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Rutgers Football v Illinois Film Study: Don’t blame the offensive play calling

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Defensive playcalling was playing not to lose, though.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers
Vedral saved his worst for the key moments.
Vincent Carchietta-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. In previous weeks (Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3), I was focused on specific areas of interest. Since this was the most evenly matched talent contest, the analysis is my take on what the film shows to be the biggest two reasons the game was won by Illinois (somewhat lucky turnovers) and lost by Rutgers (couldn’t stop the QB draw).

Initial takeaways

  • Illinois had one bullet in their gun on offense, the QB draw and associated schoolyard football.
  • Illinois had one bullet in their gun on defense, stack the box then once you know it’s not a run, bail out.
  • The Rutgers offensive line allowed zero pressure unless Illinois blitzed.
  • There are quarterbacks who can use their legs a little bit, and then there are quarterbacks who are elite athletes running with the ball like Isaiah Williams.

Below are some thoughts on the painful re-watch.

What happened last year.

Last Thursday evening, I rewatched the 2019 matchup between the two teams and there were three major differences, 1. Illinois was getting about 2 yards per carry more than RU early, 2. Illinois didn’t pass much, but they executed well the few plays they did have in their playbook 3. Rutgers turned the ball over. I jinxed this game from the jump because the last time I thought about one game so much was Kansas in 2018 and we know how that one ended. This one ended up hurting a lot more.

4th and 3, ball on Illinois 29, 13:07 left First quarter, 0-0.

Rutgers is on the fringe of field goal range, facing a 4th and 3 on the game’s opening drive. Illinois stacks the box and brings an extra blitzer. Three men are well blocked (blue boxes), but there is a miscommunication forcing back Aaron Young to pick up two men, one of which gets through to starting quarterback Noah Vedral (red circle) after Young just gets a hand on him.

Vedral to his credit identified the coverage pre-snap and the matchup advantage for Bo Melton who gets open for the touchdown before Vedral takes possibly the only big hit he received all day in the pocket.

Well designed play goes for a 4th down, touchdown to Bo Melton, green arrow.

The protection wasn’t perfect on this one, but sometimes you can get by with quick decisions by the quarterback. If the deep safety crept to that side, Vedral could have easily looked the other way to Shameen Jones (green circle) for an easy completion on an out route, identical to the previous play on this drive. With more time, Vedral also probably could have completed a ball to his tight end or slot receiver (yellow arrows) since both had good leverage on their defenders.

Illinois converted a 3rd and 2 with a quarterback sweep on the next drive, but ultimately was forced to punt after Rutgers got pressure on a 3rd and 11 with a blitz. Illinois quarterback Isaiah Williams making his first career start threw an incompletion, but after that would just tuck and run even on third and long since neither he nor the Illinois coaching staff had confidence in his passing.

Before we get to the next big play I want to show how Illinois handled Rutgers in 3rd and long situations in a simple screenshot that shows itself over and over throughout the game. Illinois consistently had seven men in the box, including six along the line of scrimmage to try to confuse the Rutgers line and backs as to who needed to be blocked. Usually Illinois would only rush four, sometimes just three, but it caused enough confusion for them to dictate what Rutgers would do, not the other way around. Then on the outside, Illinois varied the coverage cushions since they trusted their linebackers to hustle back and tackle on quick throws. Ultimately, Vedral got the ball to slot receiver Aron Cruickshank, but it was too late to take advantage of all the space he was given below.

Illinois ran this defensive alignment even when Rutgers beat it a few times.

1st and 10, ball on Illinois 22, 8:03 left First Quarter, Rutgers leads, 7-0.

Illinois continued with the quarterback runs and this one resulted in a lost fumble because Rutgers collapsed the line of scrimmage then Mike Tverdov (red arrow) hustled from behind to strip the ball after Tyshon Fogg made the initial hit. Williams was stumbling, carrying the ball like a loaf of bread (which he did all game) and the Scarlet Knights recovered the ball just outside the red zone. You can see excellent swarming by the Rutgers defensive backs, though they would get slower as the game wore on. At this point though, I felt Rutgers was in good shape even before they kicked a field goal after the turnover to go up 10-0.

Tverdov (red arrow) hustles from behind to strip the ball.

Illinois moved the ball on their next drive, with very simple reads for their quarterback and Williams made one real nice throw along the sideline that at worst case would have gone for an incompletion. A lot of credit to the Illinois offensive staff who did everything they could with what they had available.

The drive culminated in a touchdown, but as you can see, Rutgers just missed tackles on this play because they should have had Williams dead to rites in the backfield. Perhaps they were tired, or Williams (green arrow) is just Janarion Grant with a football in his hands as he ran right through three unblocked defenders. Instead of holding to a field goal, it was a 10-7 game, 13:47 left in the Second Quarter.

Williams ran past three defenders (green arrow)

3rd and 12, ball on Illinois 36, 12:26 left Second Quarter, Rutgers leads, 10-7.

On this play, Rutgers does what they should not have abandoned in the second half. They have six defenders at the line of scrimmage to force Williams to either throw quick to his slot tight end or just immediately, requiring him to make one man miss to avoid a sack then gain TWELVE more yards before someone else can make a tackle. There are two deep safeties off screen, but this is when fans first missed star safety Brendon White, who sat out the game due to an injury, which was the biggest difference in this game. Not only did Williams gain 20 yards, he was untouched until he was well beyond the first down line to gain. If your safeties can’t make this tackle, they need to creep closer to the line of scrimmage or you are just flat out doomed.

3rd and 12 conversion.

Rutgers did make a 3rd down stop after some good hustle by Mohamed Toure to chase a play down, but was at this point I texted Aaron to tell him Rutgers would not be able to stop this Illinois running. For RU to win, they would need to outscore the Illini. A few minutes later, Vedral hit Isaiah Washington for a big gain across midfield. As Illinois rushed five which Rutgers easily blocked, but the Illini second level defenders (red circles) were late recognizing play-action on first down (more on that later). Washington (green circle) had plenty of space to flip the field.

Washington green circle makes a big play.

Two plays later, Vedral throws the same go route he hit Melton on for the first touchdown and it gets Rutgers near the Illinois ten yard line.

The Knights would then hand the ball to Johnny Langan on a sweep that went nowhere on 3rd down to force a field goal. Rutgers leads 13-7, but if either of the drives ended in a touchdown rather than a field goal, perhaps momentum would have fueled a laugher.

On the ensuing third down, Rutgers dared Illinois to throw deep on a third and medium, but the throw was nowhere close to the receiver. Notice how Rutgers creates a pocket and leaves nowhere for Williams to run against seven guys so he has to take a shot downfield.

Great contain by the Rutgers defense.

After the great play by the defense, Rutgers moved the ball to try and tack on points at the end of the first half. Isaih Pacheco and Bo Melton had a few nice plays. The drive was also aided by Illinois dropping into a cover-2 prevent defense allowing some basic pitch and catch to Aaron Young and Aron Cruickshank. This is what Rutgers did in the 4th quarter and we know how that ended up.

The critical play came on a 2nd and 10 when Vedral in a sign of what was to come later, had all the time in the world but threw the ball into double coverage rather than waiting longer or tucking and running. The ball should have been intercepted, but Rutgers still had a chance to get points. I won’t cover the play in more detail, but Christian Dremel caught a ball and while trying to get out of bounds, fumbled, allowing the clock to run out before Rutgers could attempt a field goal having used all their timeouts already. Those three points turned out to be the difference in the game.

At halftime, Illinois made adjustments. Rutgers made more of their share of adjustments than I thought in real-time despite having allowed just 7 points, but they turned out to be the wrong ones.

Illinois got some production from their tailbacks in the 3rd quarter and surprised RU with a 3rd down dive play rather than a QB run. On the ensuing play, Rutgers looked tired after Illinois ran ALL run plays for the first 3 minutes of the half. It went for a 40+ yard gain down to the RU 12 yard line by Chase Brown.

Rutgers bore down stopping 5 plays near their own one yard line (extended due to penalties) forcing a field goal. All in all, the key messaging was that Illinois in confined spaces when Williams didn’t have as much room with the DB’s near the line was not as effective. 13-10 Rutgers lead, 8:59 remaining 3rd quarter.

3rd and 10, ball on Rutgers 34, 7:53 left Third Quarter, Rutgers leads, 13-10.

Great play design by offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson here. He puts Bo Melton in the slot, yet Illinois is so worried about the go route, they have their outside corners giving way too much cushion. They don’t really focus on Melton (green arrow) in the slot who takes advantage of the linebackers backpedaling, cuts in front of them and gets a 66 yard touchdown, his second of the game.

Illinois had two defenders (blue square) against two tight ends on the top side, then motions Cruickshank toward the bottom. Rutgers is trying to move the defenders toward the bottom of the screen then use their flow against them to send a receiver back toward the top. It works.

Melton (green arrow) crosses for a touchdown.

The play was very reminiscent of touchdown by Kenny Britt, Tiquan Underwood, and Brandon Coleman during their days at Rutgers because they all had the speed to turn the corner at the second level. It still took a heck of a catch and maybe gave RU false confidence moving forward. Rutgers 20, Illinois 10.

Rutgers gave way too much cushion on the next Illinois possession as Williams had two monster runs with the RU safeties 30 yards downfield (no joke). He had done nothing to show he could throw deep, but Rutgers on this drive was acting like they were facing Aaron Rodgers.

The big play came next on a 2nd and 10 when a jump pass got Illinois down to the RU five yard line and it would have been a TD if the receiver didn’t have his knee down with no defender in the area.

CJ Onyechi (red circle) reads it all the way, but for all the praise he got for tackling Saqoun Barkley in the backfield twice as a freshman, couldn’t stop Williams. Since Onyechi had the edge containment, RU is in trouble as Olakunle Fatukasi (red arrow) is flowing with the running back so RU is relying on a defensive tackle (who lined up offsides on the play, teal arrow) and two defensive backs (purple arrows) to stop the QB scramble. This allows the wide receiver to be left uncovered downfield (green arrow).

Lost contain.

Illinois would not be denied inside the five this time and it was 20-17, four minutes left in the third quarter.

Rutgers was moving the ball well until a 3rd and 10 just past midfield. Noah Vedral was back in the pocket with no pressure for about 8 seconds before he finally had to deliver the ball. Tackles Raiqwon O’Neal and Reggie Sutton, who both had strong games, eventually let their men go probably expecting Vedral to roll out with all the traffic. This forces Vedral to throw and he looks for Matt Alaimo (purple box) when he was not open and even if he caught the ball was probably short of 10 yards for a first down. The other two options were not much better (yellow boxes), though #1 Isaih Pacheco might have been able to catch and run. On a play like this Vedral was probably better off throwing down the sideline, but my guess is he had no idea where his outside receivers were since so much time had elapsed. Also, he can’t see very well over the line with his height, so the chances of spotting a guy randomly were slim. This looked an awful lot like one interception against Indiana.

The throw to Alaimo was ill-advised.

Again, up to this point, Vedral had thrown for over 200 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions. It was mostly downhill from here though.

On the ensuing drive, Illinois converted a 4th and 1 before the camera crew was even ready to start the 4th quarter. It was a quarterback power and Rutgers had a chance to make the stop in the backfield, but failed. After this, Illinois was the better team, tying the game 20-20 with 13:02 to go.

Next Rutgers drive, Vedral should have thrown his second INT on 3rd and 11, but the ball was dropped by two Illinois defenders. It’s a pretty lame excuse, but I think the sun was a factor since once again, Vedral had a good six seconds and no pressure, but elected to throw the ball to Christian Dremel in double coverage (orange box) when the much bigger Shameen Jones (yellow box) had his man shielded and Isaih Pacheco (green box) was wide open on a check down. The Pacheco check down was completely ignored by Illinois in this game, I’m sure the Rutgers offensive staff is kicking themselves for not realizing it sooner.

Pacheco (green square) was wide open.

Illinois moved the ball again on their next drive, but missed a field goal after Rutgers stuffed a QB run on 3rd and 3 by stacking the box and Illinois ran the ball anyway.

Rutgers faced a critical 3rd and 3 on their next possession, but luckily the sun was below the stands on the south end of the stadium. It didn’t matter as Vedral just threw the same go route to Melton that worked twice, but the ball was underthrown and intercepted.

Expecting the coverage to flow toward two yellow arrows.

Illinois stacks the line again (as I wanted Rutgers to do even in 3rd and long). Vedral is assuming the free safety will rotate down to one of the receivers with a yellow arrow. This leaves Melton 1:1 yet again. Melton had a step on his man, so if he could have run under it would have been his 3rd TD of the game. Instead Illinois gets the ball with all the momentum.

They faced a 3rd and 9 from their own 41 and Rutgers stacks the line with six guys as Illinois did all game. Strong safety Larry Stevens (purple box) at the line to gain and free safety Christian Izien (purple arrow) way deep. Notice Rutgers is in nickel (five defensive backs) one of the few times this game.

Another third and long QB run.

There is no defensive alignment other than moving up Izien better suited to stop a QB run to the right and yet Illinois executes yet again. Michael Dwumfour, CJ Onyechi, and Tyreek Maddox-Williams all were not fast enough to track down Williams.

Three guys could not chase this play down.

I love Tyreek Maddox-Williams, but he is not fast enough to spy Isaiah Williams. Perhaps no one outside of White on Rutgers actually is right now. Tyreek to his credit made a tackle for loss on the next play AND a stop on third down forcing a field goal attempt Illinois ultimately missed.

So Rutgers got the ball with 3:07 to play at their own 28 yard line in a tie game 20-20. Honestly it took me a moment to realize the game was still tied, and Rutgers could actually win this game with just one drive after I was feeling like they were in deep trouble for a while. And with the Rutgers offensive coaching staff I all of a sudden felt pretty good.

Vedral had a designed run for 12 yards on first down and Illinois dodged a bullet as he was hit just at the boundary on what half the time is called a late hit for a 15 yard penalty. Then a great misdirection call on 3rd and 4 sprung Isaih Pacheco to the Illinois 38 yard line after he beat the linebackers around the corner. The safety made a touchdown saving tackle.

So now at the fringe of field goal range, Illinois did what they did on first down ALL game long. They stack the line with eight men in the box and dare Rutgers to throw. Sean Gleeson calls a play-action which freezes the linebackers allowing both Bo Melton and Shameen Jones an opportunity to beat their man and get Rutgers into chip shot field goal range. Illinois corners have been atrocious all season and were beaten time and time again in this game, even on the 2nd INT that had been underthrown on Melton’s side.

The route in green was open.

Personally, I don’t like the result but it was the right play call. Much like in basketball you can’t just like shots that go in the basket and hate everything that rims out. I think you have to throw there because at no point with Vedral, Langan, Pacheco, anybody was Rutgers able to run for any yards against an eight man box, even with two tight ends in the game.

Jones (green circle) was open you can see the corner and safety don’t even have a hand on him. The ball was just thrown behind him. It wasn’t the wrong route or else the ball would have been thrown to the sideline. Also of note is that Melton had a step on his man with no safety over the top, but perhaps spooked by the previous interception or just seeing Jones was open, Vedral doesn’t look that way. I’m sorry but the announcer saying the ball was “right into coverage” was wrong, give me a break. If the ball is accurately thrown it’s an easy first down, it’s not like the defenders were draped all over Jones.

Jones was open.

Had Jones not reached back for the ball and gotten a paw on it, it would have fallen incomplete. Instead the Illinois defender who just got burned was far enough away to react to the ball popping up in the air a la Louisville 2012 and runs the ball back to midfield. And with 1:28 left, if the interception was simply picked off with no runback, Illinois and their run heavy offense would not have had enough time to move the ball and one timeout left. Then you go to overtime. If Rutgers simply ran the ball into the line and lost yards and face a third and long, you probably don’t want to trot out a first time kicker for a long game winner that could easily be blocked. So with all of that said, I was extremely mad at the time, but it was the right play call if you are playing to win. Vedral was mostly accurate with this throws up to this point, the decision making was the problem. On this play, it was the opposite.

After all that, Rutgers still had multiple chances to stop the Illini. Illinois had just 12 seconds left, facing a 2nd and 18 at the RU 46. Rutgers puts six men in the box, daring the Illini to throw a pass. Now, I was saying do this all game, but with 12 seconds, if you could force a QB run, the clock may have run out. Instead Williams makes only his second difficult throw of the game along the sideline to the 31 yard line as Avery Young kept running with the receiver until he hit the brakes. Perfect timing from Illinois and bad luck for Rutgers. A field goal won the game on the next play.

The better team

Rutgers was the better football team in this game, even Illinois fans are cognizant of that. Illinois had injuries, but Rutgers played without their two best defensive players in White and Fogg for long stretches. Winning a game by just having your quarterback run the whole time is not a recipe for success and it came as a surprise to everyone including the Illinois coaching staff that it worked so well, partially because of how poorly Rutgers tackled / schemed. To their credit though, the Illinois coaching staff had a deep playbook available to them which is what you can do when your players have been in the same offensive system for more than one year. If Illinois faced more third and mediums, maybe Rutgers keeps more men near the line? If Vedral was worse earlier, maybe he gets benched? If Illinois makes those field goals, maybe they get more conservative defensively and Rutgers can move the ball anyway?

Of course, I can believe Rutgers lost this game, I have been a fan of them and the Jets my whole life but it still hurt A LOT. That said, the re-watch wasn’t as painful as the game in real-time was. Rutgers did a lot of things well and had White played, I think they cruise to a 10 point win. They just didn’t trust their safeties and when your safeties don’t trust themselves, they play too deep and are susceptible to not being able to close down the run lanes for a scrambling QB or other ball carriers who get to the second level. The huge frustration I have is that having your safeties too deep is what got Schiano in trouble at Ohio State and defensive coordinator Robb Smith at Minnesota. This does not work unless you have speed demon linebackers to cover the extra space (where were Deion Jennings and Mohamed Toure?). Michigan’s quarterback and all their blockers are even better, with the same inability thus far to throw downfield.

More thoughts on the coaching in the weekly report card, but I can’t say it enough. As described above but to explicitly say it; if you do not trust your quarterback, you need to try another one. Handcuffing him does not work and I am glad Sean Gleeson did not just have Vedral hand off and/or run himself on the final drive because Illinois tackled a lot better than Rutgers at the second level. Vedral is not nearly the runner Williams is, they had to take advantage of his throwing and we saw more easy completions by a Rutgers QB in this game than any time since when, 2011? 2008?

And after all that, Rutgers just needed to get about 5 more yards, run the clock down and kick a game winning field goal. That’s how far this team has come in less than a calendar year. That’s how Aaron talked me off the ledge before summarizing in his article.

CAPTAIN OBVIOUS: Illinois needed virtually everything to go right for them in this game, and it was close enough.

Reasons for pessimism: 1. Illinois is the worst opponent on the schedule. RU lost to a team with no downfield passing game and awful cornerbacks. 2. For all the hype, Rutgers has lost three straight. 3. Noah Vedral clearly has limitations as a quarterback but Schiano made it clear that he will start this week. 4. Schiano still needs to shake the in-game criticism of his detractors. 5. With 2020 uncertainty, Rutgers will need to play their best game of the season to earn a 2nd win. Hopefully they get five more chances to do so.

Reasons for optimism: 1. Rutgers was the more talented, complete team in this game without a doubt, only the second time I can say that in Big Ten play (2014 Indiana game) 2. Rutgers has played two close games this year and did win one 3. The fact that this loss hurt so much is a good thing. 4. Bo Melton abuses inferior coverage 5. Brendon White did not play in this game, the Scarlet now have time to try to adjust if he has a sustained absence. Schiano said Monday it wasn’t clear if he would be back against Michigan.

Rutgers fans had a tough few days, but of course this is a first world problem. We can still look forward to entertaining football in 2020 as long as games continue to be played.