The Rutgers offense looked stale for most of the two games to begin the season. The lack of big plays was somewhat overshadowed by the exceptional play on defense and mistake free play on offense. But the Scarlet Knights and their fans knew they’d need to start hitting on some big plays to keep the winning going.
On Saturday, Rutgers did just that. They were able to take advantage of a less talented Delaware defense and create chunk plays. That formula will need to stick around in order to win games in the Big Ten, as well. As well as the team has played as a whole, big plays need to be part of the equation for winning football moving forward.
The big plays started early for the offense against Delaware. Noah Vedral found Bo Melton for a 28-yard touchdown pass and catch with 9:34 left in the first quarter on Saturday. Vedral faked a handoff to Kyle Monangai as Melton took off down the sideline in one-on-one man coverage. The throw by Vedral was a little under thrown but it was to Melton’s backside and away from the defender. Melton leaped and turned and had no trouble hauling in the first score of the game.
Plays like that have been there thus far to start the season, they just haven’t been able to be executed because the offensive line hadn’t been holding up to let things develop downfield. Coach Greg Schiano said that was part of the difference in the game against Delaware.
“It’s not like those plays weren’t on the video in the first two games,” said Schiano. “We just never got a chance to get the ball there. So we protected a little bit better and we were able to get the ball out.”
For the second score of the game, Isaih Pacheco took a swing pass, technically a run, in the flats in the backfield. He got three good blocks on the outside from Melton, Jovani Haskins and Johnny Langan as he made his way up the sideline before pushing a defender off of him and tumbling for the 20-yard score.
That’s two big plays of 20 or more yards in which the blocking was able to hold up and let the playmakers make plays. Melton needs to be given those one-on-one chances, he’s a good 50-50 ballhawk and can also speed by defenders on longer attempts. Pacheco is an efficient and patient runner who knows how to take what the defense gives him and can be a handful to stop in the open field.
The Scarlet Knights went on to score 45 points against the Blue Hens, and according to their official website, Rutgers scored at least 40 points in each of its first two home games for the third time in program history (1915, 1949).
Setting up the Pacheco score was a 57-yard completion to Melton that put the Rutgers offense on the Delaware 27-yard-line. With Rutgers leading 21-10 in the second quarter they were able to gain 40 yards on two plays during one drive. Aron Cruickshank and Aaron Young had catches of 19 and 21 yards, respectively, setting up a Young touchdown run two plays later. Langan got in on the big plays Saturday from the tight end position, as well. To open up the second half, he had a 23-yard catch over the middle to bring Rutgers down to Delaware’s 21. For those not keeping tabs at home, that’s five plays over 20 yards for 149 and one play of 19 yards. And one thing Rutgers should love about those plays is the number of players involved. It wasn’t all Bo Melton with big gains. There was a varied supporting cast on Saturday that needs to show up in the weeks to come.
That’s all without the longest gain of the day. From one of the most unlikely of supporting members. Senior wide receiver Brandon Sanders had one FBS catch heading into the game against Delaware. The transfer from Bucknell probably didn’t register on many radars before Saturday, but he came away with a 62-yard touchdown snag and finished with three catches for 84 yards.
Rutgers lined up with trips-right and Sanders in the slot— where he lined up most of the day. Vedral faked a handoff, to a running back that was on the opposite side of the fake, and the line held up for possibly the longest time this season, letting Sanders run a post route while getting behind two defenders. Sanders caught the ball at the 25 and raced the rest of the way in to give Rutgers a 21-7 advantage.
Even though a lot has been made of the lack of time the offensive line is awarding Vedral, that is the second game this season the Scarlet Knights have not let up a sack. That has some to do with the play calling—which has allowed Vedral to get the ball out quick to an open target—and some to do with Vedral being able to move the pocket, but on Saturday the line did a great job of fending off a defense they were supposed to.
Vedral may not be a quarterback who will consistently give you those chunk plays, not against better opponents if his o-line doesn’t hold up, but he knows what he can do and is showing great efficiency and ball control. Through three games he has four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 71.6 completion percentage. This was the second game of his career where he passed for more than 300 yards and he’s now averaging 202 per game.
“I thought Noah was very efficient,” Schiano said. “I thought the o-line did a better job of protecting him. The big thing is we have not been very efficient in third down conversions and today we were really — I think we were 10 of 14, which is huge. If you can do that, you’re going to have a chance. And as I’ve said to you guys the first two weeks, if you don’t turn it over, you always got a chance. And that’s three weeks in a row, really good job by them.”
It’s not plausible to expect a bevy of 300 yard games for the rest of the season from this offense, but it showed it has what it takes to make the occasional big play. We know the big play talents of Melton and Pacheco, and against Delaware others stepped up to put the game out of reach. The talent level goes significantly up from here, with Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State on tap for the next three weeks, and Rutgers needs big plays to give them any chance of stealing an upset against the Big Ten powers.