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Rutgers Football Film Study: On explosive plays, speed kills

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Some scheme adjustments can help, but just a little.

Ohio State v Rutgers Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

This football season, time permitting, I get to humor the Rutgers fan base (and myself personally) with a weekly film analysis. Last week, the Michigan heartbreak was covered here.

Live takeaways

  • Rutgers played to win early. Unfortunately it backfired. (VERDICT: True, but the outcome would have been the same.)
  • Ohio State had receivers running wide open. (VERDICT: Rutgers played ok in man to start plays, zone less so. Eventually though, WRs were wide open most of the time.)
  • Ohio State has incredible speed to turn the corners. (VERDICT: Wow, their game speed is impressive.)
  • Rutgers has some young athletes who can be elite Big Ten players if they reach their potential. (VERDICT: Even more so on the rewatch.)
  • Bo Melton is still the most important RU offensive player, but they can absorb his loss more than they would have been able to a week or a season ago. (VERDICT: Mostly true, though he is still the most important player on the offense.)

Below are some thoughts on the enlightening re-watch.

What happened last week.

Against Michigan, Rutgers could not stop the Wolverines early in the pass or run game, but in the second half was a complete reversal, the Blue offense simply could not move the ball whatsoever. Offensively, Rutgers moved the ball in stretches throughout the game but only came away with a single touchdown. Doing more against OSU than they did against Michigan even with a home crowd was a lot to ask.

3rd and 3, ball on the Rutgers 35, 13:45 left First Quarter, game tied 0-0.

Rutgers made a play that will work time and and again this season on a critical 3rd and 3 IF the defense comes out in a deep cover two, possibly even cover one.

It’s not pure play action but Vedral (pink arrow) sells a great fake that he is going to tuck and run, sucking in both OSU linebackers (red arrows) into a wall of bodies. Instead Noah pulls it back and throws a great pass that leads Isaih Pacheco (blue arrow route) upfield into open space. The corners (yellow arrows) have medium depth coverage so a quick slant might work, too, but there is safety help (yellow boxes) if they want to take a risk. Only one frame is needed to show all of this:

The play goes for a gain of 11, as the Buckeyes show elite close down speed to prevent the play from going for more. In fact they had him at about eight yards, but Pacheco willed his way for another three. As a result, Ohio State started to creep their safeties up (or have their linebackers incredibly close to the line leaving a gap between them and the safeties), rather than what we saw last week when Michigan as time went on had to play more and more conservative.

4th and 8, ball on the Rutgers 48, 12:48 left First Quarter, game tied 0-0.

This was the fake punt after RU quickly stalled on the drive. It’s the right move to have a fake in your arsenal and be ready to deploy every week, especially when opponents will assume that fake would come in the form of a Korsak roll out. So the concept is right to get a quick snap and throw before the defense can react expecting a slow developing rugby punt. This is historically speaking, probably the area of the field where the highest percentage of fake punts are successful (or worth the risk) yet most of those teams throughout history do not have a punter as good as Korsak.

Unfortunately, Ohio State is just too fast and in good position on defense. Three linebackers (two yellow boxes, primary defender in red) are ready to stop the run or pass, it almost looks like OSU knew this was coming or they simply have no intention of setting up for a return because Korsak is so good. Ask yourself one question though at the snap, would you expect Vedral to complete a throw into this tight a window consistently (pink arrow)?

Alaimo (pink box) makes the throw.

I think it was the right fake design, but not the right moment. But I am again totally understanding why Rutgers tried it. It didn’t take long to realize that for RU to win, they would need to score a lot AND do whatever they could to keep the Buckeye offense on the sidelines. OSU didn’t even punt until very late in the game.

2nd and 6, ball on the Rutgers 44, 12:20 left First Quarter, game tied 0-0.

Two plays later, OSU got a lead they would not relinquish. Rutgers comes out in the 5-2 front that we saw so much last week with CJ Onyechi (red arrow) playing as a stand-up outside linebacker more than his usual defensive end spot. I am surprised CJ crashed down to the middle so hard on this, but it’s one of three possibilities. 1. Ohio State had something on film earlier this year where they always go inside. 2. He expects Tre Avery (pink box) to stay home rather than follow his initial man (pink arrow) who went in motion. or 3. CJ expects safety Avery Young (blue box) to come crashing hard as the real edge setter on this play.

Instead Ohio State’s wide receivers can easily get perimeter blocks (green arrows) and have a linemen plus an H-back moving toward the bottom half of the screen (longer green arrows). So it’s obvious this play will go for big yards if it goes to the offense’s left UNLESS Young or possibly Tyshon Fogg (yellow box) can cut it off. Unfortunately the tight end seals Young on the edge and Fogg is chipped by a down blocking lineman and the scoreless tie will be broken. This was some good film work by Ohio State and not great alignment by Rutgers. The scheme is what makes this a successful play, but the elite Ohio State running back acceleration is what makes it a touchdown. Highlight in tweet below:

2nd and 10, ball on the Rutgers 10, 11:39 left First Quarter, OSU leads 7-0.

Below is the first interception. Rutgers again is pinned deep after a failed kickoff return. Ohio State gets medium pressure with just three but Vedral gets the ball out quick, as we have all wanted to see more of early in the season. He is trying to fire the ball outside of where the middle linebacker (green box) cannot just unload on a receiver. It’s good Vedral does not go to Jovani Haskins (red arrow) because with his arm strength, an easy pick six could happen on that out route. The best throw is probably to the top sideline (green arrow) before safety help can come as OSU is in a conservative cover 2 again. Instead I’ll give it a yellow arrow level of open for Bo Melton with the ball intended to go to the blue circle. A well thrown ball if Melton can block out the defender would result in a nice gain, maybe even a first down.

Instead the inside corner moves to cut off Melton, which is why I think Vedral is spooked based on his double clutch and throws high. Melton’s man who had given ground, knocks the ball up in the air for a tip drill style INT and has a convoy of blockers to the end zone. If Vedral did not throw high, the linebacker also may have had an angle for an interception himself.

This was exactly how Indiana, Penn State, and even Illinois last year were able to create traffic on intermediate routes that Vedral struggled to defeat a season ago. Rutgers ended up having success against the Illini by throwing deeper and because the linebackers had to start cheating up more to stop the run, but this play shows why it is so important for Rutgers to stay on schedule offensively. If they fall behind the chains, defenses can run complex coverages in the middle of the field and it is difficult for Vedral to fit the ball into the tight windows. OSU of course has better athletes than anyone else RU will face all season, so hopefully Vedral is able to do more than he did a year ago the rest of the way.

Full highlight in tweet below.

3rd and 5, ball on the Rutgers 30, 7:41 left First Quarter, OSU leads 14-0.

The Rutgers defense has a chance to get off the field and is in pretty good coverage, but this ball is thrown before the receiver comes out of his break. It’s also so fast that there’s no time for any sort of pass rush. Avery Young and Kessawn Abraham have great coverage on their men (red boxes), while Patrice Rene (yellow box) would probably be able to stop his man short of the sticks even if he caught the ball. Tre Avery (green box) is close enough to his man that it takes a perfect throw coming out of the break before Olakunle Fatukasi can help. It is and OSU keeps moving.

I don’t know how many other QBs that Rutgers faces this year will have the accuracy and confidence to deliver this ball. There’s almost nothing you can do to defend this better as a team or individual. Garret Wilson also somehow dodges tackles from Fatukasi and Avery showcasing his elite run after catch skills. Rutgers would dig in and hold Ohio State to a field goal, so they deserve credit for not giving up.

1st and 10, ball on the OSU 25, 4:21 left First Quarter, OSU leads 17-0.

This play is just incredible from C.J. Stroud and his receiver. There is a play action fake that Rutgers handles quite well. The linebackers react (yellow boxes) but don’t bite too hard. In addition, Rutgers gets pressure on a 1st down pass, something we rarely ever saw last year, so it’s an encouraging sign. Mohamed Toure (red arrow) is maintaining outside leverage while clearly being held (his jersey is being stretched), you can see the offensive tackle’s hands are clearly outside the shoulder pads which used to be an automatic holding call. Mayan Ahanotu (green arrow) is also being held and face masked at the same time (no call), but both of their bull rushes force Stroud outside the pocket (teal arrow) due to excellent and I mean excellent downfield coverage. He has to accelerate because Aaron Lewis sees the scramble, disengages his blocker, and takes a good pursuit angle (pink arrow).

So with Lewis (pink arrow) in pursuit and Julius Turner (blue arrow) and Mohamed Toure (red arrow) hustling, Stroud has no choice but to throw a ball along the sideline (teal arrow) almost running full speed. If he tries to run along the sideline, Tyshon Fogg (yellow box) has stayed clean, or if he tries to side step Lewis a la Joe Montana in the 1990 NFC championship game, he will get walloped from Turner or Toure.

And yet, an incredible backyard throw and catch move the chains. Rene and a safety (green arrows) are blanketing the receiver with Fatukasi (yellow box) there for clean up on a tackle or tipped ball. Somehow Chris Olave catches the ball and gets one foot in bounds (blue arrow).

So nothing you can do on this play other than shake it off. A play where Rutgers defends this well yet the offense still completes a first down pass like this may not happen again this season.

3rd and 4, ball on the OSU 47, 3:19 left First Quarter, OSU leads 17-0.

Rutgers again digs in to force a third down, but has a break down when they could have forced a punt. Ohio State has ok, though not amazing protection and Rutgers covers well overall, but OSU just has an elite athlete coming out of the backfield (red arrow) that is very difficult for Rutgers to tackle in the open field. Christian Izien takes a line (teal arrow) straight to the ball carrier, but is caught up in traffic with Patrice Rene locked up with his man so effectively one receiver blocks two DB.

Overall, it shows how important getting off blocks is plus the fact that elite players can catch the ball five yards short of the line to gain, but will get the yardage on a perfectly thrown ball.

1st and 10, ball on the Rutgers 32, 2:48 left First Quarter, OSU leads 17-0.

Ohio State does not wait for another third down and a graphic popped up before this play about how the Buckeyes average 8.6 yards per play, 1st in ALL of the FBS.

Rutgers comes out in a conservative cover-2 (red boxes), the most conservative look you can have on a 1st down other than a quarters, 3 deep prevent. They are basically daring Ohio State to just run the ball for five yards off left tackle. Instead, Ohio State flares a running back to the right (teal arrow), drawing the RU cornerback (teal box), then sends a wide receiver on a shallow cross (green arrow) right across the faces of Olakunle Fatukasi and Tyshon Fogg (yellow boxes).

Again, Rutgers is in decent coverage, but their linebackers (yellow boxes) are not fast enough to track down Garrett Wilson. He simply turns on the jets outside of the hash marks (green arrow) and runs in to the end zone. 28 yards untouched, which is an example of why he will be a 1st round NFL draft pick.

As painful as it is to watch, here is the full play highlight.

This play summed up the entire game. Rutgers simply was not fast enough on the perimeter and could not get enough pressure with a four man rush. I love Fogg and Fatukasi, but subbing Maddox-Williams (slightly better in coverage) in the game would not have even saved this touchdown. Deion Jennings, Tyreem Powell, or even Toure at linebacker may be needed alongside Fatukasi or Fogg against Michigan State, Indiana, or Maryland. This is also where the depth concerns in the secondary are dangerous because tackling angles from DBs are critical to stopping this at a 10 yard gain then living to fight another down. So the initial thought would be to play deeper, when really tighter coverage forcing throws and traffic is how you have to play it. Though Ohio State beat that later in the game, too, mixing up strategies including some tighter defensive alignments will work against other Big Ten teams.

Fatukasi, Fogg, and Drew Singleton will be needed against Michigan State, Northwestern, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Penn State in their current run stopping roles, but they may need to be subbed out more in obvious passing situations short term. Long-term for Rutgers to compete with the elites, they need to be faster at linebacker.

1st and 10, ball on the Rutgers 25, 2:34 left First Quarter, OSU leads 24-0.

Rutgers finally got a counter punch on the Cruickshank TD where they showcase his speed which is also impossible for even OSU to track down. Fairly simple play but dressed very well. Rutgers creates misdirection in the backfield which draws the eyes of all OSU linebackers and safeties. Aron Cruickshank is handed off by the corner to the opposite safety (something really hard to do), but just outruns him to the perimeter as Wilson had just done.

This play illustrates how difficult it is to stop people in space if the linebackers need to respect the run and play action. From there an accurate throw can lead to 75 yards after catch. The key for Rutgers in the next few years is having a run game and a quarterback who can use that to suck in linebackers then hit streaking receivers across the middle through traffic. This is Maryland’s bread and butter and Michigan State runs the same concept. The Spartans usually feature a rollout, so a completion is more likely and interception less likely. Home runs like this one are less common also in a condensed field.

The full highlight is below:

3rd and 9, ball on the Ohio State 44, 3:37 left Second Quarter, OSU leads 38-6.

Later, Rutgers has a chance to get OSU off the field again, makes a perfect defensive play call, but Ohio State just does this and admits how spoiled they are in a Tweet:

It’s too bad for Avery Young who had a good game but looks bad slipping to make a tackle downfield. Good pressure, but the QB just runs away from it and throws a perfect ball to a receiver in stride. No way single coverage can handle that, especially against another future NFL starter in Chris Olave.

Again though, Rutgers needs to tackle better in the open field, Michigan State has receivers who run these routes and are fast, too.

3rd and 5, ball on the Rutgers 11, 10:26 left Third Quarter, OSU leads, 45-6.

This was the last true starter versus starter play in the game. Ohio State was facing 3rd and medium and it would be good for morale if Rutgers could get a stop. Rutgers is in a tighter coverage to try and force a deeper throw.

Rutgers gets pressure and forces Stroud to throw off his back foot.

Coverage wasn’t bad but a perfect throw deep beats good defense. Very few other teams if any will be able to execute this play against Rutgers later in the season.

Not sure why the clips are so dark, but here is the full highlight:

If I had more time, I would show some encouraging signs from the Rutgers freshmen in this game. You can hear more of my thoughts in this week’s podcast.

Final score: Ohio State 52, Rutgers 13.

Unsung Heroes

  1. Jamier Wright-Collins. Is he the best back on the team? No. Is he likely to break many long touchdown runs? No. Does he even grasp all the concepts of the running back position yet? No. But wow, he was juking and dragging Ohio State defenders all over the place late. Against other teams I don’t put any stock at all in garbage time, but the Ohio State players tackling him were all four-star recruits, so it still matters.
  2. Tyreem Powell. He got some burn in this game and what I saw from him was light years better than what we got against Temple and Delaware. This is to be expected assuming solid coaching for a player getting his first major college action. Powell showed an ability to get off downfield blocks and cut off angles in space to make plays. I thought his breakout might have to wait until next year, but he may be needed this season especially against teams that throw a lot.
  3. Shameen Jones / Aron Cruickshank. I’m including them both because it’s for the same reason. These are players who earlier in their careers would be tackled, fumble, or drop a pass with any sort of contact by Big Ten star players. Now, they have gotten bigger, stronger, tougher, and smarter to break tackles thus at least giving the team a chance to get first downs as hot routes or check down options. This is the microcosm of the Rutgers program as a whole the last four years. Of note is that Michigan State has a player like this, Jayden Reed, so we’ll see him next week.

CAPTAIN OBVIOUS:

Reasons for pessimism: 1. If you want to rely on the run and not turning the ball over, you need to be awesome at execution, Rutgers needs to decide how aggressive they want to be against future opponents. 2. Are Bo Melton and Raiqwon O’Neal seriously hurt? We don’t know yet but it’s a concern. Who else is compromised after this game? 3. Can Rutgers slow down any above average passing attack or was it just because OSU has amazing pass catchers? 4. Not just in the pass game, but does the Rutgers D have that cut off and chase down speed with their starters or will we need to see more young guys? Michigan had tons of YAC last week also. 5. Will special teams be able to even get a chance to be a big factor in another win this year? 6. Ohio State did all of that and only got one sack?

Reasons for optimism: 1. Ohio State did all of that and only got one sack? The offensive line is still playing better than anyone expected, even the coaching staff! 2. Michigan pummeled Wisconsin, so maybe they are pretty good? 3. Ohio State played by far their best game of the season. If they play like that sooner, they beat Oregon. 4. Cole Snyder and Evan Simon showed some zip on their throws, this offense will have another tool in the box if they are called upon. 5. Rutgers has young athletes, especially on defense who can physically compete with the four and five star players on Ohio State and therefore the entire conference.

Initial thoughts on Michigan State: An early season darling, pounding Northwestern and Miami (FL) vaulted the Spartans into the Top 25, though neither win has aged well. They fell apart in the second half against Nebraska but made two less critical errors and won the game in overtime. Michigan State seems a little better at passing than in-state rival Michigan, but it’s anybody’s guess between Mel Tucker and Greg Schiano as to which team plays it too stubborn when they meet next.

Final thoughts

As I tried to hammer home the last two weeks, never put too much stock in one game or even one half of football. This main takeaway of this game is another point that never gets old, never put stock into the score of a blowout. In 2017, Rutgers lost to OSU 56-0, but went on to win three Big Ten games that season. In 2018 Rutgers lost to OSU 52-3 in a game when Rutgers never even really tried to win and ended up winless in conference play. So even though I didn’t like the fake punt early on Saturday, it once again sent a message like we saw against Michigan that Rutgers was going to try to win the game. And when you put yourself out there, just like in the dating world, sometimes it fails miserably.

This is not a game to completely burn the tape, a LOT can be taken from this game, good, bad, and a little ugly. It used to be that your team’s first “real” game was the wake-up call but now with more specialization there are more dimensions to it. Michigan is a good team, but Ohio State was the first team Rutgers played this year that could really do damage in the passing game.

Glad to get Ohio State is now off the schedule early in the year.