This football season, time permitting, I get to humor the Rutgers fan base (and myself personally) with a weekly film analysis. No surprise, I was focused on specific areas of interest this time, mainly the QB and offensive line play, which is usually the first thing to focus on early in the season.
Live takeaways (hindsight after review in parentheses)
- Noah Vedral took a long time to get going even when the play calling was trying to make it as easy as possible for him. (VERDICT: reads not as bad as originally thought, though ball placement was mostly as bad or worse)
- The offensive line looked fine in pass protection at first glance, even with so many players rotating in. (VERDICT: mostly true)
- In the run game, Isaih Pacheco was not as effective as the other backs. (VERDICT: Pacheco was running the same way as the other backs so this seems to be overblown.)
- The Johnny Langan package is still needed. (VERDICT: Yes and there were more wrinkles than last year so it may have success in B1G against equally talented teams. It’s also more difficult to cover when Langan sometimes is in the game as a tight end so you can’t just key on him as a wildcat QB.)
- The fade route, including one to Aron Cruickshank, really? (VERDICT: Langan throwing a fade to anyone under 6’6” better not happen again, though Cruickshank looked physically stronger than last season)
- Bo Melton is by far the most critical player to the success of this team in 2021. (VERDICT: Accurate, but I feel a little better about other WR/RB)
- Defensively and on special teams, you can’t ask for anything more. (VERDICT: 100% true)
Below are some thoughts on the happy re-watch.
What happened last year.
We saw enough in the season opening win over Temple to see a continuation of what Rutgers did last year on both sides of the ball to know it was not a fluke. That said, of course opponents will be more ready for the schemes week in and week out. The Rutgers defense brought pressure and was aware of the weaknesses in their formation and coverage to react when those were exploited. The Rutgers offense picked up a lot of cheap yards by playing fast before the defense could set or capitalizing on base coverages the Temple defense showed without ample time to do more complex coverage schemes at game speed.
3rd and 7, ball on the Temple 30, 11:14 left First Quarter, Rutgers leads 2-0.
After a big Cruickshank return of the free kick following the first points of the game on a safety, RU faced a 3rd and long. Temple comes with three down linemen, a look they would show most of the first half. The Owls have a deep free safety off screen, then are manned up with their other four defensive backs, two giving plenty of cushion on the top side (yellow arrows) and two tighter on the tight ends near the bottom of the screen (blue arrows). The middle and strong side linebacker (blue circle) are responsible for the quarterback and the running back.
Quarterback Noah Vedral’s read is the weak side linebacker (red box and arrow). If he blitzes, the ball probably should be a quick hitter to the slot receiver who would need to break at least one tackle to achieve a conversion. If that linebacker drops back it could be an option run where Vedral or running back Isaih Pacheco would need to set up their blocks to try and run for the needed yards. Ultimately, Vedral just hands the ball to Pacheco, possibly because the coaching staff told him to ensure more yards were needed to set up a shorter field goal try OR because the staff intended to go for it on 4th down assuming they could set up a 4th and short.
The ball probably should have been thrown to Cruickshank, though I will give Vedral the benefit of the doubt because he did freeze the linebacker (blue box) that would have given Pacheco time to hit the ball straight up the middle. Unfortunately because right guard Reggie Sutton overruns his assignment, the defender (red arrow) smartly collapses the middle running lane forcing Pacheco to have to cut left then just plow ahead because Tight End Matt Alaimo (blue arrow) has to just pick one man to block, but there are two. With perfect execution up the middle, the outside man could have been left completely unblocked.
The message boards and game threads lit up with statements that Kyle Monangai and Jamier Wright-Collins ran more north-south than Pacheco did, but on this play Isaih tried to run north-south then adjusted and did exactly what he should have. He took an initial hit at the line of scrimmage then plowed ahead as much as he could to get four yards after contact. Keep an eye out for subtleties like this if you rewatch the game because by dragging three defenders, Pacheco was able to set up RU for a 4th and 3 which they did convert on the very next play.
3rd and 8, ball on Temple 40, 4:37 left First Quarter, Rutgers leads, 5-0.
Only one frame from this 3rd down below, but you can see Rutgers completely fails to cover the receiver (green box, green arrow) who if led properly probably could have scored a touchdown.
Instead the inexperienced quarterback feels the pressure and doesn’t even look left, lofting a 50/50 ball to the bottom right corner of the screen that was almost intercepted. The key takeaways here are that 1. A good team will capitalize, but 2. if you are going to make a mistake, make it at full speed, which Rutgers does and it works out to force a punting situation.
1st and 10, ball on Temple 28, 1:38 left First Quarter, Rutgers leads, 12-0.
Rutgers was really struggling through the air (the graphic shows Vedral is 7-14 for 39 yards at this point), but Sean Gleeson still found ways to call plays to make Temple have to defend the entire field. This play is a great illustration.
Rutgers comes out in an unbalanced line, Raiqwon O’Neal at left tackle (pink circle) is actually an eligible receiver which confuses Temple. You can see even when Aron Cruickshank goes in motion, the corner at the bottom of the screen (blue circle with arrow) needs to stay in case O’Neal leaks out like he did for a touchdown against Ohio State last year.
The slot cornerback is in a tough position because even though he smartly creeps toward the line suspecting run and possibly without realizing Isaiah Washington is not eligible himself, there’s a ton of space for him to cover and he’s going to have to take on Jovani Haskins, who is a massive Tight End.
At this point it’s worth noting that the yellow arrows indicate the obvious blocking assignments with Washington marked with two arrows near the top because he will be more so responsible for an area which Cruickshank will follow. That leaves the green arrows as the Temple linebackers who need to pursue the football, but Rutgers has two remaining offensive linemen to cut them off.
So the real breakdown here for Temple is that the Weakside linebacker (WLB in blue circle) should either be switching sides of the formation or crashing down to the line of scrimmage and aligning the other two linebackers more to their left. The WLB is basically covering nobody other than maybe a running back OR possibly even Vedral who could flare out in a “Philly special” type play. All this said, you can see the play is extremely well designed and Temple is not doing themselves any favors in defending it.
Once the action begins, Rutgers is playing 11 v 9 football because the weakside linebacker and bottom cornerback (white box) are not being blocked, nor are they anywhere near being able to make a play on the ball.
So Temple is left with two chances for a tackle, the defensive end (blue box) is left unblocked on purpose by Rutgers or the linebacker #11 (green arrow) has a chance because Cedrice Paillant is not able to get across fast enough to seal him. If either of these defenders is an elite player, they probably could either make the tackle or at least blow up a blocker to buy time for help to get free and assist.
Great top side blocking by Rutgers by the other four skill position players, you can see in the four red boxes all neutralizing their man. The green box you can see the previously unblocked defensive end reaching while the linebacker #11 is chasing the speedy Cruickshank with no real angle to take him down already four yards beyond the line of scrimmage. #11 ultimately makes a shoe-string tackle at the 20 yard line to save a touchdown, but Cruickshank’s momentum carried him all the way to the 13 yard line before falling down.
This play was vintage Sean Gleeson in that it caught the defense off guard with the formation OR if they had watched that RU tape from Ohio State last year, may have overcompensated to ensure O’Neal was covered. So it’s basically a win-win to get an early advantage. (To their credit though, Temple had three people in the backfield before Isaih Pacheco took a handoff the next time RU went with the unbalanced line.) Then it put a playmaker in position to get yards assuming the blocking held up. Bo Melton, Isaiah Washington, Isaih Pacheco, and Jovani Haskins all made great blocks on this play. The offensive line may not have actually blocked this play in the ideal way, but the fact that they were decisive allowed enough space to be created that the free defenders had too much green to cover. So all in all, this was exactly what Rutgers needed when their passing game was not clicking.
3rd and 6, ball on Temple 28, 12:44 left Second Quarter, Rutgers leads, 19-0.
This play is not worth spending too much time on from a film review standpoint because the snap was fumbled, which Rutgers ultimately recovered. I did pick it though because it is a good illustration of what had been happening up to this point in the game before Temple started to figure things out offensively.
By now, Rutgers was 1-6 on converting 3rd downs, while Temple was 0-4. Not only that, Rutgers had held up well to force third and medium or long which allowed defensive coordinator Robb Smith (or possibly even Schiano who looked very involved in defensive playcalling at one point). Rutgers had gotten some pressure bringing just their front four, but after the experiences we saw in the Chris Ash era and two games last year (Illinois & Nebraska) sitting back against a mobile quarterback is a risky proposition.
Rutgers shows nickel and unlike the play just analyzed where Rutgers offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson dictated terms, Temple allows the Rutgers defense to be the aggressors.
Because of the way the nickel cornerback (blue box) needs to maintain discipline and how far back the strong safety is (red arrow), there are two basic choices Temple should make. One would be a quick hitter to either of the slot receivers, I’d suggest the green circle because he has a size advantage to fall for extra yards and it would be easier to block for the other two. The second is a quarterback run to the right (green arrow) since there are no linebackers there to crash down if the offensive line can hold up (Note Temple scored a TD two drives later doing this with an extra RU defender in the box). Another outside of the box option is if you have a really good receiver who can win his matchup in the top yellow box that is a good potential check down for a slant if he can get loose inside or a fly if the defender overplays the slant. Note, on the very next drive Temple did capitalize on this exact concept.
At the snap, the Rutgers cornerback does a great job to prevent a slant pattern and jam to prevent the fly pattern (yellow) arrow. The Temple offensive line builds a wall to the right making it obvious that this would not be a quarterback run to that side. Also both slot receivers run upfield trying to clear out some space for either someone to break in or out (green arrows) while the red arrow receiver goes long to open up even more, but in fact none of them break off their routes at all meaning this is a designed quarterback run or more likely, one of those receivers messed up.
Knowing they have their left flank exposed, the Rutgers defensive line slants to their left. As a result, Temple’s running back has to handle one linebacker and is relying on their quarterback to outrun Tyreek Maddox-Williams to the outside faster than Olakunle Fatukasi can blitz. (Another possibility would be for the running back to fake his block then leak out to the flat, but he does not do that luckily for Rutgers.) It was almost the mirror image of the initial play that resulted in a safety, but to the opposite side of the formation. Ultimately the ball is on the ground, gets picked up by the QB, then fumbled again after a strip for Rutgers to secure the recovery and yet another turnover in Temple territory that leads to a touchdown.
Much like the previous offensive play I discussed, this is not a play where everything goes perfectly for Rutgers end to end, but it still has a very positive result. It works out because Rutgers dictated the terms of the play, the players went full speed not allowing Temple to react adequately, and an inexperienced quarterback had the game moving too fast for him because Rutgers had been pressuring up to this point in a variety of ways. An experienced opposing offense would have made different pre-snap adjustments, but still would have to execute precisely or get the ball to somebody quickly to break a tackle and convert.
1st and 10, ball on Temple 40, 8:13 left Third Quarter, Rutgers leads, 26-14.
The context here is important. Rutgers had been struggling mightily in the passing game (graphic shows Noah Vedral 9-19 for just 52 yards) and Temple had all the momentum before a long Vedral scramble moved the ball across midfield to gain some of that back. Vedral is a very streaky player so even though the previous play was a run, his timing on the ensuing throw was all of a sudden corrected. You see this in baseball a lot when a player steals a base and then all of a sudden is locked in while batting when the two aspects of the game would seemingly be unrelated.
Gleeson decides to give Vedral more space to work with on this drive as Rutgers removes a tight end and has Aaron Young (#4) who can play running back or slot receiver in the game and already burned Temple with a 4th down reception earlier. The second thing to notice is that because Rutgers has achieved a first down, they can play with pace (20 seconds still on the play clock when the ball is snapped) which gives Temple little time to substitute or organize themselves to a complex defense. When a defense has to be in a base look it’s easier to diagnose the coverage or just make a quick throw for easy yards assuming it is on target.
Rutgers has three options for quick yards (green boxes), I would shy away from the 4th (Young) because the outside linebacker could just run forward and intercept the ball with proper timing. Rutgers also often runs the quarterback option game when the defense only has six in the box, where Vedral would read the middle linebacker (blue box) and then decide to hand to Isaih Pacheco running right or Vedral would keep it himself and run left (crossing blue arrows), the vintage West Virginia play that beat Rutgers so many times in a row. This look also pulls the defense farther away (than the first play reviewed here) from Melton to expose the cornerback giving too much cushion.
Rather than just take a few yards on the ground, Vedral decides to air it out here and makes the right choice, Bo Melton at the top of the screen (green box). Melton is explosive so it would be risky for the defense to have the corner who is giving 10 yards at the snap to just run forward unless the safety rolls to that side. So it’s a simple read for Vedral because once the defense knows it is not a bubble screen, they have to give ground including the corner on Melton (green arrow), and the safety’s hips (blue box) show him looking toward the bottom of the screen to handle a route toward the deep middle.
So there are opportunities for a completion into a tight window to Sanders (yellow box) or Washington (bottom green box), but the easy five yards is to Melton at minimum, with the possibility of a big play if the ball is thrown on time and accurate for Bo to break a tackle. If the ball is late or too far to the middle, the middle linebacker could react (yellow arrow) for a big hit. Because the ball is perfectly on time and placed, the corner has to run up full speed to try and stop Melton before get gets loose by guessing which side he will turn, but fails. Second efforts from other Temple defenders are in vain too because Melton is so quick and elusive once he has the ball. You can see in the photo below that there was zero help behind the corner, all that real estate to work with (green box).
After Max Melton made a pick six on the ensuing Owls possession to put the game out of reach for all intensive purposes, Vedral started to make better reads passing and quicker decisions to run when appropriate. It would have been ideal if he could have been removed sooner with the game out of hand to reduce injury risk and get the younger guys some snaps, but you can understand that Rutgers needs him to be in rhythm for next week to win at the Carrier Dome.
- Matt Alaimo blocked really well both on the edge and near the line of scrimmage. He was also playing to the whistle.
- Avery Young did really well in coverage and tackling in his first career game at safety, so well I didn’t even notice him in live action. This is exactly what you want to hear about your safeties because usually you only notice them when big plays are made.
- Brendan Bordner played mostly right tackle, but slid over to the left side when they wanted to get Hollin Pierce time. Bordner was very good in the run and pass game, the break downs mostly came from the interior line, not him or O’Neal on the outside.
CAPTAIN OBVIOUS: Football these days is about offense and if you can’t move the ball it doesn’t matter if you are playing a group of five or even FCS school. There was a lot of holding and grabbing on the field that the officials let go (it was Week 1 for them also), but will be flagged in upcoming games.
Reasons for pessimism: 1. Temple was simply not prepared for the pressure and their quarterback was not accurate, yet found themselves in a two possession game in the 3rd quarter and having all the momentum. 2. Syracuse hosts Rutgers next week and the last time RU won an away game with any crowd noise was Illinois in 2017 or if you want to look at silencing a raucous fanbase ... 2014? 3. The RU quarterback situation with Gavin Wimsatt now an option is going to continue to be a point of discussion with every passing week unless Vedral puts up numbers like he did against Michigan last year. 4. Kessawn Abraham had a mixed bag playing boundary corner in nickel situations, but if he doesn’t improve or someone gets hurt, who will at corner besides Tre Avery and Max Melton? RU was rotating at DL & LB, but the same five DB played the entire first three quarters. 5. The rest of the Big Ten East were strong this weekend other than Northwestern, Indiana and Illinois which means Rutgers will need to play well to get conference wins.
Reasons for optimism: 1. The rest of the Big Ten was relatively strong this weekend other than Northwestern, Indiana and Illinois, but all three of those matchups on the schedule are now winnable. 2. Though there were no fans, Rutgers did perform well on the road in 2020. 3. Shameen Jones will play a lot better than he did Saturday. 4. Rutgers has at least six, maybe seven adequate offensive linemen. RU scored a TD on a drive in the 1st quarter when their best two offensive linemen had rotated out (Nick Krimin and Raiqwon O’Neal) 5. The Knights’ special teams did not truly dominate last year as we hoped, but they did against Temple so we could see this weekly. 6. The Rutgers defense is probably the best they have been since joining the Big Ten, so even if they give up some points, everyone does these days.
Initial thoughts on Syracuse: 1. Orange QB Tommy DeVito had as bad a day if not worse than Vedral in the air, though in an almost identical scenario got the ‘Cuse option run game going late in the 3rd quarter. 2. Syracuse has a pretty good run game, though they won’t be pushing Rutgers around as easily. They were just completely destroying Ohio by running between right guard and right tackle. 3. The Syracuse defense had success when they brought pressure and dictated the action, much like Rutgers did, including a safety of their own. 4. The Orange lack depth on the defensive line and at linebacker, they could wear down. 5. Syracuse has a solid placekicker (58 career field goals) and punter (both his punts dropped inside the 20), so special teams will be absolutely huge next week for both sides.
Circling back to the biggest reason for optimism against Syracuse and the rest of the season, Gleeson showed his ability once again to call plays that went again tendency, to use many different formations / personnel packages, and use what had been previously on film from a year ago to “set up” his opponent into a false sense of preparedness. Vedral will have every chance to tighten up his game, but if he doesn’t, I am confident Gleeson and Schiano will not be throwing less experienced quarterbacks “to the wolves” as we have seen before. Lastly, fans were critical of Rutgers not attempting to throw the ball downfield and an argument could be made that it might be good to get some game reps, however Gleeson has given us every reason to trust him and not putting anything on tape for Syracuse has its own benefits. Yes it’s true Gleeson could leave for a head coaching gig if Rutgers has a great season, though let’s cross that bridge when we come to it because that is the type of problem good programs have, we have just forgotten in the last decade.
Rutgers fans from Louisiana all the way to the Northeast had a tough few days, but gladly enjoyed a victory, albeit delayed, with plenty of time to enjoy the rest of their holiday weekend. This upcoming game in the Carrier Dome is a toss-up, whichever quarterback has a better game, their team probably wins ... unless the Rutgers Defense and/or special teams can dominate for stretches of the game. Until then, let’s enjoy the victory and hope Rutgers can bring their A game next weekend, there’s never a bad time to beat an old rival.