This football season, time permitting, I get to humor the Rutgers fan base (and myself personally) with a weekly film analysis. Last week, the Temple win was covered here. I expected going into the game that I would need to quell the social media storm of Isaih Pacheco critics, but it became more than that as the fan base was split on how much of the Syracuse pressure was due to A. Rutgers not setting the protection, B. Offensive line breakdowns, or C. Rutgers not threatening Syracuse vertically at all. Luckily, the post-mortem comes in a victory.
Live takeaways (hindsight after review in parentheses)
- Noah Vedral was accurate throwing short, but not long. (VERDICT: Accurate, though he was on target with the Haskins TD).
- Rutgers running backs all did well when they were not greeted in the backfield. (VERDICT: Very accurate. Pacheco, Monangai, and Young were greeted in the backfield way too often).
- Both teams tackled extremely well. (VERDICT: The only guy who broke tackles regularly on either team was Shameen Jones).
- The Rutgers DBs played incredibly, including Kessawn Abraham who was up and down against Temple. (VERDICT: It wasn’t perfect, Tre Avery was trailing a receiver once or twice, but even then the window was tight. Avery Young didn’t play as well as week one either, but the DBs were the biggest part of the reason Syracuse couldn’t pass).
- Rutgers got pressure with their front four which allowed them to play so many men in coverage. (VERDICT: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Rutgers relied on slanting just as Syracuse did which is boom or bust. Getting pressure not on obvious passing downs with just the front four wasn’t awesome, but maybe the Syracuse offensive line ends up being decent).
Below are some thoughts on the bittersweet re-watch.
What happened last week.
For the most part Rutgers built on what they did against Temple, the only areas that they were significantly worse was blocking from the backup tight ends, worse results in the return game, and a lack of push for the offensive line in the run game the first two and half quarters. The major concerns including pass protection (especially against stunts) and downfield pass accuracy were magnified, but run defense was actually better than it was against Temple.
The defense played extremely well, but I watched every offensive snap at least three times, focused on the offensive line for obvious reasons. Also, much of the defensive stats were covered by our Justin Raffone.
2nd and 5, ball on the Rutgers 20, 6:23 left First Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
Keeping the offense on schedule is hugely important because it opens up the playbook on second down. I won’t go into too much detail on this play other than the fact that Rutgers outsmarts Syracuse with a good diagnosis by Gleeson / Vedral to change the initial play then execute an easy pitch and catch. The Denver Broncos used this 12 personnel look to beat the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII with twin receivers to one side, simplifying reads for the QB because they saw on film how the defense typically defended the look. Rutgers leaned on it a ton during the game, often keeping extra tight ends to help Hollin Pierce at right tackle.
Syracuse has five men attacking, but Rutgers has seven blocking to seal the back side form pressure. The DB are giving cushion so when neither the safeties nor linebackers rotate over, the cornerbacks have to give ground. This looks like Syracuse has four men all in one spot (red box) responsible for the two tight ends at the top of the screen, as well as the running back, and the threat of Vedral as a runner.
Vedral sees the DB back up and quickly and decisively fires the ball to Bo Melton at the 25 for an easy first down. This timing allowed Bo to get another three yards on the play. Had the corners pressed and dared Rutgers to throw downfield, I would have been very curious to see if Melton or outside receiver Aron Cruickshank adjusted their routes to something deeper like slot cross, mills, or pure verticals. Syracuse was content to make Rutgers make these plays multiple times on each drive and the same look from both sides was apparent throughout the contest.
3rd and 7, ball on Rutgers 31, 4:45 left First Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
Only one frame from this 3rd down below, but I wanted to highlight how Syracuse got pressure with four. In real time, I thought it was Vedral doing the same thing Zach Wilson did a few times Sunday just running backward too much rather than having pocket presence. It turns out, Vedral had nowhere to go and impressively off balance avoided the sack to get the ball on a check down to Kyle Monangai. The play achieved a minimal gain, but at least it was not a sack.
Syracuse had two ends just trying to beat the tackles outside which they half succeed at doing, so I marked those with the yellow boxes because if the quarterback is able to step up it would be a satisfactory result. You’d like your tackles to do better and kick the rushers outside a little more, but at the same time you can’t expose yourself too much to an inside move and if a defender wants to just run around the outside, use his momentum against him.
Unfortunately, the lane Vedral would like to step into is a total no go as Reggie Sutton (red box) is completely beaten by his man (red arrow) who would pop Vedral if Noah stepped there. Also center Nick Krimin falls to the ground after his feet get caught up in what appeared to be Cedrice Paillant’s and his man had a free lane (teal arrows) also which Vedral had no way of even seeing. This simple stunt by the defensive tackles has to be handled better moving forward. Rutgers struggled with this any time it was an obvious passing situation.
Schiano was not pleased on this play with his linemen, but Syracuse did exactly what Schiano wants his defensive line to do on 3rd and long, so there was plenty of respect here. This play could have been a lot worse and it doesn’t even matter what was happening downfield because Vedral could not even complete his drop back.
2nd and 4, ball on Rutgers 17, 13:46 left Second Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
This play came seconds after the announcer commented that Rutgers should test the Syracuse corners. Well, they tried but a free rusher came off the edge to hit Vedral as he threw and the ball fell incomplete. Also notice the left end might have gotten a hit on Vedral if he was unable to step up in the pocket once again.
The free rusher is a linebacker (three red arrows) with an unimpeded line at the QB. The left end (yellow arrow) also will get a hit if Vedral tries to roll to his right after beating Bordner around the outside. On the interior though you can see three Orange defenders are completely neutralized (green circles).
It turned out to be a free play due to an offside penalty on Syracuse, so throwing deep was a smart idea rather than hitting Cruickshank (teal box), but you can’t have your QB getting crushed like this. Even if the result of the play doesn’t count, the bruises don’t go away.
So plenty to learn from this play for the coaching staff. Was the plan to let the blitzing linebacker come in unblocked based on the play design? Should the line have picked him up (probably) by sliding to their left and not having Krimin not blocking anyone? Had it not been an offside penalty would Vedral have thrown to the vacated space? These are answers only the coaching staff can know and hopefully can coach up the players to learn from.
2nd and 6, ball on Rutgers 17, 13:09 left Second Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
Two plays later, Rutgers uses a smart play design to defeat a Syracuse blitz. Rutgers has an empty backfield (which avid readers know I despise) though at least Aaron Young goes in motion so the threat of a jet sweep OR him dropping back to the RB spot is possible.
The following is hard to see in the screenshots, but more obvious in real-time. Young (#4 in white) comes all the way across the formation causing the weak side linebacker (teal box) to move slightly but still be more or less in no man’s land or at the very least not in man coverage on anyone which is the first tip off to the coverage. Then as Young continues to come across, the slot cornerback (red box) does not flinch either despite staring at the inside slot receiver, meaning he is either in a zone himself or more likely blitzing (red arrow). If this was man coverage underneath, that slot corner would be bumping outside or following Young when he comes across.
Syracuse is willing to risk the short completion because their pressure has been getting to Vedral quickly and up to this point the wide defensive end has been able to get outside to rush the QB throws. As a result, the Orange expect Rutgers will have two men (purple arrows) assigned to protect against the space opened up even if the other three defensive linemen are manned up (short green arrows above).
With three players able to get a running start into their blocks, it does not matter the slot corner (red arrow) gets a free lane to the quarterback because Isaiah Washington (blue circle) steps back behind the line of scrimmage for a wide open throwing window.
Again, this is vintage Schiano-style defense from Syracuse where you bring pressure while also forcing the opponent to accept shorter gains and have more trouble beating you with the big play. Of course Rutgers is used to practicing against it, so Vedral makes a good read and takes what the defense gives him. Also, this requires defensive backs who can get off blocks and make difficult tackles in space, which the Orange do on this play at the sticks and throughout the game.
3rd and 1, ball on Syracuse 47, 10:49 left Second Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
The drive ultimately stalled after a poor spot following a second down play and Syracuse sending everybody at Johnny Langan. He was able to drag two defenders two yards (red box), but a third off the edge (yellow box) was enough to stop him short of the sticks. This will happen a lot this year but you can see a loft to Cruickshank would have been an easy TD and later in the game, they snapped to a back with Langan lead blocking which worked well, also.
3rd and 10, ball on Syracuse 12, 8:20 left Second Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
After Adam Korsak pinned Syracuse deep, you can see Rutgers gave the Orange a dose of their own medicine as a four man rush against six blockers gets two men free for a hit on Syracuse backup QB Shrader. The receivers are well covered (green arrows) and Rutgers has a safety rotating over to the inside receiver (yellow box) on the bottom so he was not open either. Two linebackers are in zone underneath (magenta circles) while also serving as QB spies (magenta arrow).
Mohamed Toure gets the sack with CJ Onyechi right there had there been a clean up needed.
1st and 10, ball on Rutgers 36, 7:13 left Second Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
After the ensuing punt, Rutgers offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson tries to dial up a deep shot with max protection, but three Rutgers blockers (pink arrows) fail to stop one defensive lineman. Hollin Pierce, Isaih Pacheco (who was the play action fake then came back to help), but the biggest culprit was Johnny Langan who for the second time was the reason RU gave up a sack. It’s not surprising Langan would struggle blocking as an inexperienced tight end who is still a part time quarterback.
So it doesn’t matter if Vedral had men open or the accuracy to throw the ball because he was sacked before the route could develop. Three receivers against seven men in coverage need to have time to get behind them. Again, this is not a situation where Vedral set the wrong protection (unlike the Jets and Giants quarterbacks did so often on Sunday), the RU blockers simply failed to execute against a basic four man pressure stunt. Loss of ten yards on first down.
On the very next play Langan gets beaten again (the message boards were blaming Matt Alaimo) and even Pacheco cutting off his route to try and help fails as Vedral does his best to step up but is sacked for the second play in a row.
Vedral tries to step up (green arrow), but his blockers can’t reset and the defensive linemen turns back around and drags him down from behind. Luckily, Adam Korsak kicked a 69 yard punt to flip field position.
2nd and 1, ball on Syracuse 37, 2:15 left Second Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
On the ensuing Rutgers possession, on second and short Vedral threw a complete duck 50-50 ball to Melton (teal arrow) near the endzone that fell incomplete when his pocket was surprisingly clean. Perhaps it was due to the fact he had been hit so many times right beforehand, but regardless the offensive line held up just fine this time. This throw is what gives fans who doubt the deep throw ability ammunition. On the plus side, Jovani Haskins was open beyond the sticks which ultimately set up his touchdown later in the game when he ran the seam route after the defensive backs expected him to run this same “Ohio” route.
3rd and 1, ball on Syracuse 37, 2:09 left Second Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
That left Rutgers in a manageable 3rd and short and a play that fans over the past two games have criticized Isaih Pacheco for not converting, clamoring for more Kyle Monangai. This one was not Isaih’s fault at all, he’d love to run straight up the gut but the A gaps are both filled and a free man is coming off his left side (three red arrows), so the only option is to try and get between the right guard and tackle (yellow arrow), but the hole closes too soon.
Luckily once Syracuse took the ball, Christian Izien saved a touchdown with a pass breakup and kept the home crowd from erupting.
2nd and 10, ball on Syracuse 39, 10:33 left Third Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
Rutgers showed signs of life on their first drive, but ultimately had to settle for pinning Syracuse deep again (thank you Adam Korsak). Following another Orange punt, the Rutgers quick passing game with 20 personnel (Avery Young and Kyle Monangai) or 21 with Matt Alaimo coming in the game for Isaiah Washington methodically matriculated the ball downfield. Following a check down to Aaron Young that was lucky to even get back to the line of scrimmage on 1st down, a key play came on a second and 10.
This is where the cat and mouse game started to get more interesting. Rutgers has been alternating snaps with a tight end or without, in either case keeping two backs in which gives them many options. Bill Walsh would be proud of this modern twist of the west coast offense. Syracuse is providing a ton of cushion on Rutgers twin receiver look at the bottom of the screen, trying to bait Rutgers into just throwing to a dig route (green arrows) then have all the defenders flow to the football (blue arrows) to set up a 3rd and medium. The Orange know Rutgers has struggled in protection, so they expect Rutgers will either A. make a quick throw to reduce the expectations of the offensive line or B. if Rutgers tries to throw deep, Syracuse will get pressure quick enough to dare Rutgers to make a tough throw and catch.
This is a great example where Sean Gleeson calls a play that goes against tendency while the offensive line and Noah Vedral make the right reads. Vedral never even looks to his right and if anything locks on too early to his left, top side receiver. Rutgers blocks six men with seven, and the corner Duce Chestnut (yellow box who the announcers were praising before the play) stops expecting a short curl but then backpedals again after he worries that this might be a double move.
That hesitation is just enough for Isaiah Washington to run a perfect out route and the ball to be thrown by Vedral (magenta arrow) before Isaiah even turns out of his break. There is really no defense for this other than dare Rutgers to throw deep. Blocking doesn’t need to hold that long, but the offensive line handles all five men they need to block fairly easily (green arrows) other than Hollin Pierce (yellow arrow) who did just enough for long enough for the ball to get out in time. Kyle Monangai is available to help but doesn’t even have to block anybody. Aaron Young (teal circle) though does an awesome job picking up a blitzer alone and also keeping his hands down so the defender can’t swat at the ball once airborne. Excellent football, though a team that can press their corner more OR has a safety who can sniff this out better may have a chance to stop it.
4th and 2, ball on Syracuse 31, 9:20 left Third Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
The Langan package comes through with a play-action fake and Syracuse not sending the house like they did the previous short yardage stop. Rutgers would add another wrinkle to pick up another one of these later. The Rutgers offensive line just shoved everyone backward at the point of attack to move the pile. Matt Alaimo (green box) does a great job sealing one edge and Jamier Wright-Collins gets the opposite side set, just barely (yellow arrow). The best block of all is Jovani Haskins (purple box) who just shoves his man two yards backward immediately which creates a running lane for Langan because it also drives back a second defender (purple circle) to make him take a longer loop to get to the ball.
Langan only has to drag one defender, a smaller defensive back for an easy conversion though the refs made it more challenging with a terrible spot that even the announcers had a laugh criticizing. Hollin Pierce is initially pushed back but his pure strength allows him to shove his man back in the cyan arrow path, while left guard Cedrice Paillant (hard to see) destroys his man with brute force as well.
1st and 10, ball on Syracuse 11, 6:52 left Third Quarter, game tied, 0-0.
After Rutgers was gifted a first down following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Syracuse Head Coach Dino Babers following two plays where the blocking broke down, they hurried up to the line. Syracuse was set in time after Rutgers ran the play clock down, but the Orange never had time to make a complex defensive playcall in the chaos.
It’s old school man on man football as Syracuse has one cornerback in single coverage at the bottom of the screen (green arrow) daring Rutgers to throw yet again. The weak-side linebacker (yellow box) has to account for a Vedral keeper which RU was having some success with. Bo Melton goes in motion slightly (red arrow) which not only helps Vedral but probably also helps the offensive line and tight ends know who to block because they seem well aware Syracuse is slanting to the strong-side. Rutgers offensive line blocks down that way with help from Haskins and Alaimo cutting off linebackers at the second level.
This is a classic example of “live by the slant, die by the slant” as it pertains to the defensive line. Rutgers did this a lot under Schiano 1.0 but does it less so now because by doing so, you are completely vulnerable to everyone getting washed down on a zone run play to that side. Syracuse gets burned right here and Kyle Monangai has one of the easier touchdowns he will ever get with right guard Reggie Sutton leading the way for a while before he even needs to block anyone. Highlight video below:
Would Isaih Pacheco have found paydirt on this play? Probably, but Monangai made the play and deserves the recognition.
On the following Syracuse drive, they scored their first TD on an identical play call where they blocked to their right, the Rutgers defense slanted to that side and the game was all square again.
4th and 1, ball on Syracuse 32, 1:08 left Third Quarter, game tied, 7-7.
Shameen Jones made a great play to set up a 3rd and short where Langan was stuffed, but RU elected to go for it on 4th down. A great playcall by Sean Gleeson on this one because Syracuse had been expecting Langan (teal box) to carry the ball, but instead he serves as a lead blocker for Isaih Pacheco (green box) who took a direct snap. Also the direct snap changed the timing from the previous Langan package plays which surprised the defense when Pacheco reached the line of scrimmage before they could disengage and try to make a tackle.
Another great block by Haskins (red box) as well as Victor Konopka (yellow box) who replaced Jamier Wright-Collins. It also moved Matt Alaimo to the outside tight end role where he is more comfortable, you can see the extra time allows him to square up his man (red arrow).
2nd and 10, ball on Syracuse 30, 1:08 left Third Quarter, game tied, 7-7.
After Vedral overthrew Bo Melton on what would have been a touchdown by about a foot, Rutgers attacked for a second straight play against an Orange defense which was super tired (remember the lack of front seven depth mentioned in the game predictions).
Rutgers goes four verticals which Syracuse cannot defend efficiently. First though, Rutgers blocks five players with five, three of which were a great job by Raiqwon O’Neal, Paillant, and Krimin (green arrows). Hollin Pierce gets a yellow arrow because yes he is handling his man, but he was engaged so early in the play that he obstructed Reggie Sutton from allowing a stunt to get around the outside (yellow box). The back probably should have helped, but instead takes off as the check down (teal arrow). Fortunately, Sutton does an AMAZING job to play the angle and push the defensive end just enough (same yellow box) to allow Vedral time to get this ball off. Here’s an example where Pierce looks to be doing his job, but he’s the reason Sutton needs to pull off a Herculean effort.
On the coverage, the slot corner (teal circle) is not in position to cover anybody forcing the boundary corner (red arrow) to have to pick up the outside receiver. This requires the single high safety to have to rotate to either Haskins (green circle) or Matt Alaimo, running the same route concept on the other side of the field. Vedral delivers a great ball allowing Haskins to catch, gather himself, and plow his way into the end zone. Highlight video below:
After that, Rutgers didn’t block their second punt of the game, but scared the Orange enough to force a complete shank.
Unfortunately RU couldn’t capitalize, missing a chip shot field goal that would have made it a two score game. Rutgers got the ball right back though when Mayan Ahanotu just overpowered his man to earn a strip sack which CJ Onyechi was there to recover.
It was a War Daddy kind of day yesterday— Rutgers Football (@RFootball) September 12, 2021
1️⃣ FF pic.twitter.com/4o5rRghEru
Rutgers played the following sequence conservatively but got a field goal through the uprights for a 17-7 advantage and more importantly the air completely let out of the building and just 8:19 left on the clock.
The rest of the game featured the Rutgers defense surrendering only a QB scramble, getting another Max Melton interception, while in the middle of that draining four minutes off the clock with some power running from Isaih Pacheco that also forced the Orange to burn all their timeouts. Rutgers held the ball for 22 minutes to just around eight for Syracuse in the 2nd half. Final score, Rutgers 17, Syracuse 7.
- Mohamed Toure. Much like Syracuse broke the Rutgers offense at times with just one player disrupting things, Toure himself when given any sort of space terrorized the Orange.
- Kessawn Abraham. You could give it to any of the corners, but Max Melton got an INT so his presence was obvious and Tre Avery was okay, but this was not one of his better games. Abraham showed the biggest improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 of any Rutgers player. The times his man was open often came when the QB was scrambling and playing backyard football as a corner is incredibly difficult. Especially when he is the DB Syracuse was trying to exploit in their game plan, Kessawn showed up big time.
- Tyreek Maddox-Williams. I always liked Tyreek who has always done everything the staff asked him dating back to starting as a true freshman, even though the fact that he takes snaps from Tyshon Fogg is unfortunate. Maddox-Williams showed why he gets reps against Syracuse because his coverage was a lot better than Week 1, probably the best coverage he has ever played at Rutgers. This allowed Olakunle Fatukasi to do what he does best, roam the field and make plays with minimal pure coverage responsibilities.
- Shameen Jones. Jones did not see the field much, but when he did, had two key receptions where he broke an initial tackle to gain a few extra yards and set up a third and short. Both times Rutgers ended up converting to move the chains on a subsequent play. Rutgers is going to need him more, especially when they are trailing (that hasn’t happened yet this year; knock on wood) and defenses fall back into cover two where the only way to get first downs is to break tackles and/or make defenders miss.
CAPTAIN OBVIOUS: A win is a win, but good staffs not only honestly self-scout, they can motivate players enough to clean it up without also crushing their confidence. The offensive line needs to communicate better, handle blitzers better, and simply win their one on one matchups more frequently.
Reasons for pessimism: 1. The Big Ten was 12-2 this week, Michigan particularly is WAY better than they were last year especially in the defensive backfield. 2. Rutgers may be the healthiest team in the country right now, is that sustainable? 3. The fact that there is no run up to the line, quick snap, fall for extra yards to convert those 3rd or 4th and shorts, especially when ball spots could become less favorable after review is a glitch in the analytics. Tom Brady is 44 years old and still leverages the value of said tactic. 4. If Syracuse had a confident QB or even stuck with their backup, would those downfield passes have hit enough to change the outcome? 5. Even if the Sitkowski train is derailing in Champaign, this current RU QB controversy will gain more momentum despite Vedral’s high completion percentage and lack of turnovers. The coaches have their hands full trying to maintain order with all the distractions.
Reasons for optimism: 1. A Power Five road win. 2. Defense played out of their minds for most of the game. This is a great example where even though Rutgers offense didn’t score much, they did enough to avoid three and outs preventing the defense from getting completely worn out like we saw so many times in recent years. 3. Special teams continue to get better yet didn’t even have the big returns we have come to expect. 4. The offensive game plan was to play it conservatively (not turn the ball over) unless the panic button needed to be pushed, which was not necessary. 5. Rutgers has playmakers on offense when they get the ball with any sort of space and they will break more tackles later in the season. 6. Other P5 teams throughout the country were embarrassed including Illinois and former Blue Blood Florida State who lost to an FCS opponent, Jacksonville State. JSU’s loss in the FCS Quarterfinals last season was to the team that comes to Piscataway this week.
Initial thoughts on Delaware: The Blue Hens (2-0) have played a lot of great football the past six months but capitalized on mistakes more than anything last week. They play smart on both sides of the ball to compensate for being majorly undersized on the defensive line. Their defenders, especially safeties, diagnose plays quickly, so those short throws need to be made on time and on target or else receivers will be stopped immediately. The Delaware offense does a good job getting the ball to its playmakers all over the field, and will have them line up all over the formation. As mentioned on our latest podcast episode this week, they struggle in punt protection, so that will be interesting to watch.
This was an ugly game against Syracuse, but any win over Power Five opponent is a win especially on the road. Especially when Rutgers failed to defeat a single P5 opponent in three of the past five seasons, clearly expectations have changed. The rewatch felt a lot more like a winning performance than it did in real time. Rutgers had a lot of guys play extremely well and generally made the correct decisions in most situations.
Last week I wrote, “the biggest reason for optimism against Syracuse and the rest of the season, Gleeson showed his ability once again to call plays that went against tendency.” That was true enough for a win at Syracuse, but against the Blue Hens for Rutgers to pull away like most expect, it will need to be with smashmouth football even when Delaware knows it’s coming. My biggest concern is that the offensive line had several plays where multiple players lost 1:1 battles (and every single lineman was victimized more than once), that can’t be fixed by scheme nor can a QB avoid multiple defenders even with good pocket presence.
Vedral did a good job when one man came free, but no QB can handle two. He and Gleeson can only do so much. I love Hollin Pierce’s size and long-term upside, but unless he improves in a hurry, we might need to see Reggie Sutton move back to tackle at some point since Bryan Felter is a proven commodity as an interior lineman. The staff will surely give Pierce another chance to get more game reps in the hopes he can continue to develop ahead of the curve. His development was expected to take time. Other than that, there are no other major changes the staff can really do, the group just needs to be better.
As mentioned though, early season games are always a crapshoot (which is why coaches prefer starting the conference slate as late as possible), the results around the rest of the country should be reason enough for optimism. If Rutgers can continue to improve and take care of business against Delaware, at least the rest of the season will be interesting because the team will be in bowl contention through mid-November no matter what happens between now and then.