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Rutgers Football Position Meter and look toward Michigan

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This was a report card of extremes.

Michigan v Rutgers
Big, athletic quarterback for Michigan coming to Piscataway for a night game? Let’s hope lightning strikes twice.
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Below is how the Rutgers Football position groups fared in game four against Illinois. As always, your thoughts are welcomed in the comments section. To make it easier on the eye, I will only show the last three games in the chart.

Lots of tough marks this week.

Quick recap and what to watch for in Game 5 against Michigan.

Quarterbacks

Up until the re-watch I had QB’s with the sad face, but then remembered the last four years of Rutgers Football and decided four bad plays all game (three of which were tipped balls) is pretty good. There were other missed check downs for example, but if the defense could have just stopped a QB draw and Rutgers won with this same statistical performance they might have gotten the up arrow or trending even at worst. Instead, you lose the game against an inferior team, it has to be the down arrow.

This week v Michigan: Michigan is basically just a better version of Illinois, especially on defense. Their line can stuff the run in the middle, their linebackers are faster, they have no cornerbacks who have played well at all (though have more talent than the Illini CB), and their safeties have been very average. So basically Rutgers needs starter Noah Vedral to eliminate his mistakes and make a few more plays than last week. If he does, this should at least be more competitive than last year’s affair.

Running Backs

This week I gave the up arrow because all three backs contributed and got yards when called upon. Blitz pickup was not an issue. The only reason not to give the fireball was because if they could have broken a few more tackles, it would have won the game.

This week v Michigan: The Michigan defensive front is not what it has been the last four years, but surely will be the second best RU has faced in five games on talent alone. The RU backs have their work cutout as last year against the Wolverines they did nothing. In 2018 they were ok, mostly on the heels of Isaih Pacheco’s 80 yard TD run. Which will it be? And can they make a few catches to move the chains?

Wide Receivers

This group continues to impress, though outside of Bo Melton they lacked big plays. Against man to man coverage, they were open. The windows against zone were a little smaller, but they were there, the ball just wasn’t coming in time. Bo Melton is on the cusp of being a true number 1 receiver, Shameen Jones is a reliable possession guy, while Aron Cruickshank continues to be more bust than boom. Behind them, Isaiah Washington is starting to look like he did last year, allowing Melton to play more slot. Paul Woods can make plays if the ball is thrown to him and Christian Dremel just needs to get a little stronger. This is what we have come to expect, hence the even arrow.

This week v Michigan: The Wolverines have been criticized in 2020 for “not having cornerbacks.” So basically it’s groundhog day after Illinois except the guys Michigan has are elite level talent. So the wide receivers have a huge test this week. Last year they could not get open at all, forcing Art Sitkowski to check down a million times. I want to see if Vedral rolls out whether they can adjust and get some yards on broken plays. Michigan is beatable, but only if the receivers can have their best game of the year.

Tight Ends

This unit has gotten better every week. They were not huge passing options in this game, but blocking was the best it has been and they did create some space down the seams. They earned more reps with two tight end sets, which was great to see. The first INT was thrown to Matt Alaimo, but it was zone coverage and his zone was completely flooded with defenders, so there was nothing he could do really.

This week v Michigan: Against Michigan though, the tight ends are going to need to catch a few balls to add a dimension we have not seen from this RU offense yet in 2020. That said, it cannot be at the expense of their blocking assignments, though if executed well, a quick chip and then leaking to the flat could lead to lots of yards after the catch against the Wolverines.

Offensive Line

This was a higher level of play than I expected to see until late 2021 and that included true freshman Bryan Felter getting snaps. In the pass game, they allowed I believe just one hit on Noah Vedral and he completed a TD on the play. In the run game, they were holding up for the most part, as it was free rushers who were making most of the plays. Of course, if they could have bulldozed like RU did at Illinois in 2017, there would have been no need to throw the ball much, the only reason not to get the fireball.

This week v Michigan: Last year, the Rutgers offensive line mostly looked like adjacent turnstiles at the Big House, when quarterback Art Sitkowski had ZERO time to look downfield. The offensive line is better this time around, but needs to play even better than the last week if Rutgers wants to have a chance in this game. Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson will try to keep defenders off balance with screens, misdirection, etc, but the linemen need to execute their blocks even if the guys on the defensive line are stronger than they are. Illinois was cashing down against screens and other quick throws, so the Wolverines should do the same unless they are beat deep or with double moves.

Defensive Line

This game was an extremely poor performance for the defensive line. How many times did they jump offsides? How many times were they simply lined up in the neutral zone? Other than the penalties, there was not the disruption we saw in the first three games and it allowed running lanes that Illinois took advantage of. For other position groups I might have given them a little bit of a pass, but outside of Mike Tverdov’s forced fumble chasing a play from behind, they did not have enough impact plays. I may be marginalizing how many 3rd and longs they helped force, but when the other team converts anyway, that’s a fool’s errand.

This week v Michigan: in 2019, Michigan tried to break the Scarlet will on the ground, but simply never did, a testament to the Rutgers effort in that game despite the drubbing on the scoreboard. So the big boys need to do the same in the run game, but also have to contend with another running quarterback. It will be interesting to see if they play more 30 fronts, since the DE were so ineffective in this last game. I expect a bounce back performance from CJ Onyechi and Mike Tverdov, but the rest of the ends including Elorm Lumor have been mostly absent this year. Michigan has struggled to run the ball and Rutgers cannot let this be their “get well” week.

Linebackers

They had a rough day at the office and the coaches either did not practice enough against a running quarterback OR they just don’t have enough speed. What perplexed me though is how Rutgers rotated less than they usually do despite being more gassed. No word on if Tyshon Fogg is injured (after he forced a fumble and ended up with double digit tackles despite not being on the field much in the 4th). Olakunle Fatukasi and Tyreek Maddox-Williams played the entire 4th quarter when Illinois drove the ball pretty much at will until they settled for four field goal attempts. Could Mohamed Toure, Deion Jennings, Drew Singleton, or Rashawn Battle been effective to provide a rest at least, if not track down a few more plays like Toure did in the first half? The reason I didn’t give the sad face is because they were resilient as I mentioned in the film review and did make a lot of tackles near the line of scrimmage. It was just boom or bust.

This week v Michigan: Michigan will run the ball a lot as they should. Last year Singleton and Fogg willed the entire defense to hold the Wolverines to less than 4 yards a carry despite running the ball over 40 times and the game still wasn’t close. Rutgers needs to be around that number to keep this close. Their limitations in coverage is less of a concern for the second straight week, but I would like to see Jennings some anyway.

Defensive Backs

This group looks a lot different without Brendon White. The speedster was not in the back to clean up plays and break up passes. Christian Izien has struggled and he’s alongside former walk-on Lawrence Stevens at safety. Give this staff some time and I think we see elite level play like we saw during Schiano 1.0 by year three, but for now it’s just try not to get beat deep. The corners won their matchups against Illinois wide receivers, though they didn’t do a great job getting off blocks as the game went on.

This week v Michigan: Rutgers might get destroyed in this game because they dare Michigan to throw deep, unless the Wolverines execute for the first time this year on deep balls. I think they have to try though and see what happens. If Rutgers lets Michigan move the ball easily in the short areas, I don’t see RU outscoring the Wolverines. It has to be do or die, even if White is out again. Schiano said on Thursday that his condition has improved and he is a game time decision.

Special teams

This was a mistake on my part. I thought the special teams should just have to avoid major blunders for RU to win, I was wrong. They performed ok, but Rutgers needs specials to be above average. Kick returns were not earth shattering, coverage was fine. Punting and kicking were good, but I underestimated the emotional boost a big special teams play can provide. Even Ohio State ran a fake punt against Rutgers when they sure did not NEED to do it. An Adam Korsak roll out fake should be there for the taking.

This week v Michigan: We are back to a game where special teams need to make things happen for RU to win. Rutgers needs at least TWO huge plays on special teams, i.e. blocked kick, fake punt executed, return touchdown, etc. With the re-emphasis as described by Aaron today, it’s important to the psyche of the program to be better on special teams than their opponents.

Coaching

The Rutgers coaching staff was outsmarted by Illinois. Please note that I put a lot less stock in Vedral’s third interception of the game than many others have. If that ball is thrown accurately or Shameen Jones doesn’t get a hand on it, Rutgers wins the game. You coach to win.

The problem was everything else. Was Chris Ash coaching this defense? If your defense can just not allow 25 yards in a minute even when the opponent gets a holding penalty, you win. Illinois sold out for the run every time they needed to and dared Rutgers to pass. Occasionally Vedral completed the ball, but in the key moments he didn’t. Why did Rutgers leave it to end this game and get beaten by basically one completed pass from a guy who has struggled to throw accurately in big spots?

This week v Michigan: The Rutgers coaching staff is better when they have to push the envelope, when they have their backs against the wall, when they are the underdog, etc. and it was on full display last week that they didn’t know how conservative to play. I am finally over my frustration form last week, so let’s hope they give their team a reason to believe they can beat the Wolverines. This is a big game for the coaching staff in my mind to see how the team rebounds, if they learned lessons from playing against a similar type of team and can implement those changes on the field.

The skinny

Michigan is a lot like the team that came to Piscataway and lost in 2014. Unfortunately, Rutgers does not have the downfield passing (Gary Nova threw for 400 yards in that game) or the safety play of that 2014 Scarlet Knight squad. The boys in Scarlet are pretty comparable with the rest of that roster if Mohamed Toure can channel his cousin Kemoko as a pass rusher, so this could get interesting if the coaches have a few wrinkles up their sleeve.

Most importantly, I know Michigan is 1-3 and you can do all kinds of mental gymnastics regarding common opponents, but they have a lot of bigger, stronger, faster players than Rutgers right now. I’d rather see a 42-14 loss if Rutgers plays to win, than one of those 34-23 games where Rutgers tacks on three field goals in the 4th quarter to make it look better on the scoreboard.