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Rutgers Football Position Meter and look toward Penn State

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Offense woke up two weeks in a row, pass game will be needed to beat Nittany Lions.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Penn State
The defining plays last year were a precursor to 2020, QB runs.
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Below is how the Rutgers Football position groups fared in the three overtime loss against Michigan and victory at Purdue. Then a look at Penn State for each. 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.

Heavy weight to the second half against Purdue.

Quick recap and what to watch for in Game 7 against Penn State.

Quarterbacks

v Michigan: Noah Vedral played quarterback better than anyone at Rutgers has in a game since Gary Nova in 2014. 381 yards, three touchdowns, and only one turnover, coming on the final play when he had to throw it up for grabs. Johnny Langan scored two touchdowns on the ground. The only way to beat a team with superior talent is to win the turnover battle or have elite quarterback play. Vedral elevated the players around him more than Michigan did and almost did enough for an upset victory. He made good reads, he made accurate throws to lead players to first down gains and oh yea, he had the best two plays of the game: a 4th down scrambling TD throw to Aron Cruickshank and subsequent 2 point conversion run where he had to get three more yards after initial contact in a pile of much bigger people. If Rutgers gets QB play like that, they will get plenty of wins the next few years.

@ Purdue: The Boilermakers are a bend but don’t break defense and Rutgers broke their will despite Vedral being ruled out just minutes before the opening kickoff. Art Sitkowski got the start and in about a half of football, tossed 18-27, 141 yards, and two touchdowns with several of those incompletions coming after he was inserted for third down and long situations. Johnny Langan had his usual package in the first half then led the offense almost the entire second half, carrying the ball 21 times for 95 yards while completing all four of his throws for another 95 yards, including the 62 yard touchdown to Kay’Ron Adams. The juggernaut Boilermakers passing attack outthrew Rutgers by just a single yard, 237-236, in a game Rutgers was without their starting quarterback. The key stat, zero turnovers.

This week v Penn State: Schiano said that if he’s healthy, Noah Vedral will start. Whether he does and/or is effective, expect a potentially short leash if not. The Nittany Lions are similar on defense to Michigan State, Illinois, and Michigan; they can stuff middle runs when committed to it but are vulnerable against wide receivers unless they have extra men in coverage. Penn State played by far their best game on defense last week, with a game plan similar to what Rutgers did to Purdue; allow the run but don’t give up big pass plays. They basically built a wall across the middle daring Michigan to go deep, they didn’t. Look for more of the same as Rutgers will need to sustain drives to score points. Whichever quarterback plays will need to make accurate reads on RPO’s and not hesitate to scramble if nothing is open downfield. One or two home run balls need to hit or at least be close enough to cause PSU to respect it.

Running Backs

v Michigan: The running backs did an ok job when called upon, but to the naked eye were not nearly as good physically as what Michigan had on the field. The stats by the end of the game had Rutgers rushing for 105 yards and just a 2.6 yards per carry average which is unacceptable. Much like the linebackers, we can see how we overstated their abilities the last few years because so many other position groups on Rutgers were terrible.

@ Purdue: Johnny Langan got the accolades and led the team in rushing, but the backs did their part to move the chains and force Purdue to respect them and not just focus all their efforts on Langan. Pacheco had 61 yards, while all three backs caught two balls each. Adams had one of the game’s highlights, perhaps the most important play when he took an intermediate pass the distance that scared Purdue from selling out for the run until it was too late.

This week v Penn State: The Nittany Lions were able to hold Michigan to 17 points despite the Wolverines carrying the ball 27 times for 174 yards and two TD’s. Iowa destroyed them the week before on the ground. So Rutgers will need their running backs in the run and maybe even pass game to break a few tackles or else the offense won’t be able to sustain drives. Pacheco gauged PSU for 102 yards last year and needs similar type results in this one by him or the group as a whole. Penn State likes to play zone so finding those windows and securing the ball will be paramount.

Wide Receivers

v Michigan: This group was simply awesome with Shameen Jones and Bo Melton both going over 100 yards on the day, several of those in clutch situations to get needed first downs and prolong the game. Cruickshank had seven receptions for 70 yards, including the aforementioned TD. The backups only managed two catches, but what more can you ask for? Michigan had bad cornerback play all year and Rutgers was not their “get well” week.

@ Purdue: Early in the game, Art Sitkowski was getting most of what he wanted with his wide receivers. Cruickshank only made one catch, but his kick return TD was a huge play. That damage was enough to scare Purdue into keeping extra defenders back for most of the game even though the receivers tallied just 13 balls for the whole game. That sounds like a huge number compared to what we saw the past few years, but they caught 24 against Michigan. Definitely a good performance, because the opponent respected them more than anything else.

This week v Penn State: The desire for Melton to get more of a featured role is probably needed because he can beat one on one coverage and draw an extra defender. Shameen Jones needs to continue his possession receiver plays to convert first downs. It would be nice to see Isaiah Washington as a big target get a few more looks to try an add a dimension that was missing last week.

Tight Ends

v Michigan: This group got a nice highlight when Jovani Haskins caught a 25 yard touchdown on the first play of the second overtime after Rutgers could have been completely deflated following a missed kick that would have won the game. They held up in odd formations and didn’t need to catch a lot of passes because the wideouts were doing so much damage. In the run game, they were not able to create creases.

@ Purdue: The group caught three passes which was enough to make the Boilermakers wait an extra second before being sure the TE was blocking on that play. Matt Alaimo was involved in arguably the biggest play of the game when he caught a ball and Purdue’s best defender Derrick Barnes was ejected for targeting. The Scarlet Knights needed to rely on them more so for blocking and these guys were getting the job done especially once Johnny Langan was running the ball seemingly on every play. On the key 4th down conversion in the final minutes Brandon Myers blew open a hole for Langan to follow.

This week v Penn State: The Nittany Lions were clogging the passing lanes last week so there might not be room for seam routes and leak outs into the flat for the TEs. The bigger need is for them to seal edge defenders so Rutgers can gain some yards off-tackle on the ground. These guys need to play awesome as blockers, especially if they can block defensive ends to allow offensive linemen to hit the second level. Long-term, three or four catches per game is probably enough to make defenses respect it enough to make blocking a tad easier.

Offensive Line

v Michigan: This group was able to provide the pass protection they did against Illinois versus a vastly more physically imposing defensive front with Michigan. Noah Vedral didn’t even have to reset his feet much, a dramatic change from 2019 when the Wolverines were running through Rutgers as if they weren’t even there at times. The difference between 2019 and 2020 for any position group could not be more stark than this one. On the ground, they couldn’t get as much cooking but it was enough to allow Rutgers to score 40+ against a Power Five opponent for the first time since 2015.

@ Purdue: For anyone who thought the effort against Michigan was a mirage, the boys up front got the fireball against Purdue. They are the number one reason Rutgers was able to run on almost every play in the second half, notably running behind true freshman Bryan Felter in key situations. In the pass game, they allowed just one sack. This group is by far the most improved unit on the team and was able to get the job done against the run and pass whichever they wanted.

This week v Penn State: The big fellas have their work cut out because Penn State has some bigger, more athletic guys than Purdue does. The Nittany Lions rely heavily on their front four against the run and have had mixed results in 2020, forcing the linebackers to have to step up more. Michigan did an effective job with allowing PSU to overrun their assignments at times, so Rutgers will try to exploit some of that as well. A few screens if well-executed should capitalize as well and help buy more time for conventional pass routes to come open.

Defensive Line

v Michigan: This game was an improvement over the Illinois debacle, the Wolverines rushed for 147 yards on 43 carries, a paltry 3.4 yards per rush. That number was low because Rutgers made and continues to make so many short yardage stuffs near the line and only one run went for over 10 yards. The eye test was not as good as the stats, since Michigan other than the first overtime was able to get seemingly four or five yards when they just lined up and ran the ball. The pass rush was almost completely absent so it made sense changes would come.

@ Purdue: Getting position coach Jim Panagos back will be a huge boost in the off-season, but until then they need to just patch it together like they did against Purdue. This was a tough grade to give because Rutgers for the first time in 2020 played a lot more looks with three defensive linemen after the ends had proven so ineffective this year. In addition, the interior of the Boilermakers line used RU’s quickness against them by allowing some penetration on screen passes or other techniques to allow over pursuit. This reminded me a lot of the 2006 game against Cincinnati, but luckily this one had a better result. Had Rutgers lost, they would have gotten the down arrow.

This week v Penn State: The Nittany Lions did to Michigan what Rutgers did to Purdue, they just wanted it more in the trenches. Penn State for the most part was just driving back the man in front of them with minimal pulling, trapping, or counter techniques. Rutgers will have to fight pressure and sit down to hold their ground as to avoid what happened against Purdue. Against the pass, some pressure will be nice, but PSU QBs have been getting the ball out quick, so a few pass knock downs at the line may be more important.

Linebackers

v Michigan: Pretty much the encore of Illinois was what we got from the linebackers with two exceptions: more snaps for Drew Singleton (4 tackles) and Mohamed Toure (six tackles). Olakunle Fatukasi with a little more rest, had even more tackles (15) plus two sacks. Tyshon Fogg had nine and Tyreek Maddox-Williams eight. So just a ton of tackles for these guys, but if they had played better, Rutgers would not have needed to make 97 tackles as a team in the game. Michigan was getting yards falling forward and their backs definitely won the head to head matchups in the second half and OT.

@ Purdue: This was not the best game for them statistically, but it was the big plays they made. Mohamed Toure had an interception as the group not only took on more coverage responsibilities, but also had one less defensive linemen to keep them “clean” from second level blockers. Purdue capitalized on it early with screens and their bowling ball running back Zander Horvath plowing people, but all of a sudden in the second half, RU buckled down and allowed virtually nothing. Head Coach Greg Schiano and defensive coordinator Robb Smith made some impressive adjustments that should not be forgotten.

This week v Penn State: The linebackers need to really go all out this game to take on offensive linemen and not allow Penn State’s running backs to wear them out like Journey Brown did last year. Brown has medically retired, but PSU found a new lead dog as Keyvone Lee toted the rock 22 times for 134 yards and a touchdown last week. He was getting space before initial contact which falls more on the defensive line, but the RU linebackers have to close down quick to prevent big gains especially to protect against the QB runs as both Penn State QBs can break loose when plays break down despite a lack of elite speed. In the pass game, if RU LB draw PSU tight ends, they need to be ready since Penn State has as good of TEs as any team in the Big Ten. This could prove the most important game all year for the linebackers to play their best.

Defensive Backs

v Michigan: Brendon White (14 tackles) was back and not 100%, but without him, I think Rutgers gets smoked by the Wolverines. Maybe they would have won if they didn’t completely shut down Joe Milton forcing the Wolverines to go to their backup? The defensive backs have struggled with critical penalties, but to their credit been resilient. They get the down arrow because Cade McNamara could do whatever he wanted for the second half and two of the overtimes.

@ Purdue: The hardest grade to give yet again. Purdue has two of the Big Ten’s best in David Bell and Rondale Moore. All-American candidate Moore caught 7 passes for 76 yards and rushed just twice for 5 yards after catching 15 balls for 166 yards the previous game. Bell did catch a touchdown, but was limited to just 4 catches for 68 yards, both season lows. In fact his previous low was double that with eight catches. So no matter how you look at it, Rutgers did not want to let two star receivers beat them, and they did not. I didn’t give the fireball because Purdue preferred the screen game, but mission accomplished. Max Melton as a third cornerback is just what the doctor ordered.

This week v Penn State: The Nittany Lions have been forced to pass the ball more than is ideal for their team this season; when they were finally able to run the ball against Michigan, Sean Clifford was more effective, throwing for 163 yards on 17 completions. The key for Penn State’s passing attack is their timing routes, so Rutgers will be best served jamming at the line and not allowing the ball to come out quick. I am higher on Clifford than most because his team has let him down so much this year, but hope I am wrong. Rutgers should return to more base looks, but in third and long the nickel package has to be used.

Special teams

v Michigan: The special teams did not have a great game and I’m not just saying that because of a missed field goal as Valentino Ambrosio still made two whereas his counterpart was 0-3. Adam Korsak did not have a good game, nor did he attempt to kick rugby style into traffic hoping for a muff or even think about a fake. The return game wasn’t great, while Michigan ran one kick back for a touchdown and had one other big return. Overall, they have to be better in all facets.

@ Purdue: This was finally the game where Rutgers clearly won the special teams battle. Cruickshank’s kick return TD equaled the number of punts for Adam Korsak. Coverage units were great and the Boilermakers struggled in the punting game. The only reason for no fireball was the missed extra point.

This week v Penn State: Like most winless teams, Penn State was not dominating special teams and in a lot of poor field position circumstances for much of the year. Last week they were average overall, the highlight being good punt coverage. Special teams should be a huge factor in this game since both teams are imperfect on offense and defense. Whichever team wins the field position battle probably wins the game.

Coaching

v Michigan: The Rutgers Scarlet Knights did not have the athletes Michigan did, but were still able to take them to triple overtime by hook and by crook. I still don’t know how that happened other than that Rutgers jumped out to the early lead based on good scouting and had enough tricks up their sleeve to survive an onslaught in the second half. At the same time, Michigan’s backup quarterback shredded the pass defense despite only joining the contest for the final drive of the first half. So it was a mixed bag, but on the whole the Rutgers staff got more out of their players and was a missed field goal away from possibly saying goodbye to Jim Harbaugh for the final time. They do need to find an answer as a 5th DB in nickel packages OR a pass rush with just four guys because until then, no lead is safe.

@ Purdue: Rutgers had two choices on defense; dare Purdue to throw or allow them to run a little bit. Rutgers chose the latter and it worked as a rope-a-dope because when Purdue wanted to re-ignite their passing attack, they could not get in rhythm. Though it sounds good, it’s still amazing Rutgers won this game when they couldn’t stop Purdue at all, then all of a sudden looked like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. On offense, Rutgers had good game plans in the run and pass that allowed them to follow up a 42 point effort with 37, not needing three overtimes to do it. What’s most impressive is that they knew exactly what buttons to push without their starting quarterback, continuing to gauge Purdue until they proved they could stop QB runs, and they never did. A little dose of what Illinois did to Rutgers.

This week v Penn State: The Nittany Lions went back to basics last week and it was enough to beat a team with roughly equal talent that tried the same thing. Penn State should try to run the ball behind their guards and complete timing throws like they did last week, so Rutgers will need to disrupt that. Defensively Penn State was willing to allow plenty of rushing yards which Rutgers needs to accept, while also being more efficient in converting third downs than Michigan was against PSU. Rutgers was 10-17 on 3rd down against Purdue, so it may be strength against strength. Rutgers played things mostly straight up last week, but needs to be more aggressive and that should provide a little of the mental boost they need to finally get over the hump against Penn State. As long as penalties don’t derail the effort.

The skinny

Penn State has won only one game, but completely shut down Michigan last week from scoring points who Rutgers could not stop the previous week. Greg Schiano and James Franklin have been known as good recruiters, but can never shake the criticism of in-game coaching adjustments for sustained stretches. This game should mean a lot more to Rutgers, though the Scarlet Knights still lack the talent and will need to figure out ways to overcome that deficiency. Despite the directions the programs went since the 2014 dogfight, Penn State has won most of the recent matchups with big second halves rather than wire to wire blowouts so there is reason to believe Rutgers can take a huge leap.

Buckle your seat belts, this game will surely have more than its fair share of emotional moments.