Rutgers had its share of opportunities to beat North Carolina last night, but walked out of Rutgers Stadium with their heads hung low, exiting the field as quickly as they possibly could and their record falling to 2-1 on the young season.
The North Carolina players on the other hand, raced over to their band and fans section as giddy as schoolboys on the last day of school. They had a look on their faces as if they had stolen something and gotten away with it. In truth, they had stolen something, a game that they had no business winning.
Once again, the Scarlet Knights defense came to play. They allowed just 17 points to UNC, and only one sustained drive that resulted in a touchdown. That drive was aided by a silly pass interference foul that should have been avoided if Brandon Bing understood his location on the field. The quick slant was going to be eight-plus yards short of a first down. He simply could have made the tackle, and the drive would have ended in a field goal attempt.
As it stood, the actual touchdown rush a few plays later nearly resulted in a fumble out of the end zone. That being said, RU had plenty of opportunities to win this game.
Despite costly turnovers, a blocked Teddy Deleghanna punt, and overall poor quarterback play, the Knights found themselves with two opportunities to win the game. Savage had the ball twice with first downs inside around the 40-yard line, but could not get the team any closer than the 19 in the closing minutes of yesterday's disheartening loss to the Tar Heels.
Savage struggled mightily on the day. Only finding a modicum of success when he connected to his favorite (only) target Mohamed Sanu. Savage completed 16-29 passes for 150 yards and two costly interceptions. Sanu caught nine of those completions for 74 yards and gave the Knights a chance when he converted a 4th-and-long on the Knights' second to last possession. The catch set Rutgers up with a 1st-and-10 from the 23, but they would get no closer than the 19 before Savage's second interception.
The Knights rode a raucous crowd, and defensive intensity to a 10-0 lead in the first half. They seemed poised to put UNC away early, and UNC appeared ready to quit with the Knights driving again. However, Savage made a terrible decision on 3rd-and-22 to force the ball into a double-covered Sanu. The ball was picked off, and UNC had life. They scored, to get within 10-7. The Knights had an opportunity to expand that slim advantage, but San San Te missed a very makeable 37-yard field goal.
Once again, the Knights seemed very confused on offense. Savage looked to the sideline for 15-20 seconds of the playclock on almost every play, leaving no time for the young quarterback to read the defense and simply react. He looked indecisive and waited too long for plays to develop. He would lock on to a target, and then wait allowing the defenders to close the gap which led to the poor passing numbers on the day.
The indecisiveness didn't start and end with Savage; it was evident with Sanu as well. Though Rutgers ran the wildcat effectively at times, it was the prolonged waiting and setup that allowed UNC defenders to crowd the line forcing Sanu to make several moves just to get out of the backfield let along make the big plays RU fans are used to him making out of the wildcat look.
At times, freshman Jordan Thomas looked very impressive. He seems to have the tools necessary to be a good running back at the collegiate level. With game-breaking speed, Thomas also showed good hands catching three passes on the day for 44 yards.
Rutgers had a decent rushing attack going with Joe Martinek, who averaged six yards a pop on just five carries, but for some reason, Rutgers abandoned the rush. They were far too predictable on offense, essentially allowing an undermanned UNC team access to the RU playbook.
Wildcat meant Sanu was running option, Savage in the shotgun/pistol meant a pass-attempt, and I-formation was a Martinek rush. It was really that simple.
On the positive side, Rutgers has not yet entered Big East play and were able to stay in a game many believed would be a blowout. The defense demonstrated that they truly are a top unit, and not the result of playing two cupcake teams. They held a legit offense who put up 24 points up against LSU and Georgia Tech, to just 17 points, all the result of a short field.
However, the Knights will routinely find themselves on the negative side of close games if they continue to struggle like this on offense. They simply haven't yet established an identity. They will need to find themselves soon as Big East play looms ahead.
One more tune-up left with Tulane coming to town for homecoming. It isn't time to panic yet for Scarlet Nation, but it is going to get very interesting very quickly.