Rutgers fans are still looking for a reason to cheer this season.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano insists that he looks at each game as if it is its own season. By Sunday morning, Saturday’s game is forgotten, and preparation begins in earnest for the one and only opponent that matters—the next one.
The only problem with a philosophy such as that? Lose that game, and absorb a season’s worth of criticism and second guessing for the next six days.
On Friday night, a very angry Connecticut team will pay a visit to Rutgers Stadium, looking for redemption. Two years in a row, Rutgers has pulled out improbable wins against a Husky team that feels it is better than its slightly southern neighbor.
In 2008, Rutgers, reeling from a 1-5 start, turned their season around with a home win against Connecticut. That victory was the first of seven in a row, culminating with a bowl win against NC State.
Few need to be reminded of the heartbreaking loss dealt to the Huskies last season as Tim Brown raced 81 yards for the winning score after Connecticut seemed to complete a most unlikely comeback with a touchdown that left the Knights with only a few seconds on the clock, and a lot of turf in front of them.
This may be the year the favor is returned.
Rutgers has looked anything but explosive on offense in 2010, ranking 71st in rushing, and 106th in passing. And those numbers have been generated against a schedule that had been designed to produce a 4-0 start.
The defense, which has thus far kept Rutgers from completely dropping into the abyss, has put up numbers that again have not come against the likes of Alabama or Boise State. At the end of the season, ranking seventh against the run or 43rd against the pass may be reason to smile, but not now. They have yet to face an imposing quarterback, game changing running back, or franchise receiver.
Chances are those defensive numbers will take a hit Friday night against a Husky offense that has seemed to find itself over the past two weeks, and includes the nation’s fourth-highest ground gainer in Jordan Todman.
If Rutgers is somehow able to bottle up Todman, the secondary is sure to get tested often as a result of the defensive front’s inability to consistently pressure the quarterback. A unit which was thought to be one of the strongest in the Big East has earned a meager five sacks through the first four games of the season.
So how does Rutgers pull off what would be a bit of an upset on Friday night?
The answer, unfortunately, lies with the offense. A group of young, talented skill players who have yet to live up to their potential have got to find their mojo, and in a hurry.
The nation’s 105th ranked offense is not going to keep any defensive coordinators up burning the midnight oil any time soon.
Obviously, any offensive success will begin with the offensive line. In 2008, when Rutgers offense began to click halfway through the season, it was believed to be a result of the guys protecting Mike Teel finally gelling as a unit.
That may have been part of the resurgence, but there was much more involved. The coaches created offensive packages which played to the strengths of the skill players on the field, and took advantage of defenses keying on Rutgers perceived weaknesses.
The Scarlet Knights used play action to freeze blitzing linebackers for an extra second, giving the quarterback just enough time to find an open receiver down field. They also used screens and draws to keep the defense honest and give running backs a little more breathing room before being confronted by a defender.
The offensive plays being drawn up this season seem to be born more of desperation than contemplation. There is no flow, no rhythm being developed. It’s more like trying everything until something works, as opposed to sticking with something until it does work.
The Wild Knight is no longer a surprise to anyone, and inserting Jeremy Deering in to run the same plays run by Mohamed Sanu is not the answer. Defenses are keying on the play, not the player.
Rutgers has an enormous opportunity on Friday night. They can put the bad taste of the past two games behind them, and gain a foothold in competing for a Big East championship which is more wide open than ever this season. That, or they can put themselves in a position where they are staring at a series of seven meaningless “seasons” to end the year.
Scarlet clad fans are hoping they choose the former.