverage proves to be important. Aron Cruickshank’s defender has his hips turned and is therefore in no way going to stay with him meaning if Cruickshank goes deep, the free safety (not pictured, but represented by FS) has to run with him.

This opens up space for Shameen Jones to run across the field to the blue box since the cornerback guarding him has to sluff off since he has no help now that the free safety is going to Cruickshank.

The blue box is the open space and that’s where the ball goes.

This play is reliant upon the offensive line to just hold their ground long enough for the crossing route to get open. They do and Jones makes a tough catch after the nickel corner eventually figured out what was happening to set up a 2nd and 4. I was critical of Vedral’s ability to read the defense last week against Indiana, but he did a great job on this drive beginning with this play.

On the next play, Rutgers comes out in the same formation, but Haskins simply starts out at the bottom of the screen. Ohio State only shows two differences compared to how they lined up on the previous play, the middle linebacker is now directly in front of Vedral and the bottom corner hiding behind the graphic is giving a cushion to Jones.

Only two differences in the defensive alignment.

So the pre-snap read is simple, the post snap read is primarily on that middle linebacker and then everything will follow from there. It does as both linebackers bail out to play zones in the middle for pass coverage. Vedral doesn’t hesitate and follows two linemen (blue arrows) to the second level for an easy conversion.

Linebackers bail, plenty of room in the middle.

Once again, good read, but it requires execution by the Rutgers offensive line. They smartly allow Ohio State’s defenders to run full speed into the backfield and just guide them out of the play. When the quarterback and line are on the same page, you don’t have to be stronger or quicker than the defensive lineman across from you. This is excellent design and execution in the box, something that Rutgers must have picked up when studying the film on how the Ohio State defense likes to handle certain situations.

So again on the 3rd play of the drive, Rutgers comes out in the same formation, but this time the slot cornerback comes on a blitz. Vedral probably is supposed to just throw the seam route to Aron Cruickshank here, but the linebacker and safety could be coming at him (though they turn out to be late), so Vedral looks for Shameen Jones again. Whatever route is called here for Shameen other than a fly route will probably work since the corner has no help and has to give cushion.

Lot going on this play once the slot corner (red circle) blitzes.

The linebacker with outside contain (purple arrows) reads Vedral’s eyes, but not before the ball comes out to Jones for another easy completion. This catch along the sideline goes for a solid seven yards, the type of plays Rutgers simply could never execute the past three seasons.

Even though OSU’s defense is stout, you cannot abandon the run game so I’m glad Rutgers tried to run the ball next. The Scarlet Knights try to get more defenders out of the box by placing three receivers to the bottom of the screen, but Ohio State counters by sending #7 Sevyn Banks inside, not even waiting to figure out if this is play-action. This works when your strong safety has the speed to crash down on Jones (purple box).

If you want to highlight something Rutgers learned last year that carried over to this year it’s the wide receiver blocking. Jones is pointing to Bo Melton that he must pick up #7 Banks, which prevents a huge tackle for loss on the near side.

The top side linebacker only has one run assignment, so he comes crashing down hard to try and blow the play up. Vedral sees this and since the play is an option run hands the ball off to Kay’Ron Adams. At this point, Adams has two choices, either take it up the middle or bounce it to the left side.

The middle linebacker (two yellow arrows) still must respect that Rutgers could use Adams as a blocker and run Vedral behind him, so there is still a possibility this play goes to the right, but he has a hunch he probably will need to go to the middle. The strong-side linebacker also has two gap assignments, but goes to the middle hoping Adams goes there. He also trusts his DB’s to get off blocks if the play ends up being a stretch to the left.

This run has a lot of variables.

Ohio State maintains their assignments and stops the play for a gain of only two (at the orange circle), but it does set up Rutgers for a third and short rather than having had a negative play. I like Kay’Ron Adams’s potential, but this is an example where just taking the ball and running forward didn’t result in the big plays we saw last week. He did just take a positive play though, which is why you like him in the game. I can’t say for certain how Isaih Pacheco or Aaron Young would have read this, but former running back Paul James would have bounced this outside allowing his left guard to cut off the linebacker and then turn the corner.

So on 3rd and 1, the smart move was for Rutgers to freeze the defense just enough to move the sticks. Unlike some other football teams in the area who don’t know how to use their personnel, Rutgers inserted Pacheco into the game for this critical play. In the past, an opponent would assume a run is coming but Pacheco has improved in blitz pickup and as a receiver so they wouldn’t completely sell out for the run, especially up by 32 points.

Rutgers keeps Haskins in as an inline blocker but sends Aron Cruickshank and not Jones, who normally lines up wide left in motion from the bottom of the screen signaling a jet sweep could be coming. If I were a linebacker, that would have been the first thing that spooked me. Then Noah Vedral does an Oscar worthy acting job to make it look like the snap went over his head. As a defensive player, you are trained to smell fumbles and react accordingly. At least three players compromise their assignments to go get a ball that was not there.

One defensive back (yellow arrow) has to flow with Cruickshank leaving two linebackers to make the play. On the bottom side, left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal has an easy shot to seal his man. This is where Reggie Sutton’s agility as a right tackle allows him to move up to take on a linebacker.

OSU was smelling fumble here.

As it turned out, Pacheco has taken a direct snap and snuck in behind right guard Sam Vretman like Ray Rice used to do. So once the top side defensive end (three arrows) sprinted to the backfield, Pacheco accelerated around Vretman then cut across for not only the first down, but the longest play of the day. It still took Pacheco running away from a defensive lineman who got off this block quickly. Check out the highlight below:

This is a great job of using the few playmakers you have at Rutgers like Pacheco’s ability to hit the accelerator, flip the field, build momentum, and ultimately score on the next play which you also saw in the tweet above. I love how RU didn’t mess around and went for the score immediately as OSU was sucking wind and just trying to get into position near the goal line, half expecting Rutgers to substitute. By RU not running in the Johnny Langan, heavy package, OSU could not get fresh bodies on the field.

Rutgers overloads the top side of the formation leaving left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal (green circle) as an eligible receiver. As seen in previous reviews, Rutgers has used an unbalanced line a few times, which has proven effective since tight end Jovani Haskins is 6’5”, 250 lbs and can hold up as an extra offensive linemen especially against linebackers and defensive backs.

This play had Ohio State actually guarded O’Neal could have gone to the top corner for a fade route (cyan arrow) like we saw Rutgers score on twice already this season. Instead the key is that the middle linebacker (purple circle) isn’t guarding anyone, the key to good red zone offense through the air. O’Neal, Cedrice Paillant, and Sam Vretman (the latter two green arrows) simply have to hit the man in front of them to slow him up just enough to sell that Vedral is rolling right. Since Rutgers rolls Vedral right so often, naturally the defense is going to respect it. Vretman and Paillant execute so well they hold up their initial man, then can reset in time to get out as blockers once the ball is thrown.

Vedral is dangerously close as two defensive linemen (red circle) are in his face, but he doesn’t panic and delivers a perfect ball in a tight window past the defensive end (yellow circle) to a wide open O’Neal.

O’Neal (green circle) was wide open.

This got Rutgers on the board and rewarded a player in O’Neal who has given so much. Most importantly, the offensive line was holding their own enough to allow these plays to work. Had they been dominated, Rutgers wasn’t going anywhere. What happened afterward is that the Ohio State defense lost confidence just a little as they were back on their heels the rest of the game, with no idea what Rutgers would come up with next. All it took was one scoring drive. Don’t just take my word for it, Rutgers outscored Ohio State 24-14 in the second half and never took out their starting quarterback Justin Fields.

Art Sitkowski

Art finally got some action in 2020 on the game’s final drive. Sure it ended with a turnover as the ball slipped out of his hands with no defender in the area, but he showed even more growth (9-13, 62 yards) from where he left off in his final game action of 2019. Sitkowski was firing balls into tight zone windows and Rutgers moved right down the field as the second team receivers looked like Air Raid stars under Mike Leach. It was far from perfect as a wide open Paul Woods was missed and Christian Dremel was semi left out to dry, but Sitkowski showed the arm that we have heard so much about. And also proved you don’t have to be perfect on a drive to move the ball even against the #3 team in the country.

Hopefully this drive helps build up Sitkowski’s confidence. There will come a game this season where an opponent dares Rutgers to throw the ball downfield by selling out against the run repeatedly, so Art probably needs to be called upon at some point. This small sample size gives the fan base a reason to believe he could have learned from this last two years under less than stellar conditions now that the rest of the offense is playing passable football.

This is where Art should be in his development all things considered, a redshirt sophomore quarterback who can just start to make an impact with intermediate plays. Remember Mike Teel until late 2006 (his third year in the program) was a game manager and he had a juggernaut offense around him, especially at the skill positions.

Other thoughts

The defense was up and down, but that was a product of being willing to take some chances. Those chances resulted in eight tackles for loss, yes EIGHT, and also pushed Ohio State to commit a number of holding penalties. The aggressive approach is the only way to win nowadays and Rutgers was able to get to Fields a few times. Olakunle Fatkuasi continues to show more each game while Tyshon Fogg has proven the prognosticators right when he was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. These guys play hungry and will need to continue it all year in the front seven.

The secondary definitely still has depth issues. True freshman defensive back Chris Long got some run, but was fooled on one touchdown. I’m fine with that though since the game was out of reach and it will only get easier for him. The staff needs to find somebody else to contribute and the team is in trouble if there is an injury to their top guys.

CAPTAIN OBVIOUS: Every team in the Big Ten other than Ohio State is really up and down, even in-game. Almost every other conference game could go either way, hence the basis for this article by our own Fred Gaudios.

Reasons for pessimism: 1. For the second week in a row, Rutgers did nothing on offense in the second quarter. 2. The game was a blowout when the fun started. 3. Even if the remaining games are all “winnable” the opponents practice too and what tells you Rutgers will be able to blow anybody out? Every game will be a dogfight and honestly all the opponents have more experiences in close games by default. 4. Rutgers is still 1-2, they need to transfer these lessons into another victory against Illinois or all the moral winning will be lost.

Reasons for optimism: 1. Every other team on the remaining schedule has flaws. 2. The defense forced four punts, not even counting the fake. To beat good teams you need to get stops and Rutgers did even though OSU had their starters in the entire game 3. When other programs may start mentally checking out in 2020, even these moral victories are energizing Rutgers to play harder and keep chopping. 4. Sean Gleeson. Period. 5. If Noah Vedral gets “figured out” by opponents and is ineffective, Rutgers can mix things up with Langan and Sitkowski.

Rutgers fans should be more excited for this weekend’s game against Illinois than anytime since 2017.