Rutgers’ pass rush has been inconsistent
MORGANTOWN - Greg Schiano would like nothing more than to execute the same defensive game plan against West Virginia this weekend that Syracuse used in throttling the Mountaineer offense last Friday.
He would seem to have the right tools in place to do so, too. His Rutgers football team is sixth in the nation in sacks, so putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks is obviously something the Scarlet Knights can do.
But then there's Rutgers' performance last weekend against Louisville to consider. At the same time Syracuse was harassing WVU quarterback Geno Smith - sacking him four times and pressuring him on almost every down - during a 49-23 rout, Schiano's pass rush was a no-show at Louisville. Even with a freshman quarterback behind center, Louisville didn't allow a sack and had precious few pressures.
"They got rid of the ball. They threw a lot of three-step and quick-five [drops] and they took their shots,'' Schiano said of Louisville, which beat Rutgers 16-14. "They threw a lot of fades and connected on a few of them. They were not going to allow themselves to get sacked. I thought it was an excellent plan.''
If only West Virginia could have executed similarly against Syracuse.
Which raises the question of this week. The No. 25 Mountaineers (5-2, 1-1 Big East) face Rutgers (5-2, 2-1) in a 3:30 p.m. game at High Point Solutions Stadium, and there seems no question the Knight will try to make Smith just as uncomfortable then as he was at the Carrier Dome.
Schiano knows the balance of the outcome probably rests with his team's ability to do that. If the Knights can't, West Virginia will probably score as often as necessary, regardless of how many points its defense surrenders.
"I think it's critical,'' Schiano said. "It's not only the sacks, it's the hits and the quarterback pressures you get in addition to the sacks. Sacks aren't always the most important thing.
"The kid at Louisville, [Teddy] Bridgewater, did a nice job of throwing the ball and not taking the big hit too many times. When you watch the Syracuse tape they did a very good job of hitting the quarterback in the West Virginia game.''
Bridgewater wasn't able to do a lot of damage throwing the football - just 122 yards on 10-of-18 passing - but that's not the point. Louisville wasn't put into bad situations because Bridgewater wasn't being harassed, and so Rutgers never gained any momentum.
If Smith is allowed time in the pocket he will pick Rutgers apart. But there is more to playing defense against the Mountaineers than just rushing the passer.
"It's always important, but when you have a great quarterback like Geno Smith, that's only one element,'' Schiano said. "You better mix up your coverages, you better mix up your looks. You're not just going to get him through [pressure]. He's one of the top quarterbacks in America and we really have to be on our game to have any chance of slowing them down.''
If Rutgers does turn up the pressure, though, West Virginia has to do a better job of protecting Smith.
"Syracuse blitzed 75 percent of the time, which is more than I've ever been a part of,'' Holgorsen said. "And we didn't handle it for a variety of reasons.''
It was more than just an inability to block pass-rushers, although that was critical. But Holgorsen also pointed out that West Virginia wasn't able to do against Syracuse what Louisville accomplished against Rutgers. When Bridgewater was hurried he managed to get rid of the football. That's an issue of the quarterback recognizing the need to throw early and receivers identifying coverages and blitzes and being able to alter their routes.
Still, even if that happens, it would be nice if West Virginia's offensive line could make a semblance of a stand. Against Syracuse, they were often just steamrolled.
"I think we were targeted pretty good up front. There weren't just free people coming unless they were outmanning us,'' Holgorsen said. "But even when they were bringing five our guys didn't hold up in pass protection, which was discouraging.''
Louisville was just the second game this season in which Rutgers did not manage to sack an opposing quarterback. North Carolina held the Knights sackless, too. Not coincidentally, those are the two games Rutgers lost.
Granted, RU's sack numbers are inflated just a bit because of nine in the opening game against overmatched North Carolina Central, but the Knights also recorded six sacks against Pitt, two in a win over Syracuse (WVU didn't get a sack against the Orange) and even three against Navy, which seldom throws the football.
Rutgers also has 24 quarterback hurries this season and has intercepted 15 passes.
"We know what they're going to do. They're going to pressure us,'' Holgorsen said. "We just have to be able to handle it better. A week of practice can probably get us to the point where we handle it a little better.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.