Talking Rutgers With Bleed Scarlet
Jon @ Bleed Scarlet answered a few of my questions below; I've answered a few for him at his place.
1.) What changed for Rutgers in the second half of the season? It almost seems like they flipped a switch and decided to start killing everybody.
Is it a cop out to say that the team is playing better in nearly every aspect? Specifically, the passing game is far more effective. Quarterback Mike Teel was terrible in the first half of the season, and receiver Tiquan Underwood had a major problem with drops. The young offensive line started to gel, which made the running game far more effective. The defense started forcing turnovers, and the secondary cut down on bad miscommunication errors that led to a lot of big plays through the air.
2.) With the way they're playing right now, are the Scarlet Knights the best team in the Big East?
I think Rutgers and Cincinnati are both playing at the same high level right now. Cincinnati has been strong all year, and I don't think they would have lost a game in conference play if they didn't suffer a rash of QB injuries all at the same time.
3.) Tell me about Rutgers' running game post-Ray Rice...have the Knights looked to pass a little more this season?
Rutgers has relied on the pass more this season, although they certainly aired it out much more in 2007 than a lot of people realize. Rutgers returned its starting quarterback and top three receivers from last year (one of whom, Kenny Britt, is among the best in the country). Reports out of fall camp indicated that the young offensive line was a lot better at pass blocking than run blocking; emphasizing the pass so much wasn't a big surprise.
I think the biggest problem this year in running the ball, at least until the last month of the season, was the lack of experience on the offensive line. The line lost three good senior starters. This year's offensive line has no senior starters, and had to break in three new starters, including two freshmen. They were ok in pass protection, but really struggled to get much push in the running game.
Rutgers has a bit of a committee approach at tailback this year. None of them are Ray Rice of course. They were thrown into the fire a bit this year, but they all have something to offer. Kordell Young saw the most snaps this season, even though he missed a few games due to injury. He's more of a smaller, shiftier type. He has good speed, and is good one-cut runner in RU's zone blocking scheme. The backups have varied a bit throughout the year, as the coaching staff has mostly played the hot hand. Second on the depth chart right now is Joe Martinek, who probably has the best all-around mix of speed and power of the backs. Third would be Jourdan Brooks. He's a big back, with good top end speed, but he runs a little tentatively, and needs to do a better job of finding holes. Mason Robinson has been lost in the shuffle a bit recently; he's similar to young in that he's another smaller back with a lot of speed.
It has been a learning effort this year, managing each back's strengths and weaknesses, and getting the line play to a point where Rutgers can consistently move the chains on the ground. Over the last month of the season, it started to come into place. That in turn helped the passing game, because now opposing defenses are less able to double and triple cover Kenny Britt, and they have to respect play action.
4.) When Greg Schiano turned down Michigan, was that sort of the point where you were able to breathe a sigh of relief and say "he's going to be here long-term"? Or are you still concerned about more prestigious programs stealing him away?
Most Rutgers fans believed, and still do, that Greg Schiano is going to be at Rutgers for a very long time. If Schiano's one thing, he's a stand up guy. His word is worth a lot, and he says that he wants to be at Rutgers for the long haul. It's his home stand, and he's really into the idea of being the face of a fledging program and building it up from the core foundation. I don't want to get into the sordid details of a recent series of articles in a local newspaper that (unfairly, I believe) portrayed the athletic department in a negative light. However, one important point to take from them is that Schiano and the outgoing athletic director had a great relationship. The A.D. essentially gave Schiano a blank check when he was hired, sparing no expense to bring every neglected aspect of the football program up to par.
The outgoing A.D. ended up being the fall guy, but all indications are that the university as a whole is still committed to fielding a winning football program. As long as the school remains committed to winning, Greg Schiano is going to be the head coach. Forget all the Penn State rumors; it's just hearsay and speculation. Greg Schiano is very happy at Rutgers, and the odds of a more appealing job opening up are very low. If Schiano is going to turn down Michigan, which is by far the most desirable job in the country, every Rutgers fan can rest easy at this point.
I think the slow start this year proved one thing - that while Greg Schiano is a good coach, and the right fit for Rutgers, he is not perfect. Rutgers is, historically, a mediocre program; we like to look at the recent extreme futility as an aberration caused by his very inept predecessor. That means that getting the program back to respectability, while impressive, is not the herculean task that some have portrayed it as. Schiano's biggest strength has been having the force of will to make necessary structural changes in the program. As a New Jersey native, he's done a good job of keeping more of the state's best players at home, and at making an effort to get the state as a whole behind Rutgers football. I think a lot of those advantages would be neutralized at another program. Rutgers needs Greg, and Greg needs Rutgers.
5.) In terms of pass coverage, what can we expect to see from Rutgers? Is the secondary as bad as it looks on paper (7.8 yds allowed per pass attempt)?
Greg Schiano pulls double duty as RU's defensive coordinator. He's very fond of using frequent blitz packages and twists/stunts, using athletic but undersized defensive linemen. It's a very high risk, high reward, bend-but-don't break strategy. The secondary play depends a lot on how effective the front seven looks. When Pete Tverdov can get into opposing backfields, that helps a lot.
I think the secondary looked a lot better in the second half of the season. Rutgers hired a new secondary coach this year, and was replacing a departing senior safety who was considered the leader of that unit. The secondary wasn't really on the same page together in the first half of this season. One starting corner in Jason McCourty was getting picked on a lot, and giving up a lot of big plays due to mental mistakes. Courtney Greene starts at free safety, but he isn't really great in coverage, and arguably has to cover too much due to lack of a better option there. He seemed to be getting burned a lot when the team played zone earlier in the season. Greene is most effective when he has the freedom to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage. As the season progressed, he started to look more like his old self and return to a higher level of effectiveness.
6.) Any important injuries we should know about?
The most significant injury is that starting senior DE Jamaal Westerman is going to miss the game due to a biceps injury. There are a few other injuries on the defensive line that make depth a little thin, but they should be ok. Rutgers has been lucky enough to mostly avoid the injury bug this year. Rutgers did lose its starting long snapper a few weeks ago, but has a capable backup on the roster. Tailback Kordell Young missed a few games, including the season finale, but I think he's expected to play in Birmingham. Jabu Lovelace, a backup quarterback primarily used for option packages to give the offense a few wrinkles, was hurt a while back and probably won't play.