Rutgers is in the Big Ten.
This is a fact. You can see a big “R” logo on the Big Ten website and everything. While my brain knows this, it refuses to accept it. Conference expansion has led to a lot of odd pairings, but Rutgers to the Big Ten has to be the strangest.
Each conference tends to have a certain culture about them. Texas A&M might seem out of place in the SEC at first, but when you consider that the conference’s culture is one of massive, weirdly obsessive fanbases, the Aggies start to make more sense. Louisville is a Southern school with elite basketball, so they should be right at home in the ACC. Rutgers is a little bit more of a square peg in a round hole; I don’t think all the ads for combine harvesters and FarmersOnly.com on the Big Ten Network are aimed at Piscataway. The typical Big Ten stadium tends to be a gigantic cereal bowl of humanity, with the conference averaging 70,000 fans per game. Rutgers averaged about 46,000 per game last year in a stadium that had to be expanded to hold 52,000. Life doesn’t revolve around Rutgers football in New Jersey in quite the same way that, say, Buckeye football does in Ohio. Penn State in the Big Ten? Sure, I can see that. Nebraska? Feels a little weird given their Big 8 history, but they fit the mold. Rutgers? Not so much.
That’s not a knock on Rutgers, by the way. They don’t owe anyone an explanation for being who they are. All of this just highlights the state of changing priorities in college athletics. Besides, Rutgers isn’t completely out of place. They, along with Maryland, are a flagship state university, which is also part of the Big Ten model. They also have the one thing that the rest of the conference wants: they’re located where the people are.
Conference expansion has been driven primarily by television. When network television contracts came up for renegotiation, conferences wanted to expand their reach in order to maximize the value of those deals. The Big Ten rakes in piles and piles of cash with the Big Ten Network, but the Midwest isn’t exactly known for population density. Now, the PAC-12 and SEC both have networks of their own. If the Big Ten is going to continue to be the revenue king, it has to broaden its reach into larger population centers. That meant looking toward the east coast, where Rutgers and Maryland were ripe for the picking. By expanding to the east, the conference hopes to persuade more area cable providers to carry their network. That has been a battle so far, but the Big Ten sees this as a long-term investment.
It’s a long-term investment on Rutgers’ part, too. Looking at where college athletics is headed with the football playoff, Power 5 autonomy, and widening revenue gaps, you’re either in the club or you’re not. Joining the Big Ten was a move that Rutgers had to make to ensure its place in the top tier of college athletics. In the short-term, though, it’s a bite that they’ll have to work hard not to choke on. Rutgers stands to make a lot more money in the Big Ten than they did in the Big East, but it’s going to take a while before they are able to put that money to work. For now, they’re a team on a Big East budget lining up against programs that have been swimming in Big Ten cash for years.
It would probably be an easier transition for the Scarlet Knights during their Big East glory days, but they are coming off of a 6-7 season that saw them lose 6 of their last 8 games. Greg Schiano left for the NFL after the 2011 season. With the inevitable recruiting hit that comes with a coaching departure, Rutgers is a very young team; there are 45 freshmen on the roster compared to 30 juniors and seniors combined. It isn’t exactly the situation you want to be in when facing the bold new challenge of a blue blood conference.
Maybe that doesn’t bode well for Rutgers against the rest of the Big Ten, but they aren’t facing a Big Ten team this week. They’re facing Navy. We think that this Navy team has a chance to be pretty good, but from Rutgers’ point of view, games against service academies are games they should win. It’s a must win game if Rutgers wants to get back to a bowl game, since the second half of their schedule includes games against Michigan, at Ohio State, at Nebraska, at home against Wisconsin, and at Michigan State. That’s a murderer’s row for any team, let alone an upstart newcomer to the league. It’s likely that Rutgers’ postseason hopes depend on how they perform against their out-of-conference schedule. There has been talk that maybe last week’s game against Penn State was such a letdown that the Scarlet Knights would still be feeling its effect against the Mids, but the team insists that won’t be the case. Frankly, I believe them. They know as well as anyone what this game means for their season.
They have reason to be confident, too. Rutgers has had a lot of success against Navy lately, winning 4 of their last 5 games against the Mids. Those games were all with Greg Schiano as Rutgers’ head coach. He’s gone, obviously, but the current staff has had its own share of success against Navy, too.
Both the offensive and defensive coordinators are in their first year on the job at Rutgers, although they’re no rookies. That’s especially true on offense, where Ralph Friedgen now runs the show. Friedgen is a coach I have a lot of respect for; his reputation as an offensive innovator is well-deserved. Friedgen was the offensive coordinator of Georgia Tech’s 1990 national championship team, then followed Bobby Ross to the Chargers where he held the same job. The Chargers won two AFC West titles with Friedgen’s offense, and advanced to Super Bowl XXIX in 1994. After his time with the Chargers, Friedgen returned to Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets won 27 games from 1998-2000, while Friedgen’s offenses (led by quarterback Joe Hamilton) rewrote most of the school records set in his first stint at the school. Maryland hired Friedgen to be their head coach in 2001, and he immediately led them to three straight seasons of 10+ wins, including their first ACC title in 16 years. He was let go somewhat controversially after the 2010 season despite a 9-4 record. With a 75-50 record as a head coach, plus his résumé as an offensive coordinator, it’s safe to say that Friedgen knows what he’s doing.
While Friedgen is as good as you’re going to get for an offensive coordinator, the question facing Rutgers is whether or not Gary Nova is the quarterback they want running that offense. Nova started against Navy the last time these two teams faced off, back in 2011. He played pretty well, throwing for 271 yards and 2 TDs. He also threw two interceptions though, one of which was returned for a touchdown. At the time everyone figured that the INTs were just part of the growing pains with a young QB, and that it would get better over time. It hasn’t. Nova is largely the same quarterback now that he’s always been. He threw 16 interceptions as a sophomore, and followed that up with 14 in his junior year through 10 games. He was benched for the last 3, both for the interceptions and for completing only 54.5% of his passes. Nova was named the starter once again in preseason camp, and after a 281 yard, 2 TD performance against Washington State in the season opener, it appeared that maybe this senior season under Friedgen’s tutelage might be where Nova turned the corner. After a 15-30, 5 INT performance against Penn State though, that optimism has disappeared.
The situation might be cause for optimism for Rutgers’ opponents tomorrow, but think back for a second. Doesn’t this sound sort of familiar? It should. There are a few similarities between tomorrow’s game and the last time Navy faced a Friedgen-coached team, a 17-14 loss to Maryland in 2010. Maryland’s quarterback in that game was the young and unproven Jamarr Robinson. Robinson only threw for 11 yards and an interception against Navy, but the Terps still prevailed thanks to their 261 rushing yards. Maryland averaged 7.7 yards per carry and had two players top 90 yards, running pretty much at will whenever they had the ball. They were able to do so because Navy linebackers kept running to the wrong gaps and taking themselves out of the play:
How was Friedgen able to confuse Navy so much? In an article for the Football Coaches’ Association in 2006, Friedgen wrote a little about his offensive philosophy and how he likes to attack defenses:
We attempt to gain advantage through the use of formations, shifts, or motion. Formations are like weapons with which we can attack defenses. Knowing how a particular formation stresses a defense is invaluable when trying to gain an advantage. Some formations can outflank a defense or make it adjust and open up other areas. Other formations force a defense to expand and take defenders out of the box. Reducing a defensive front might create an advantage for an offense that runs the football. If the defense won’t reduce, the advantage is in throwing the football.
Shifting and motion might force a defense to adjust if the offense can make the defense think. It might make the defense a little less aggressive. Some defensive adjustments might give the offense an advantage. If we determine standard adjustment in coverage or in defensive fronts, we try to incorporate them into our game plan. If the defense plays the field or the boundary and tries to keep their adjustments to a minimum, we have simplified the defense, and that can make it vulnerable.
Friedgen likes to shift and use motion before the snap in order to force defenses to adjust. The more they have to adjust, the more likely it is that something will be overlooked and they’ll make a mistake. Navy made plenty that day.
If Friedgen wants to use a similar game plan tomorrow, he certainly has the tools to do so. All five starters return on the offensive line, and they’re blocking for last year’s first team All-AAC running back, Paul James. James averaged nearly 100 rushing yards per game last year to lead the conference. He wasn’t much of a receiving threat, but he already has a 100-yard receiving game this season against Howard. He ran for 173 yards and 3 TDs against Washington State to start things off in 2014. His 6 total TDs so far this season put him 3rd in the country in that category. Nova took the loss to Penn State hard, and with TE Logan Lister ruled out of tomorrows game, plus WRs Ruhann Peele and Andre Patton both out since the beginning of the season, Friedgen might not want to put him in a position to fail again by throwing downfield too often. A healthy dose of James and a shorter, more conservative passing game might be what Nova needs to get his confidence back before Rutgers faces the rest of their Big Ten schedule.
Friedgen isn’t the only new coordinator in Piscataway, as Joe Rossi was promoted from special teams coordinator to lead this year’s defense. Rossi hasn’t faced the triple option very much. He was defensive coordinator at Maine when the Black Bears faced Georgia Southern in the 2011 FCS playoffs. GSU won that game 35-23 and ran for 360 yards, so whatever Rossi did that day, we probably won’t be seeing it again. Rossi might not be calling the shots this week anyway. In a weird turn of the coaching carousel, Rutgers’ new special teams coordinator is their old defensive coordinator, Bob Fraser. Fraser followed Greg Schiano to Tampa Bay, but before that he was the defensive coordinator for Rutgers in 2011. That season included a 21-20 win over Navy in which the Mids were held to only 162 rushing yards. With that kind of success, it’s no wonder that Fraser’s hands are apparently all over Rutgers’ defensive game plan for this week.
“I think Bob was a big part of the process of crafting our defense. It’s a benefit to us to have him every week but even more so this week because (he’s) spent a lot of time studying it over the years and coaching against it.”
Rutgers has had a lot of success against Navy’s offense for years. Not only have the Scarlet Knights won 4 out of their last 5 games against Navy, but they held the Mids to only 201 rushing yards per contest in those games. The frustrating thing is that it’s never been about the scheme. Against Navy in 2011, Fraser used the same defense that Rutgers has always used against Navy: they brought one safety down in run support lined up like a 4th linebacker, and had the other safety lined up deep in the middle of the field playing the pitch. It’s a scheme that Navy has torn to pieces against other teams, but not in the last few games against Rutgers. And if this is to be believed:
Rutgers employs a different look defensively against the triple-option. Safeties Davon Jacobs and Delon Stephenson will drop down to the second level at times to offer greater support against the run.
“We’ll have some two-safety looks where they’ll be back. But you need everybody in the run support,” Flood said. “I know we say that every week but the run support is immediate now. You are not going to be the second or third guy to the party. You might have to be the first guy.”
then it sounds like their base plan is going to be the same. Head coach Kyle Flood more or less confirmed that they’ll be using safeties in the same roles that they did from 2008-2011:
Pat Kivlehan famously thrived in the role against option offenses from 2008-11. Flood said Kivlehan embraced the role and he’s seen the same attitude from the current safeties this week.
“If you embrace the role, then you’ll study the details,” Flood said. “If you study the details, you have a chance to play with speed. And if you have a chance to play with speed, you’ve got a chance to make the plays.”
From an Xs & Os perspective, that’s good news for Navy. There are a million ways to dissect this defense. But that was true of all the other times Navy played Rutgers too. So what has been the difference between Rutgers and all those other teams? The answer is that Rutgers has had good players that were well-coached.
Defense was always the calling card of Schiano’s Rutgers teams, and it showed against Navy. Rutgers’ defensive lines were typically undersized, but always the fastest lines that Navy would face that season. That speed allowed them to wreak havoc in the Navy backfield, as speedy defensive ends were able to track Navy quarterbacks down from behind on option plays. Rutgers also has been one of the best-coached Navy opponents over the years in terms of using their hands to fight off cut blocks. Even the worst schemes can end up looking pretty good if nobody blocks you. Rutgers has been able to overcome their scheme through technique and physical ability.
With the same scheme apparently on tap for tomorrow, the question then becomes how this year’s Rutgers team measures up to their predecessors in that regard. Not so well, based on recent history. Last year’s Rutgers defense was record-setting in ways you don’t want to be, giving up a school-record 5,366 total yards for the season. That included 4,056 yards through the air (another record). That kind of passing success points to issues with the secondary, and while Navy’s offense isn’t the same as the ones that led to those record numbers, it does make a game plan that depends so heavily on the secondary stopping the option look even more vulnerable than it already was to begin with.
On the other hand, there are signs of improvement. While the season is still young, Rutgers is averaging 4.3 sacks per game, including 5 last week against Penn State. That ability to rush the passer suggests that there’s still speed in the Rutgers defensive front. One look at Kemoko Turay on film confirms it. At 6-6 235, Turay is the latest in Rutgers’ long history of lightweight but exceptionally athletic defensive ends. Turay redshirted last year, but his ability was showcased in a 3-sack performance in Rutgers’ spring game. That momentum has carried into the fall, and Turay leads the team with 3.5 sacks. Darius Hamilton has 2.5 sacks from the tackle position, showing that Rutgers can apply pressure from the inside as well as the outside.
The key to the game for Navy’s offense, then, is how the line handles this pressure. Assuming that Rutgers is just as adept at warding off cut blocks now as they have been in years past, then they will be able to stop some drives by getting into the backfield. If 10-12 play drives are going to be difficult, that makes it important to be able to connect on some big plays. The scheme that Rutgers is likely to use creates a lot of opportunity in the passing game. With Keenan Reynolds expected to play, Navy has the arm to connect on those plays. But will he have the time to do it? In the 2011 game, Kriss Proctor threw 13 passes, but also threw 2 INTs and was sacked 4 times. Keenan will need some time to be able to take advantage of what the defense is giving him. Kriss didn’t get it, but hopefully he will. Then again, if Rutgers is not as good as beating blocks, then it won’t matter. Navy will run all over them.
With all due respect to Temple and Texas State, those were some of the lesser teams on Navy’s schedule. Ohio State was clearly a stretch game. Rutgers is more typical of what the rest of Navy’s schedule has in store. They are a solid team, but not on the level of teams like Ohio State and Notre Dame. Considering the level of familiarity that the Rutgers staff has with the Navy program, if the Mids can pull this one out, I think it says a lot about the potential of the team for the rest of the season.