A UConn-Rutgers Q&A with Jon from On The Banks

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As we so often do, it's time to take a trip to the learnin' tree and talk football with an opposing blogger.

This week, Jon of SBNation's fine Rutgers blog On The Banks approached me to exchange mind-grapes over Friday's showdown-ish game in Piscataway.

You may remember Jon from the quite excellent Q&A posts from the week before last year's game. On my half of that exchange, you can see my wide-eyed innocence as I explained the greatness of Randy Edsall; on his half, we learn that, despite the fact that we are both New Jerseyans, Jon does not share my fondness for the Jovi. For shame, Jon, although it is at least an excuse to post JBJ's picture on the blog.

I took some time away from frothing at the mouth at pictures of Greg Schiano to answer questions for his site, which should be posted at some point in the very near future. (EDIT: In fact, here it is.)

Jon's answers to my questions begin below, and continue below the jump:

1) Tulane? Really?

1) No, really. Tulane?

1) OK, serious question: Rutgers is off to a disappointing start, obviously. The defense has been pretty stout, by my eyes. What's happened to the offense? Is it recruiting/talent, coaching/schemes or simple immaturity?

OTB: The offensive line is once again awful. They're starting a former walk-on at center who can't snap very well. The starting right guard lost his job to a redshirt freshman, and last week two players split time at right tackle (because the starter has been awful in pass protection). It's astounding considering how good the line was a couple of years ago.

I'm really starting to question the offensive line coach (Kyle Flood) as a result, and the same goes for the co-offensive coordinator responsible for play calling, Kirk Ciarrocca, coached Joe Flacco at Delaware. He was also a pretty good WR coach in his first year at Rutgers. Ciarrocca has been moving the offense in more of a spread direction. They never just line up in an I-formaton and pound the ball any more. Whether that's because of play calling or bad player development, I can't say. Either way, both of these assistants are coaching for their jobs now.
 
Most frustrating of all has been Tom Savage's regression. While the offense wasn't good last year, he still looked relatively solid for a true freshman quarterback. This year Savage looks significantly worse - with bad accuracy, poor read progressions, and constantly locking onto Mohamed Sanu. I'm wondering whether he's not on the same page with the play calling, or maybe the staff ramped up the scheme complexity too fast. It's not the most inviting situation. Savage is beat up with a couple injuries, a starting WR is out for the year, and the offensive line has been terrible.
 
A true freshman in Chas Dodd looked a lot better than Savage against Tulane. Dodd didn't light the world on fire, but he looked...pretty much exactly like the mixed bag Savage was last year. The play calls were also markedly different with him in the game. With even average QB play (i.e., Dodd against Tulane) over the first third of the season, Rutgers is 4-0 right now and the fans are insufferably predicting a Big East title. That doesn't mean he'll keep it up, but that's all we can really hang our hats on right now with Savage hurting, and questionable to play on Friday.

1b) Has that Wildcat package ever worked?

OTB: Actually, yes. The Wildcat works well as a change of pace when receiver Mohamed Sanu runs it. The package was completely ineffective a couple years back with Jabu Lovelace. Sanu is a better athlete, has far more power, and is also a much better passer than Lovelace. Sanu could play QB for a spread option team. The problem with the Wildcat this year is that it's been overused and predictable. Rutgers is not confident that it can run the ball normally, so they are going with the Wildcat because they have to eat some clock to give the defense a breather.

The problem is that they usually just call direct snaps to Sanu. He needs to hand the ball off more to keep defenses on their toes, and also attempt more passes.

2) Greg Schiano was the hottest coaching ticket in America 3 or 4 years ago, but now the momentum seems to have stalled. Is the magic gone? Are Rutgers fans starting to get antsy and/or make wild calls for his ouster?

OTB: If there are any scapegoats it'll most likely be one or several members of the coaching staff on offense. Schiano's done his job with the defense. There wasn't any fair reason to expect historically bad offensive play this year. As long as he makes the right staff changes, for the most part everyone is still going to be with him. There will always be some level of criticism though until if/when Rutgers finally wins the Big East under his watch.

We're deeply respectful and appreciative over the past few years, but there's no good reason to be offensively inept against Tulane after a decade on the job.

3) Rutgers' run defense might be one of the best UConn will play this season. How do you think the Scarlet Knights will do against Jordan Todman and co.?

OTB: I'm scared, because the threat of Todman should open things downfield for the UConn passing game for some play action. The Rutgers defense is really aggressive, and prone to overpursuit on trickery. The front seven is fast, but they're undersized, and 20+ carries will wear them down by the second half. Generally the defense matches up better with scatbacks than bruisers, and better with boom or bust types (say, Steve Slaton), then a back who can keep moving the chains.
 
Basically, what UConn is going to want to do Friday is not to give up on the run even if it doesn't work early. If the Rutgers offense is bad, and chances are it will be, then they're not going to be able to sustain drives. As we saw last year, eventually they will tire if they don't get any support. Keep running it, and slant/screen us to death to keep the clock moving, neutralize the pass rush, and guard against turnovers.

4) Let's talk expectations for the rest of the year. The Big East is so terrible that almost anyone could win it, but where do you think the Scarlet Knights SHOULD end up in December? Where will they?

OTB: Rutgers has the talent to finish at the top of the Big East. Even with the offense looking so awful, it's not due to a lack of athleticism. It was expected that experience would hold them back, but what's gone on is unprecedented and ridiculous.
 
I don't want to make any predictions. I thought Rutgers was doomed to finish with a losing record after the awful start two years ago. Then Mike Teel and Kenny Britt torched Pitt's secondary, and suddenly nobody could stop them. West Virginia's looked good outside of the Marshall game. Cincy has a pulse, Pitt has talent, even if they have a lot of injuries. Actually, I said before the year that UConn would be a Big East contender if not for Frazer. Their offense is really impressive right now. Those teams have a chance.

5) RutgersAL: Great fan, or greatest fan?

What people need to know about Al is that he is 100% genuine and sincere, and not in any way an act or exaggerated. Seriously, you can go up to him at tailgates and shoot the shit. You won't find a nicer, kinder, more generous guy, and he puts his money where his mouth is and supports the football program through thick and thin. If only he would stay off other team boards.

6) This is normally where I'd ask about Rutgers hoops - male or female - but, uh...I got nothing. Can you give me a reason why Rutgers won't finish in the bottom two in men's basketball this year?

Nope. I'm one of the few holdouts right now when it comes to Mike Rice and the basketball program. What he's done with assembling a top staff and recruiting in a small timeframe is impressive. It's not a blue chipper class, but Rutgers has multiple Big East caliber players coming in next year. Objectively it's more quantity than quality, but the haul is really impressive considering the past few years and how poison the Rutgers name was only six months ago. Do people who don't follow Rutgers even realize how completely screwed up the circumstances leading up to Hill's ouster were? Then he held the program hostage for a month while negotiating a buyout (holding recruiting hostage, and destroying any chance at a higher-tier coach), and then Rutgers struck out with another round of candidates.
 
It's only recruiting though, and there won't be any way to know whether Rice is any good or not until he's had a few years to rebuild, which is not particularly appealing two decades after the team's last NCAA Tournament appearance. Rice has everyone excited again, but he still is making a huge jump from Robert Morris to the Big East, and I'm not comfortable with that level of uncertainty. I want to believe, but then I remember that Fred Hill was a great recruiter at the start too, and was considered one of the best assistants in the country. I've been burned, which is why I have to think of Rice as Fred Hill in a toupee until he actually proves otherwise. Besides, setting expectations as low as possible to start out will only make things easier going forward.
 
As to 2010-2011, Dane Miller and Jonathan Mitchell are both good small forwards, and James Beatty is at least decent at point guard. There's a chance that Austin Johnson could eventually turn into a good big man. Freshman PF Gil Biruta could give them a solid 20 minutes a game as a backup.
 
Unfortunately, that's about it. Hamady N'Diaye graduated, Greg Echenique got mad at Fred Hill and transferred, and Rice didn't have enough time to sign a JUCO. Even if Johnson and Biruta exceed expectations, the frontcourt is going to be a mess. Mitchell is a good player, but miscast in his current role, especially in the bruising Big East. Mike Rosario transferred out too, taking away the team's one legit offensive threat out of the backcourt. They actually signed a JUCO in Tyree Graham who might have been able to contribute, but he tore his ACL and is now out for the year. Fun.

7) Finally, let's get a prediction on this game.

UConn 24 Rutgers 13. I can't seriously buy into a true freshman quarterback who had one average quarter. Rutgers is only in this if they force a bunch of turnovers (watch out for the punt blocks), or knock Endres out of the game again. There's no Tim Brown to save us this time.

----

Thanks to Jon, and best of luck to his Scarlet Knights.

By which I mean I hope they go 2-10 and lose seven straight games, all on last-second field goals. HATE HATE HATE

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