Below is how the Rutgers Football position groups fared against Penn State with a look toward Maryland. As always, your thoughts are welcomed in the comments section. Last three games only shown in the chart. The good news is is that there is no more grading on a curve, these are honest to goodness grades with a rubric that applies to 13 Big Ten teams not named Ohio State.
Quick recap and what to watch for in Game 8 against Maryland.
v Penn State: The Nittany Lions to their credit were stopping the run and played most of the game with seven men in coverage, leaving very few throwing lanes. Noah Vedral started, but did not have a short leash which means either A. the coaching staff did not have confidence in Art Sitkowski or Johnny Langan or B. they acknowledge the game plan was ultra-conservative and didn’t blame Vedral for the results. I wrote, “One or two home run balls need to hit or at least be close enough to cause PSU to respect it,” but those never occurred. I don’t think the reads were wrong on RPO’s, it was just that Penn State defensive linemen were winning their one on one matchups. The coaches and quarterbacks get too much credit in wins and too much blame in losses usually, but Rutgers is still not at a point they can compete in games against superior talent without having passing performances like we saw against Michigan. No need to elaborate on it more, but this game shows why the Langan package is not sustainable against talented teams, so the Purdue situation should be treated as an anomaly. It works if the other team is out of gas and does not have an elite defensive line.
@ Maryland: Michigan had almost identical passing numbers against Penn State the week before, and we are still light years ahead of Rutgers throwing for less than 50 yards in a game so there will be opportunities against the Terps. Maryland has only played four games this year, but their pass defense has been pretty solid. They gave up a lot of yards in garbage time to Penn State, but was shutting down Michael Penix Jr. better than anyone had all season by a mile before he was injured. The Terps have only played one game in the last month, so the trick early will be hitting those timing routes that they have not faced at game speed to simply move the chains and wear them down up front. Then once they start creeping up, hit a deep crossing route that Rutgers has done well this year.
v Penn State: Just burn the tape of this game in the running back position group meetings. Rutgers averaged 2.6 yards per carry as a team, boosted by Noah Vedral’s 4 yard average on 14 carries. The running back trio carried 13 times for 31 yards, ouch. They caught six balls for 35 yards, but a lot of that was empty yardage on third downs short of the sticks. They had no running lanes and perhaps due to the field conditions just could never accelerate to make people miss. I think that’s a poor excuse, so like I said, just burn the tape.
@ Maryland: Expect the coaching staff to have more perimeter runs ready to go, whether those are from the backs or jet sweeps. Or some screen passes would also help. Regardless, of which of these are chosen, if they have success that might open up more room in the middle. Maryland does not have the front seven talent Penn State does, so we need to see more broken tackles, too. They are especially vulnerable to runs between guard and tackle where the defensive end gets pushed out of the play since the ends often run way upfield in overpursuit. Maryland has given up 228.8 yards rushing per game this year, so there are no excuses for the RU backs this week.
v Penn State: The wide receivers had as forgettable a day as the running backs, but in their case the film is worth scrutinizing heavily. It turned out that Illinois, Michigan, and Purdue all had terrible cornerback play so even though Penn State’s was average in my estimation unlike Matt Millen saying it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, it looked like that comparatively speaking. Penn State was in a lot of zone and the windows were tight, which is why one of two things need to happen, either A. the ball needs to come out quick or B. receivers need to make tough catches knowing they are about to be hit. Vedral isn’t the type of quarterback to get the ball out quickly, but he was able to against Michigan and the wideouts made plays. So we don’t know if the receivers could have made people miss if given the same chances against PSU. The staff did get Isaiah Washington (2 catches, 25 yards) involved finally, but I recall one drop and another pass he probably should have caught.
@ Maryland: Maryland should start out with the same game plan as Penn State did if they can. I generally hate bunch formations and bubble screens, but that might need to be what Rutgers tries to soften things up. There should be room over the top regardless since Maryland probably needs to keep their linebackers closer to the line to stop the run and read run first. Overall, Maryland has not given up a lot of passing yards or even attempts because opponents have chosen to run the ball on them instead. Look for creative ways of getting the ball to Bo Melton with more Isaiah Washington mixed in. Maryland’s defensive backs have not picked up the ball in man coverage well so they should be vulnerable to back shoulder throws and commit penalties for not getting their heads around. Washington or Shameen Jones will need to have some key first down conversions when surrounded by Maryland’s preferred zone coverage.
v Penn State: I wrote, “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 same was true this week as the group combined for one measly catch for five yards courtesy of Matt Alaimo. In the run game, they were not sealing the edges enough to help Rutgers run outside which was necessary since the middle wasn’t open. No group on offense had a good game, but these guys did nothing to receive a better grade. In the absence of big wide receivers, they did not fill the void.
@ Maryland: The Terrapins are a team based on speed, not size, so Rutgers should have some opportunities to crash down on linebackers and defensive backs to spring runners for a few extra yards. In the pass game, we might need to see some conventional pass routes from this group to make defensive backs make more decisions than they need to against max protection. Don’t expect many receptions since Rutgers should feature the run game, but that could open up some wide open play-action or leak outs for the TE’s that Matt Alaimo and Jovani Haskins have executed the few times they have been called.
v Penn State: Reality check week. Overall, they just weren’t getting any push. The adaptation was to let Penn State get into the backfield and do delayed quarterback runs, but that is just a temporary solution. Raiqwon O’Neal returned from injury and was fired up on the sidelines which was needed since the group seemed little shell-shocked. O’Neal had a solid day himself other than one pass protection assignment where he provided too much help to Cedrice Paillant and let a free rusher on the edge, but you can understand it when Paillant was getting beaten often in the first half. I have not been overly critical of individual players on the line because they had literally zero time to jell or even figure out their best five in the off-season, but with seven games in, I’d like to see Sam Vretman or CJ Hanson return at the left guard spot, maybe even Bordner at tackle with O’Neal at guard. Bryan Felter was still a bright spot, as he still is well above the curve for a true freshman, especially with no practice time, he’s a keeper.
@ Maryland: The toughest guys to come up to speed after extended hiatus are the defensive linemen because it’s impossible to replicate game conditions in practice. Rutgers will need to push them around a little bit early on. That will define the game early on because Maryland has been bulldozed as mentioned earlier in the run game, but they should come into this game fresh having played one game in the last four weeks compared to RU playing four. Both teams will also gain a lot of confidence depending on if Rutgers has success on the ground early on. In the pass game, Maryland has struggled to generate a pass rush except in obvious passing situations so the line has their work cutout if Rutgers falls behind big.
v Penn State: Penn State for the most part again was just driving back the man in front of them, though they did a little more pulling, trapping, and countering than the game against Michigan. Early in the game Rutgers was getting manhandled, but to their credit they chopped their way to keeping the game close and giving the offense a chance to win the game. All our fears about depth came true, though Elorm Lumor (6 tackles, one sack, 1.5 TFL) and Mayan Ahanotou (2 tackles) both had their best games of the year. The roster got a facelift with all the transfers in the off-season, but you can see still has a ways to go to have Big Ten quality depth. Even then it’s impressive they allowed just 23 points when Penn State ran 79 plays.
@ Maryland: The Terps are a power run first, throw quick passes second team so it will be important for Rutgers to force the action. Maryland has missed so many games this year so expect them to run some basic plays initially to try and get re-acclimated. We need to see some Rutgers players win their individual matchups which has not happened this year other than Julius Turner and Michael Dwumfour periodically. Like Purdue, Maryland has some big running backs, so the fellas on the inside need to stop them before they get going. Taulia Tagovailoa is short and does not have elite arm strength so pressure up the middle to disrupt his rhythm is key if it can come without needing to use linebackers. The way to beat this team is get Maryland into a lot of third and longs.
v Penn State: The linebackers had an average day other than Olakunle Fatukasi’s 18 tackles. Rashwan Battle (8 tackles) playing for an injured Tyshon Fogg (1 tackle in extremely limited snaps) was a little inconsistent as can be expected from a guy who has mostly been a backup for two years. Tyreek Maddox-Williams (3 tackles) didn’t do much in a lesser role, though I liked what I saw from Drew Singleton (2 tackles) who got more playing time than he has in a while. Mohamed Toure (1 tackle) regressed to the mean after his Herculean effort a week ago. Overall, it’s tough for the ‘backers when the linemen in front of them are being driven back so much, but we have seen even last year that sometimes they could overcome anyway.
@ Maryland: Rutgers will need to contain the quarterback and perimeter runs or it will be a long day. Tagovailoa looks like Russell Wilson when he rolls out to escape pressure, though he doesn’t have the same running or throwing power. The Terps are also very smart at getting their receivers matched up with linebackers over the middle which is very dangerous. The RU coaching staff has some tough decisions to make about packages and personnel within them. Linebacker is the best position group on defense and Maryland has a lot of speed, so do you play a 3-3-5 or 4-2-5 nickel package? If it’s the former, who gets the majority of the playing time? If it’s the latter it’s Fatukasi and Fogg if healthy with plenty of rest. You could go with experience, but I don’t know who has the foot speed to chase down Tagovailoa. If you go with more speed, there’s a chance too much space opens up for those schoolyard crossing routes that Maryland is best at.
v Penn State: The Nittany Lions (133 pass yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) were able to play without having to throw the ball too much, but when they did it was opportunistic only. Part of that was being conservative, but part of it was Rutgers doing a very good job staying with their men. Even without the injured Brendon White, the Rutgers defensive backs had their best game of the season by far, especially in coverage. His replacement Naijee Jones had three career defensive tackles heading into the game but registered 12 today including a half sack and jarring the hit that led to the INT. I think White could have stopped a few of those plays a little closer to the line, but this is the type of development you want to see from a guy like Jones as a veteran DB and we never really saw from the two-deep DBs under Chris Ash. Christian Izien has gotten a lot of flak this year, but he was all over the place (11 tackles, INT). With Rutgers needing to blitz safeties and corners, the rest of the secondary held up their man to man assignments.
@ Maryland: Max Melton continues to improve which is critical as the third cornerback is basically a starter in football today. He and the entire group will have their hands full against the speed and perimeter attack of the Terrapins. They will need to cover well including on rollouts and make the proper decisions to read run or pass which is extra tough when Maryland floods one side of the field to make it easier for the offense to make decisions. If runners do break it to the second and third levels, they need to be better than they were against Penn State. Maryland has two dynamic wide receivers in Dontay Demus Jr and Rakim Jarrett who are big but can run for yards after the catch which makes this super concerning. Tagovailoa like his brother is very accurate, throws a very catchable ball, and has good ball placement, especially at the second level on slants, so get out the Tums. Normally I am a proponent of Rutgers having to play man to man, but Tagovailoa was confused at times against Indiana so RU needs to make him prove he learned from his mistakes.
v Penn State: The special teams did a nice job, in fact I wanted to see more from the punt team beyond a 41.7 average and Adam Korsak dropping five inside the 20 yard line. In either of the two fourth down attempts Rutgers tried early on, I would have preferred a fake punt. Maybe RU hasn’t had time to practice it this year? The only blemish on an above average day across the board was kick return (2 returns, 24 yards). They did enough to not lose this game.
@ Maryland: Something between the Penn State and Purdue efforts. A wrinkle to build momentum would be nice, but as the weather continues to get worse, simply avoiding mistakes is even more paramount. Also kicker Valentino Ambrosio only had one extra point attempt (he converted) and did not attempt a field goal. If the game is close and late, can he come through? Maryland has been average at best on specials so Rutgers needs to win this battle.
v Penn State: Defensively I said, “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.” Rutgers did not until they were in a two score hole. Offensively, you have one hand tied behind your back when your line is getting pushed back, but the staff must have thought they would get a little more push than they did. As much credit as they got last week for having plans and backup plans that got the win, this week was a dud.
@ Maryland: Push the envelope a little bit. Rutgers needs a shot in the arm and playing it conservative against Maryland is not a winning proposition unless the Terps shoot themselves in the foot like Michigan State did earlier this year. This feels like those Schiano 1.0 games against South Florida where Rutgers needs to be fast enough to contain the opponent speed while pushing them around a bit at the same time. Those RU-USF games usually came down to turnovers and which coaching staff was less block-headed. I like RU’s chances if the game can stay close, but they haven’t played a pure speed team all year, which concerns me. Maryland’s ceiling is definitely higher than Rutgers in 2020 (Maryland destroyed Penn State by not trying to run straight at them), but their floor is lower as they got whipped by Indiana due to mental errors despite the injury to Penix.
Overall, Penn State is exactly who I thought they were and I hate to say I told you so, but what perplexes me is how Rutgers coaching staff seemed to think the 2nd half Purdue game plan would work against a team that is just so much more athletic up front. Penn State was stopping the run with four or five guys when Purdue couldn’t with eight. How many will Maryland need? Can Rutgers contain the Terps or will this turn into a track meet? At least we can go into the game feeling like Rutgers has a chance to win again, even if the matchups favor both offenses and Maryland has a better defense. If Rutgers trails, they have a chance for a comeback if they can avoid dropping back and throwing every time. And no matter what, no need to overreact to this game assuming it is played. The Terps had several cancellations due to Covid already so they should be fresh yet rusty, compared to a Scarlet Knight club who showed signs of fatigue last week.