Can you tell we are just a bit ill-prepared for the USF-Rutgers game tomorrow night? It's tough getting up for a game when you're 0-3 in conference, you had last week off, and you're being forced to watch it on your computer. But it's time to get our heads right with football, and in lieu of the usual Friday Five Keys, On the Banks was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions about the Scarlet Knights. (You'll want to get to the end of this post, when OTB gets a chance to tee off on the non-football members of the Big East. Highly satisfying.)
1. I think you were the only person on the planet to predict a complete bounceback season for Rutgers. What did you see back in August that led you to predict what looks like an 8-4/7-5, bound-for-the-Pinstripe-Bowl season?
OTB: My opinion was the consensus among Rutgers fans. It wasn't anything novel. I just looked at the roster and thought, "this looks exactly like the average Greg Schiano team." They weren't going to be world beaters. 2010 was just an aberration based on extenuating circumstances (horrible OC, and Eric LeGrand's injury). If you base projections off of a rolling average of the past few years, and not just how teams looked in 2010, Rutgers is right in line with where they should be. I thought people would be angry about mediocrity come midseason, and low and behold that's exactly what is happening.
2. What is Frank Cignetti doing right as an offensive coordinator that Kirk Ciarrocca failed at last year?
OTB: Ciarrocca tried to install a spread offense. The thing is, most spread attacks are short passing games. Ciarrocca would call deep passes with four or five wideouts, then instead of an eight-yard hitch or something, he would call for deep bombs downfield. Every single play; well, the ones where he wasn't running Mohamed Sanu for a 2 yard gain out of the wildcat.
Offenses should fit your personnel, and Cignetti realized that last year's approach was counterproductive and stupid. There's no reason an offensive line should suddenly go from average to the worst in D-I. It turns out, they didn't. The problem was all structural. It's not that Cignetti is a magic elixir or anything, he's just competent. The theory was even an average offensive coordinator, who wasn't the worst in D-I, would represent a huge upgrade for the program. That turned out to be the case, and the only problem is that 2010 did lasting damage to the Rutgers program that will take a few years to recover from.
3. Mohamed Sanu is averaging roughly 9 catches for 90 yards and a touchdown every game, and he's not even padding his stats with big plays. Has anyone actually managed to bottle up Sanu? How did they do it? (Or in theory, how would you do it?)
OTB: Sure, just blanket him in coverage. Rutgers has a few ultra athletic receivers in Mark Harrison and Brandon Coleman, but they've struggled with drops all year. Both have dropped some of the easiest touchdown passes you will ever see (Louisville and UNC come to mind.) At least against WVU, Rutgers responded by giving a few touches to some of the backups with better hands, even though they may not be the athletic freaks that the guys ahead on the depth chart are.
Sanu obviously has a had a great year. He was always strong after the catch, but the problem before this year was drops. That has finally improved, and he's even making circus catches now. It probably helps that he's not being run into the ground now with overuse in the wildcat.
4. Rutgers is 18th nationally in points allowed and 21st in yards allowed, and they already have more sacks (26, tied for 7th) and interceptions this year (15, tied for 4th) than they did all of last season. What is the difference from last year to this year?
The defense was okay last year until Eric LeGrand's injury, although it wasn't up to its usual standard in terms of big plays. There are a few differences from 2010:
1. No LeGrand injury to make the entire team play hesitant.
2. Schiano upgraded team speed on defense in the offseason through position changes (CB to S, S to LB, LB to DE, etc...)
3. Not having a horrible offense, Rutgers now does far better with field position and time of possession.
Although it has to be said, the defense struggled over the past two games after an excellent first half of the season. They'll have to bounce back against USF.
5. I'm sensing a 2009-style disaster on Saturday night, because as improved as B.J. Daniels is, he hasn't faced a whole lot of constant pressure. How do you see the game going?
I think Rutgers is a little better than USF on a neutral field. Home field, the weather, history, etc... will help in that respect. The problem is that Rutgers kind of has its own B.J. Daniels in freshman quarterback Gary Nova. Remember two years ago, when everyone thought that Daniels would be awesome if he could ever be more consistent in avoiding mistakes, only it never happened? That's pretty much Nova now. At times he'll look fantastic, and then it all unravels in a flurry of fumbles and interceptions. The thing is with Nova, is that he looks so good when he's on that it's easy to talk yourself into him. The only problems are with decision making, and presumably that's what should improve with more experience. Time will tell though.
Rutgers can survive another Nova implosion if the defense comes back after two weeks of struggles. They'll need all cylinders firing for another double-digit win though.
BONUS: Two minutes hate towards John Marinatto for turning the Big East into a conference of the damned. Go.
His only goal and intention is to preserve the status of Providence College and the Big East's other non-football schools. However, his strategy has been counterproductive even in that respect. Over the summer, the football schools basically said "expand now while we're in a position of strength, or bad things will happen."
The Big East declined, because they thought they had time, because historically expansion only flares up once a decade or so. Then Texas A&M decided to play Franz Ferdinand and ignited another firestorm.
The Big East did not want to dillute its basketball product by adding C-USA programs. However, that would have been a financial boon for the conference. Football dwarfs basketball in terms of television revenue, and the problem with the league all along was that its power structure wasn't proportional to the facts on the ground. In terms of raw value, even the worst Big East football program (UConn football) barely makes less money than the best Big East basketball program (UConn basketball), and that's with Big East football negotiating from a position of weakness in 2003. With expansion, Big East football was poised to make a relative mint if the television rights got to market, due to Versus/NBC bidding the rights fees up into the stratosphere.
Marinatto and the Big East wanted to punt not only for the relative security of ESPN's offer, but because they were scared of the growing revenue disparity between the football and non-football schools in the conference growing even larger. This INFURIATED the football schools. Trying to bully them into accepting the deal is what drove Pitt, Syracuse, WVU, etc. away initially. The proposed deal was completely unacceptable, and it's hilarious to read retrospectives about how Pitt was supposedly double-dealing. That deal was crap, it was never viable, and would not have done a thing to give the league stability.
The Big East's problem in this respect was that they were so focused on jockeying for short-term position that they essentially killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. They scared off three programs, others are looking to leave, and now the eventual TV contract will be even more skewed towards football. Well, that's presuming the league still exists in a year. The main existential crisis now is that Notre Dame leaves, and takes another team with them to the ACC or Big Ten as a traveling partner. Don't believe the stories about how the basketball schools will break off and be fine. They're a dying relic, and each would willingly stab each other in the back at a moment's notice. Any notion that they will stick together out of loyalty and sing kumbaya is fiction. They will be exposed as the most dysfunctional group of all when their day of reckoning comes, and that will not be a moment too soon.