There's more important news today, but this is Rutgers Week, and I think it'd be worthwhile to talk some football.
Jon, the wordsmith behind the quality Rutgers blog Bleed Scarlet, approached me for a Q&A earlier this week. My first long-form novel, also known as my responses to his questions, can be found here. Jon's answers are below the jump.
I learned a bunch, and we talked about Tom Savage, silly internet fans, Greg Schiano's love for central Jersey, why Rutgers doesn't suck (a likely story!), C. Vivian Stringer and much more. And then at the end, we have a weird, "Freaky Friday" moment wherein the Rutgers fan defends Hartford (and the Whalers) from my taunts. It left me scared and I woke up in a cold sweat this morning as a result. Check it out:
TheUConnBlog: I recall watching the Rutgers-Cincinnati game and thinking "they aren't seriously going to start Dom Natale, are they?" Obviously, he and Lovelace didn't work out, so my first question is are you enjoying the Tom Savage era? I haven't seen Rutgers play much this season, but his numbers look solid for a freshman, although the OOC schedule's been so bad it might be hard to draw any conclusions. Is he the QB for the next three-four years? What's his ceiling?
Bleed Scarlet: Natale hadn't seen much action before the opener. He hadn't yet proved that he cannot play quarterback in a traditional passing offense, as Lovelace repeatedly had. Honestly, Natale can move the ball a little. His problem was that he made awful decisions, and teams didn't respect his weak arm. That's why he ended up throwing those interceptions, and turning the game into a blowout.
When we saw Natale again against Maryland, the coaching staff didn't trust him to throw the ball at all. Dom has ran into some bad luck. If circumstances had been different, with a few more breaks he could have been a dependable senior starter. He's acceptable as a backup. In contrast, I instinctively reach for the nearest razor blade whenever Jabu Lovelace is inserted into the came to run his horrific farce of an option package.
Savage is clearly far better than Natale, and the best option that the team has at the moment. Unfortunately, he is still a true freshman, although he has looked well considering the circumstances. They're protecting him a lot, and Savage has made more than his share of mistakes at this point. He's capable of managing the offense, but that's not enough when the offensive line isn't opening up anything for the running game. He's not yet at the point where he can win a game by himself. It'll be interesting to see whether he continues to progress over the next two months as Tom gets more comfortable, and possibly starts to earn more of the coaching staff's trust.
There's no question that Tom Savage is the guy going forward under center. Player progression isn't always linear, but he looks better as a true freshman than Mike Teel did as a redshirt sophomore. Savage has a big frame, but can actually scramble a little, and has a stronger arm than Teel. Doesn't seem to have Teel's propensity for overthrows, which is big. I think he is capable of being very good as soon as next year, but it's a mistake to set expectations too high at this point. For one thing, Savage doesn't have a top supporting cast capable of bailing him out. He'll be respectable, but asking anything above not imploding is probably too much into the realm of speculation and wishful thinking at this point.
TheUConnBlog: Any worries about the offense? RU's only gone over 400 yards of offense twice, and those were both I-AA opponents. I expected big things out of Rutgers' running game especially - Young and Martinek were solid last season and the left side of the offensive line was supposed to be dominant. What, if anything, is holding the offense back?
Bleed Scarlet: They're absurdly young at the skill positions besides running back. True freshmen Mohamed Sanu has looked relatively good as a possession guy/returner, but needs to cut down on the drops. Speedster Mason Robinson was supposed to be the slot receiver, but was lost for the year to an injury. Everyone else for the most part is a first or second year player, and they all still look really green. What's really strange is what's going on at TE. Shamar Graves looked pretty good as a starter last year, but for some reason was glued to the bench before the past two days. The offense has used a lot more multi-WR sets out of the Shotgun formation this year (without max protect, which has gotten Savage rattled a few teams), which means that the fullback Jack Corcoran hasn't seen the ball at all, even though he's a pretty good receiver out of the back field.
What's troubling is that those issues pale in comparison to the awful offensive line play. Anthony Davis had a bad game against Cincinnati, but has been playing very well since then. Unfortunately, I can't say as much for the rest of the line. The underclassmen guards look completely lost, and there have been some injuries at those spots. The center Ryan Blaszczyk is a heady player, but is physically overmatched against Big East-caliber defensive tackles. The right tackle, Kevin Haslam, is the complete opposite; million dollar body, ten cent head. He's big and athletic, but is somehow still super raw as a fifth-year senior, and has absolutely horrific instincts in pass protection. It's not just that Davis is clearly the best player on the line; he's the only guy here who deserves to be starting, period.
It's weird, because they got off to a poor start last year too, and the light suddenly went on against Pitt. That was the same game were all the slumping players seemed to wake up. I'm really at a loss to explain how they could regress so badly, after looking good during the spring and fall camp. It wouldn't be a huge surprise if they did get it together at some point. As far as the rest of the running game goes, Young has battled a couple knee injuries, and has been reduced to more of a third-down role at this point. I think Martinek is a decent player, as is Jourdan Brooks, but they've been held back by the awful run blocking. True freshmen De'Antwan Williams has been lighting up practices, but the coaching staff doesn't trust him yet to hold onto the football, make catches, or protect the passer. One of these games, he'll see decent minutes, and will provide another spark for the offense.
I don't know how much the struggles have to do with replacing last year's offensive coordinator (who left for the Arizona Cardinals), but the offense hasn't looked in rhythm at all this year. Rutgers actually has a convoluted dual-offensive coordinator setup at the moment. The second guessers are out in force, because everyone's timing looks off, and the play-calling doesn't seem to make any sense at all. I think that they don't have much confidence in their ability to run simple plays, and seem to think that a heavy dose of flash, smoke, and mirrors is their only way to compete.
TheUConnBlog: I think it's easy for other fans - and myself - to dismiss Rutgers as a serious threat because they are 5-2, but really, just about every BCS conference team would be at 5-2 against that schedule. The only two above-.500 teams RU has played, they've lost to. RU struggled against good teams early last year, of course, starting 1-5 but finishing up one game back of Cincinnati for the conference title.
Two-part question: What are your expectations for the rest of the season? And is there some structural cause for Rutgers' early-season struggles and the subsequent mid-October turnaround? That seems to be Rutgers' M.O. in the last five years, 2006 excluded.
Bleed Scarlet: I think still they'll beat Louisville and Syracuse on the road by double digits, and honestly should be favored against USF. The UConn and West Virginia games are winnable, but only if the light suddenly goes on for the offense. The defense is more than good enough to keep them in games if they get ANYTHING from that side of the ball.
If there are signs for optimism, one is that so many skill guys on offense are young, and couldn't really play all that much worse than they have. At some point, talent has to shine through for some of them, although it may not happen just yet. The one other thing I'll say is that Rutgers isn't quite as bad as they looked in the opener. Cincy's offensive scheme presented some matchup problems on offense that neutralized RU's strength on defense (pass rush with the front seven), and Natale's turnovers turned that game into a total blowout. Rutgers isn't nearly that bad, but there's still a lot to be concerned about. Based on the past two weeks, the Scarlet Knights have a pulse, but aren't playing well enough to be a contender in the top of the conference this year.
I'll be happy with edging out USF for fifth, or somehow doing better if the offenses starts to work out all of the kinks. There's still a lot of football to play.
TheUConnBlog: OK, let's talk big picture: is Rutgers trending up, down, or treading water? It seems like Schiano has the big-time Jersey recruits on lock, which should keep Rutgers in the upper tier of the Big East. But in each of the last three seasons Rutgers never really threatened for the conference title (even UConn did that one year). despite having a bunch of NFL talents. Are Rutgers fans going to be patient and wait for the replacements for Teel, Rice and Britt to materialize? Are they getting jaded after the unmatched success of the 2006 team? Are they grumbling about Schiano?
Bleed Scarlet: There is some impatience now. Rutgers fans are hungry for a Big East title, and arguably should have won the conference last year if they hadn't gotten so down on themselves after a few miscues in the opener. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about this season with how poorly the offense has played.
What UConn fans need to know about New Jersey though, and they probably already do, is that we generally like to talk. A lot. When things are going moderately well, then Rutgers is going to steamroll everybody. One bad loss, and they want to jump in the Hudson. Doesn't necessarily mean they're arrogant or dumb. They just like to hear the sound of their own voices, so take everything with a major grain of salt. Well, as a caveat to that, people who keep a bit more of an even keel like myself are going to be drowned out by anyone who wants to vent. Anyone who feels the need to do that at the moment will be drinking the kool-aid again soon enough.
Rutgers football is still trending up and making steady progress. Even if the football team does end up stumbling to a bad record, that's still the case. It's to a point now where they are a normal, run of the mill top 40 program. That's progress, remarkable progress even. Most programs in that group average in the eight win or so zone, with the odd really good or poor season. Only the football factory programs can reload every year. It's unrealistic to expect instant, overnight success. Coach Schiano always talks about building a sustainable program over the long haul, and I'm absolutely on board with that. There's a lot of good young talent on the way, and hopefully they can take everything up to the next level, which has to include a conference title.
There's a brand new stadium expansion, and the new Athletic Director Tim Pernetti is quietly off to a very good start (if only he can score a hit with the next men's basketball hire) with stuff like fundraising, improving governance and efficiency, and expanding new revenue streams with things like new media. He's a great face for the entire athletic department, very telegenic (gets out of bed every day, and works out, followed by a round of yoga, and an eloquent speaker. I'm stunned with how well he's done to this point, a factor which has largely gone overlooked outside of Rutgersland. Face it - our A.D. can beat up your A.D.
Ohio State and Georgia fans are grumbling about Jim Tressel and Mark Richt (for arguably good reasons, but still). It's just the nature of the game. Schiano isn't perfect, and has made his share of mistakes, but there's absolutely no question that he is Rutgers football. Win some more games next year and all is forgiven. They'll have to take Schiano out of Piscataway in a casket, because that's the only way he will ever leave. That's what I was saying years ago. Outside of 2006 there were always some weird gameday quirks. I always remembered the bad losses in preceeding years. He's absolutely, 100% sincere and straight-on about being a lifer and showing loyalty to Rutgers; but those flaws, more than anything, are why I never bought into any of the rumors, which got a little far-fetched at times.
People glossed over his minuses before, they're exacerbating them a bit now, and yeah, will probably be worshipping him again soon enough. It kinda sucks that I don't really think that there is really a forum to throw out all the nonsense and have a truly candid discussion about his merits, but, oh well. Unless a school can afford to pay a king's ransom for a guy like Nick Saban or Urban Meyer, they're not going to get an absolutely perfect coach.
Schiano has his own individual strengths and weaknesses, as does Randy Edsall, or pretty much everyone out there. On the whole, Schiano is pretty good. We're admittedly cranky about not winning the conference yet, and upset about various mistakes here and there, but overall everyone is overwhelmingly appreciative towards Schiano and what he's accomplished on the banks over the pas decade.
TheUConnBlog: Short and sweet: do you consider UConn to be Rutgers' main football rival, now and in the future?
Bleed Scarlet: It depends on how you define that term. When I think of college football rivalries, what comes to mind is something like Ohio State/Michigan, Army/Navy, or Auburn/Alabama, that sort of thing. We'll never have that in football. I do think in time that we can see a good regional rivalry on some scale. This is a competitive series, with the balance of power seemingly continuing to go back and forth between the two programs. Based on all available information, UConn has the best chance to develop a rivalry with Rutgers over the coming years, and vice versa. I think both sides recognize that the other is a better choice than middling Syracuse, or any other possible candidates.
There's some hostility on the net between both sides, but I don't know if it's there in the stands just yet. Everyone in the RAC would lynch Geno Auriemma if given the chance, but there's nothing like that right now for football. Everyone on Scarlet Nation and The Boneyard may not want to admit it, but the programs are pretty similar in many regards. It's almost like, UConn's football program are the Amish, and Rutgers is Mennonite. I get the vibe that The Boneyard looks at RUFB and sees a program fixated on flash and self-promotion, but really, that isn't close to being the case at all.
Rutgers is just the closest basis in comparison. While Rutgers and Schiano aren't quite as low-key and austere as UConn and Edsall, they're about as close as you're going to get. Everyone's going to "suffer" in comparison, when those fans are using such procrustean criteria. I can almost imagine SEC boosters taking a glance at some of our petty squabbles, and laughing to themselves before driving off with a couple recruits to a local strip bar in a Ferrari for lapdances and blow.
TheUConnBlog: Since you brought it up, I'll ask here: what's up with the Rutgers WBB team? National runners-up in '07, blown 14-point lead in the '08 Elite Eight against UConn, and then...they completely collpase? As I recall CViv brought in a bushel of All-Americans before last year, and then almost none of them saw the floor in favor of role players like Brittany Ray. And now Epiphany Prince left school? What's up with that?
So I guess I have two questions here: how did Rutgers fall so far despite some really good recruiting classes, and how do they get back?
Bleed Scarlet: They have struggled a bit with higher expectations. I see them surprising this year with the pressure racketed down a notch. You don't replace a Piph overnight, which will keep them from being a serious NC contender.
C. Vivian Stringer is still a living legend, who's had the misfortune of being the third best coach during an era with arguably two of the greatest ever in Geno and Summitt holding court. Like Coach Schiano, she is a bit stubborn, and could afford to be looser with her bench. There's not reallly much to take issue with here though. They'll be back soon enough.
TheUConnBlog: I feel like some of those questions came off a little hater-y, so I'll ask something I think we can agree on: is Hartford the worst city in the northeast? At least Newark and Trenton don't try to pretend they're important.
Bleed Scarlet: Are you sure you're a New Jerseyan? Because everybody knows that Camden (in South Jersey, across the Whitman Bridge from Philly) is worse than Newark, as are Newark's neighbors Irvington and East Orange. For any of the CT natives reading, imagine if Hartford was smack dab next to Stamford, Greenwich, and all of the other ritzy NYC border towns in Fairfield County. That's exactly what exists in North Jersey, with only a few miles separating our decayed urban metropolises from extremely wealthy suburbs like Millburn, Chatham, Livingston, and Summit (among many others).
If there's one spot that I'd like to nuke from orbit though, it would be Route 18 in East Brunswick; otherwise known as the undisputed ninth circle of Hell (it's not a coincidence that Bon Jovi spawned only miles away from there). Anyone familiar with the area would understand that pick in a heartbeat.
In truth, I will always have a soft spot for Hartford because of the Whalers. Come on - Brass Bonanza, and those awesome uniforms too. Such a crime that they were stolen away by the forces of greed. Just don't have any lingering jealousy for the Devils because New Jersey managed to survive a similar fate.
Jon did his best to match my loquaciousness, and for that we thank him. Check out Bleed Scarlet for all your Rutgers updates.
And, of course, may the spirit of Mike Teel float passes into UConn players' hands a half-dozen times this Saturday.