Thursday, October 22, 2009

Getting Rutgers Offense Back Into Gear

If Rutgers plans to show us more then just a “W” against the Black Knights on Friday, it must cure its schizophrenic offense by getting back to being a run first throw second team. That’s the same formula that worked so well during the 2006 season when Teel was a first year and unproven sophomore starter. I’m not saying that any one of four RB’s is Ray Rice but being able to collectively pound the ball inside with a sustained running game while showing a threat to break off the long run is the first step in solving this apparent identity crisis and opens up Savage to make his down field passes to Sanu, Brown and the chorus line of potential third WR options. O-line Injuries: Although the running game against Pitt produced only 38 yards on 20 carries, 29 of which came from Sanu via the wildcat, the o-line seemingly had it’s best of the year against BCS competition in terms of QB protection. Could this unit finally be coming together without the services of season opening starter Caleb Ruch and Desmond Wynn?

Will the rocket take off finally? Everyone else has pretty much beaten the drum on this one but it’s worth mentioning once again. The cover is off the Schiano’s new offensive sports car and the kid’s red shirt has been burned. Give the kid a chance against FBS competition and make him part of your running game for more then just fourth quarter mop up work.

Wildcat Offense: Whether this is just a gimmick conceived by Schiano and the OC’s or if there is a vision of having the wildcat become a strategic piece of the offense, I do not know. If it is the later, integrate it into the offense and use it consistently (the polar opposite of how it was intermittently used during the Pitt loss). Use it when you need a wrinkle play inside of the red zone but remember, run first, pass second. It’s time to end the gimmicks and regain a semblance of an identity for this offensive unit.

Penalty Mistakes: Although the penalty line from the box score of the Pitt game shows 6 penalties for 55 yards, it seemed very clear that we committed many of these penalties in key third down situations both on offense and defense that ended drives for us or extended drives for Pitt. This undisciplined play has got to stop if this team is going to go anywhere looking ahead to Connecticut, South Florida and West Virginia. The truth is we do not score a lot of points and every possession is precious.

Devin McCourty: Not enough has been said about Devin’s play on defense and special teams this year. The development of his game is one of the few positive stories that have developed this year. His line on Friday was 11 tackles, 1.0 for loss and a blocked punt. Look for # 21 all over the field at Michie Stadium on Friday.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Managing Rutgers Expectations

No matter how you spin it, Fridays 24-17 loss to the Panthers seals the fate of the Scarlet Knights to a December bowl appearance assuming they are able to achieve the seven wins required to become bowl eligible (Since only one FCS win can count towards bowl eligibility). The difference between championship teams (see Florida’s 23-20 win vs Arkansas) and the “also ran’s” is that the coaching staff and players on championship teams find a way to win games like Friday night so that they don’t have to spend their offseason thinking about things that could have been. While there are still some “nice” things we can achieve this year in spite of the 0-2 Big East start, how long we as are fans can tolerate 7-5 seasons followed by the St. Petersburg Bowl remains the be seen, especially for a team that entered the season with BCS dreams but is effectively eliminated from the running by middle of October.

Expectations are a very dangerous thing, but its managing them, meeting them and exceeding them that separates top flight programs from everyone else. Right now, this team is trying to do too many things at once, constantly tinkering with personnel as it struggles to find it’s offensive identity both on and off the field. While changes surely need to be made, it seems that we are falling into the trap of mistaking these changes for actual progress and not making the kind of changes that give us the “best chance to win”. The decisions made along the sideline this year have at times left many fans wondering if 2006 was just an anomaly and whether or not it is realistic to think that we can ever get back there (or further) again. The bottom line is this….Just because we’re doing something doesn’t mean we’ve done anything. As the great John Wooden once said “don’t ever mistake activity for achievement.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Scouting Pittsburgh's Offense

Finally, redemption is about to arrive in the form of a Big East matchup vs the Pittsburgh Panthers (5-1, 2-0). Hard to believe 46 days will have passed since the humiliating defeat against the Bearcats once the Scarlet Knights suit up on Friday night. Dave Wannstedt enters the game riding a four game losing streak vs Rutgers but guides a squad that is vastly different from the defensive focused teams that have faced the knights over the four years of his tenure.

The 2009 edition of QB Bill Stull looks nothing like the player who managed just 9 TD’s and 10 INT’s including an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Oregon St. in the Sun Bowl to close the 2008 season. Through the first six games of 2009, Stull has thrown for 1,256 yards and 13 TD’s against just 3 INT’s and has elevated his game over the past three weeks in which the Panthers have faced consecutive BCS opponents. With superior pass protection provided by the Pitt O-line, Stull currently holds the nations 4th highest passer rating trailing only Jimmy Clausen, Kellen Moore and Tim Tebow.

Leading the receiving corps is freakish sophomore Jonathan Baldwin. The 6’5” Baldwin not only towers over opposing CB’s and possesses NFL caliber physical tools, but he is also blessed with 4.4 speed that he uses to separate from coverage and gain 532 yards on just 27 receptions including 3 TD’s. The Panthers also hope to exploit several advantages at the TE position where Dorian Dickerson leads the team with 7 TD’s. "We have a great matchup with our tight ends," Stull says. "With Dorin (Dickerson) running down the middle of the field against their linebackers, we like that matchup. They play a lot of man-to-man defense. If we protect well, with their man coverages, we can have some great matchup advantages."

Freshman RB Dion Lewis enrolled at Pitt in January and quickly answered the question of who would replace LeSean McCoy. Lewis was virtually assured the starting roll following a stellar spring and hasn’t looked back since bursting out of the gate with consecutive 100 yard games on the way to 738 yards and 7 TD’s through the first half of 2009. Lewis is a classic thickly built, low center of gravity runner who bounces between would be tacklers and quickly accelerates to full speed. Joining Lewis in the running game is fellow freshman Ray Graham (step brother of Khaseem Greene) who has 176 yards on 32 carries and is more of a downhill, workhorse straight line back who provides a strong complement to the cutting, slashing style of Dion Lewis.

Notes: Other then Big East standings implications, Friday night’s game could also help sway the balance of powers in local Big Eat recruiting pecking order. Pittsburgh boasts 11 current players from New York and New Jersey but more importantly has made some significant inroads recently by receiving non binding verbal commitments from 5 players from the NY/NJ area in its 2010 class.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More on Sam Bergen

Sam Bergen hasn’t had it easy over the past 12 months but following Saturday’s blow out win vs TSU he finally got what was coming to him, an offer from the school he’s wanted to go to for a long time. With his offer in hand, the linebacker out of East Stroudsburg South HS (East Stroudsburg, PA) promptly pledged his non binding oral commitment to the Scarlet Knights making him the tenth projected member of the 2010 class.

Heading into his junior year the 6’0” 225 lb Bergen received plenty of interest from the likes of Uconn, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Rutgers, Notre Dame, Michigan and Stanford (where his brother is a sophomore LB). However, just two games into the season Sam suffered a left ACL tear, an injury that spells recruiting death for so many high school athletes. As was expected, most schools gave up on him completely but some took a wait and see approach perhaps seeing something special in Bergen who as a sophomore recorded 89 tackles and 5 sacks while earning all area honors.

Following surgery, Bergen endured ten months of rehab, strength and conditioning but never once gave up hope that he would one day return to his prior form on the gridiron. During the summer months, Bergen followed rehab by running the camp gauntlet and attended every junior day he could. More then 12 months after his injury, the redemption bell for Sam Bergen finally rang true on Saturday with his scholarship payoff from the Scarlet Knights. You always like to see guy like Sam who overcome such improbable odds and work themselves back to the top of their game. Just like Brian Sheridan, Ryan Neill and Eric Foster before him, Sam Bergen is exactly the kind of player Schiano needs to represent the present and future of the Scarlet Knights.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

News and Notes from Texas Southern

Not much for the Scarlet Knights to gain from Saturday other then getting Savage back on track and getting tuned up for Friday’s match up against Pitt. The defense once again played the starring role (pitching a 42-0 shut out), allowing just 126 yards of offense and specifically minus 25 yards on the ground.

Beyond training camp very little has been said about the emergence of Tim Brown as the “go to” receiver in this group. If you didn’t think he was our guy before, you will now. In a second quarter reception over the middle, deuce put his hands out to snare a Savage pass and was immediately flipped in the air by multiple defenders. He still somehow managed to hold onto the ball as he crashed to the ground. Quietly, Timmy Brown is putting together an all Big East caliber year with 452 yards receiving including two 100 yard games.

Just how much of the underperforming running game can be attributed to uneven performances of Martinek and Brooks or poor line play is still uncertain. What I did notice on Saturday though was an o-line that just didn’t seem to have the forward surge to allows runners a few steps beyond the line of scrimmage before contact. Another point is that rather then holes it seems Martinek, Brooks and Williams have slots or cracks to run through which is much more difficult for straight line runners like Martinek and Brooks.

Tom Savage performed efficiently (14-21, 150 yds., 1TD) and once again did not commit any mistakes (turnovers). They got him throwing both from the pocket and short passes rolling right and he also threatened several times with the long ball once connecting with deuce on a 34 yard TD. I am completely satisfied with this performance, less for Tom’s 28 yard scramble in which he put his head down and barrelled directly into an oncoming linebacker for two additional yards at the end of the run. Tom you throw an absolutely great ball but you need to stop by Fred Hill Sr’s office sometime to get some tips on sliding. Please also stop watching Florida games.

Can we all agree that with Rocket’s performance against the two FCS opponents that he’s played against (31 carried for 221 yds., 1 TD) that he’s earned a call up to BCS play. His cutting, explosive running style is completely different then (and complementary to) Martinek and Brooks. Whereas Schiano likes to allocate blocks of time to these two, I think he can stick Rocket in the middle of a series as a change of pace back who can also break one off any time he touches the ball. He adds a completely different dimension to the running game. Why not make opposing teams prepare for three backs who have all eclipsed 100 yards in games this year?

A few other take aways from Saturday: Has anyone else seen the development of Devin McCourty this year into an outstanding gunner on punt coverage? He’s consistently been the first player downfield either tying up or delivering a punishing open field blow to the opposing return man. Speaking of open field tackling, on Saturday Khaseem Greene made up for some sloppy tacking by the defense on a play coming from across the field and about 10-15 yards behind the Texas Southern runner and just buried him along the sideline during a third quarter run.