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A review of fourth down play calling vs. Michigan

Has Greg Schiano gotten too aggressive with certain play calls?

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with a fun fact about me. I played softball growing up and my dad, who is likely well-known on this site, coached my seventh-grade softball team. I made him pick all my friends. We were actually pretty good and made it to the championships that year. With two outs, one of the girls on my team decided to steal home on a wild pitch. While she made it, my dad was VERY angry that she had decided to make what he saw as a very risky play and jeopardize our chances to win. All that to say, we are very conservative playmakers in my family and I am not a gambler.

I will always be nervous when a team decides to make a big risk in a game and will be the first to say “I told you so” when it doesn’t work out. In his first tenure, Rutgers head coach Schiano seemed to be a pragmatist as well and was often criticized for overly conservative play calling.

As has been well-stated in his own words, Schiano has learned a lot since he left the banks in 2012. Fans have been treated in the last two seasons to the fruits of that labor. However, has his play calling in certain situations gone too far the other way? Probably not, but let’s look at two of the truly questionable calls in the nailbiter against Michigan this past weekend.

2nd Quarter - Michigan 14 Rutgers 3 at the 11:08 mark (4th & 1 on the Michigan 32): After a 4 yard run by Kyle Monangai on 3rd & 5, Schiano & Gleeson decided to go for it on the Michigan 32 yard line. Trying to stun Michigan with a trick play, Vedral and Pacheco pretend like they don’t know how to line up. I actually bought this watching at home and wondered out loud what was happening. However, when Pacheco slotted in under center, Michigan’s defense quickly moved in to stack the box. He was stuffed on the run and Rutgers turned it over on downs. Thankfully, the defense was able to step up and Michigan was forced to punt on the next series.

Was this the right call to go for it on first down? I’m not a football coach, but I believe it was. We had less than a yard to go, were deeper into Michigan territory and were building some momentum in the run game. A score here would have done a lot to keep Rutgers in the game.

Was it the right play call? Again, not a football coach but I think the consensus here is no, it was not. I think it was a good idea, but poor in execution as Pacheco was not able to recover the snap quickly enough. However, I also don’t think we needed a trick play. We were moving the ball and I believe we could have hammered it through on a regular run. The minute that Michigan’s defense caught on and you could see right away when they did, a timeout should have been called by Schiano and the play aborted. You can’t expect Pacheco to do so. In my opinion, I feel like Gleeson and Schiano felt they needed to pull out all the stops to beat a team like Michigan and in this instance I don’t feel like that was the case. I don’t fault them for that mindset but hopefully a lesson is learned for next time.

2nd quarter - Michigan 17 Rutgers 3 (0:32 left in the quarter, 4th & 10 on the Michigan 44): Ok, this was the moment I couldn’t believe and a time when I could not even remotely understand the thought process here. I get that Rutgers was down by 14 ahead of the half and things seemed as if they might start to go off the rails. The offense had really stalled and things seemed to be going swimmingly for the Wolverines. However, the last 3 plays (all passes, except for one run by Vedral to get it back to the line of scrimmage) had all resulted in negative or no gains.

Was it the right call to go for it on 4th down? I think this is an easy no. There was 10 yards to go and if RU were to turn it over, Michigan would have had great field position with time to score. I get believing in your quarterback but this was a headscratcher for me on all accounts. They absolutely should have punted, tried to pin Michigan deep in their own territory and let the clock run out. They were set to receive in the 2nd half so the need to get something going on offense could have been achieved then. Looking glass, it wasn’t on that series of down but they didn’t know that then.

Was it the right play call? I don’t pretend to know it all, and I am not an expert game tape reviewer like our own David Anderson. However, the last 2 pass plays didn’t work so what would have made this one different? Even if the pass would have been completed, it would have required additional yards gained to make a first down, so this was a breakdown for me. Michigan would take over on downs and on the first play of the possession, Cade McNamara connected with Mike Sainristil for 51 yards to the Rutgers 2 for a first down. The Rutgers defense would hold the Wolverines to a field goal, increasing the Michigan lead to 17 going into the half. That ultimately would prove too much for the Knights to overcome in the end.

In the end, Rutgers would go 1 for 4 on fourth downs with Michigan attempting none partially because the Scarlet Knights defense dominated them in the 2nd half and not needing to in the first. It was truly a tale of two halves.

Schiano addressed his play calling in his press conference stating:

“Sean and I just talked and felt like we could get it. Quite honestly, I thought we had it there. We’re 17-3, we’re not really moving the ball well at that point, and we thought this was a chance to keep a drive alive and that’s a stretch. But at that point hindsight’s 20/20 but at that point we hadn’t really done a ton. We were wrong. I thought our defense, hat’s off, even on that drive. We made a mistake on the one coverage and it gave them a big play but then to bow up and hold them to 3 points. I thought that was really good.”

It’s interesting because Schiano acknowledges “we made mistakes and we still had a chance to win.” If you looked at the stats alone, aside from penalties and passing yards (which was close), Rutgers beat out the more talented Wolverines on every stat including total yards (352 v. 275) and time of possession (32:37 v. 27:23) due primarily to an incredible second-half performance. Schiano addressed this in discussing the road ahead:

“You’re only going to do it if you do the things you did in the second half the next time you play. Right, so now we can leave out that you’re not capable because they are certainly are capable, but we knew that already. They knew that. But sometimes, when you do it over time, consistently, then you really get a belief not only in yourself but in what you are doing. And that’s what we have right now, and we need to get back to work. You know when you lose one like that, you go one of two ways. You go into a shell or you just want to go out to practice. And I feel we want to go out to practice, that’s the way I feel our team is.”

Schiano also stated that he didn’t feel he “didn’t do enough to help his team win” and that it is something he needs to work on moving forward.

Overall, while this was a hugely disappointing loss and you could feel it in his demeanor, I think Schiano and company will learn a lot from it and hopefully apply those lessons moving forward through the rest of the Big Ten schedule. In an article ranking teams in the Big Ten, the writer stated Rutgers could surprise some teams this season. I think RU proved a lot this past weekend and now just need to figure out how to clean it up and close out close games. We are on the brink, Rutgers fans, and let’s just see if Ohio State is the team that Rutgers can shock next week at home.

See below to watch the full press conference:

What do you think, readers? Did Schiano and Gleeson make the right calls on 4th down? Is Rutgers on the brink of B1G success? Tell us in the comments below!