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2011 Season Preview: The Rutgers Scarlet Knights And Zero-Sum Gains

Greg Schiano pulled a magic act in bringing sustained success to Rutgers, but in a zero-sum league, the Scarlet Knights have trended in the wrong direction recently. Can an experienced offense and a new offensive coordinator right the ship for Schiano? And what to make of a defense that couldn't stop the pass and now faces a stronger passing league?

PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 08:  Mohamed Sanu #6 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights runs the ball against the Connecticut Huskies at Rutgers Stadium on October 8, 2010 in Piscataway, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 08: Mohamed Sanu #6 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights runs the ball against the Connecticut Huskies at Rutgers Stadium on October 8, 2010 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Getty Images

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Yesterday, we discussed a team that broke through to an unforeseen level in 2006 but have slid quite a bit in the last couple of years. Really, most of what I said yesterday about Wake Forest could be repeated about Rutgers today, only the god of bowl bids was at least kind enough to give Wake Forest a day in the BCS sun. Rutgers was much, much better than Wake in 2006, but all they got out of the experience was the opportunity to ravage Kansas State in the Texas Bowl and finish 11-2. That season was a high point for the Big East conference as a whole, and while the Big East has decelerated a bit each season, Rutgers' descent has been much more stark the last two years.

The warning signs were there a year earlier than the results, actually. In 2009, the Scarlet Knights managed to go 9-4 for the second consecutive season, but their F/+ rating fell from +10.3% (26th) in 2008 to -2.1% (64th). They got by with smoke, mirrors and two FCS opponents, but with a further youth movement and an offensive coordinator who didn't necessarily match the personnel at hand, there was no skating by unnoticed in 2010. Rutgers fell to 84th in the F/+ rankings, and this time their record caught up -- they went 4-8, their worst record since 2004.

In an effort to shake things up and/or breathe new life into a stagnant program (pick your cliche), head coach Greg Schiano has brought in a new offensive coordinator: Frank Cignetti, who was last seen calling plays for Dave Wannstedt at Pittsburgh. Cignetti certainly knows the Big East, and his Pitt offenses were typically rather stellar and underrated, but whether he's a good fit for RU's strangely unique personnel remains to be seen.

This season is a bit of a crossroads for Schiano and Rutgers. He should always be appreciated for the job he did in raising the program from the dead -- he delivered four straight seasons of eight wins or more after 25 years without even one -- but whether he has forever peaked or has some more magic left in him, there's a decent chance we begin to find out in 2011.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 84
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Norfolk State
31-0 W 17.9 - (-1.7) W
11-Sep at Florida International 19-14 W 12.0 - 20.4 L
25-Sep North Carolina 13-17 L 17.4 - 27.4 L
2-Oct Tulane 14-17 L 13.9 - 21.5 L
8-Oct Connecticut 27-24 W 35.0 - 24.5 W
16-Oct vs Army 23-20 W 16.4 - 29.3 L
23-Oct at Pittsburgh 21-41 L 23.1 - 38.4 L
3-Nov at South Florida 27-28 L 37.4 - 32.5 W
13-Nov Syracuse 10-13 L 24.0 - 16.9 W
20-Nov at Cincinnati 38-69 L 31.3 - 39.7 L
26-Nov Louisville 13-40 L 23.6 - 39.1 L
4-Dec at West Virginia 14-35 L 30.4 - 37.9 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 20.8 101 26.5 62
Adj. Points Per Game 23.5 88 27.2 58

Two things jump out in the graph above: 1) the offense was not good but trended toward improvement as the season progressed, and 2) the defense trended toward steady regression in their worst season in a long time. Schiano addressed ongoing offensive issues, but there should plenty of concern reserved for the defense too.

It seemed for a while as if Rutgers was going to get away with it again -- they began 4-2, suffering an egregious loss to Tulane but looking like they still might be able to figure out how to get to six wins. Alas, it was not to be. Their win over Army was the last they would procure; they lost two tight games to South Florida and Syracuse, then completely fell apart, losing to Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia by an average of 26 points.

If we're spinning this positively, we say that means there's plenty of room for growth. And hey, the offense did at least incrementally improve as freshman quarterback Chas Dodd got his sea legs.

First Three Games (Before Incumbent Tom Savage Got Hurt): 15.8 Adj. PPG
Next Four Games (First Four With Dodd As First-Stringer): 22.1 Adj. PPG
Final Five Games: 29.3 Adj. PPG

As mentioned, the defense got worse at the same time, but with almost everybody returning on the offensive side of the ball, Cignetti has some interesting parts with which to work.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 101 107 94
RUSHING 107 104 106 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 92 97 83 107
Standard Downs 84 86 79 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 87 93 86 120
Redzone 53 55 54
Q1 Rk 90 1st Down Rk 86
Q2 Rk 90 2nd Down Rk 72
Q3 Rk 99 3rd Down Rk 104
Q4 Rk 66

Whatever change Frank Cignetti brings to the table, Rutgers' footprint should remain mostly the same. Here was Pittsburgh's footprint last year:

Pitt used almost identical run-pass ratios (Rutgers ran more in the red zone) and played at almost exactly the same tempo. The only real difference is that Rutgers' Variability was much higher, meaning they adjusted the game plan quite a bit based on score, down-and-distance, field position, etc. As I've mentioned before, high variability does not automatically equate to poor offense, but I've seen Rutgers play quite a few times the last few years, and they constantly seemed to be suffering an identity crisis in 2009-10, never really understanding what they were or wanted to be. They attempted to install something of a spread offense last year, but it just never took. If Cignetti is capable of establishing an identity and committing to it, whatever it may be, chances are good that it will help this unit quite a bit.

Though they still employed fullbacks with good, northeastern, likely Italian names, Cignetti's Pittsburgh offenses threw a lot and attempted to keep defenses off-balance. In theory, a nice, even run-pass split could work well for the Scarlet Knights, as they have potential at each skill position. Dodd (1,637 yards, 7.3 per pass, 55% completion, 11 TD, 7 INT) took over when Savage got hurt and did just well enough to keep Savage on the sideline. (Savage announced he was transferring to Arizona after the season.) He threw downfield a lot, and that shouldn't change considering the weapons he will have lined up wide.

When I said above that Rutgers has strangely unique personnel, I was primarily talking about Mohamed Sanu and Jeremy Deering. Sanu has done just about everything but line up as right guard in his two seasons at RU. He finished last season with 418 receiving yards (9.5 per catch, 60% catch rate), 309 rushing yards (+7.6 Adj. POE) and 160 passing yards while splitting time between wideout and Wildcat formation quarterback. Meanwhile, Deering was basically used as Sanu's more hit-or-miss understudy, finishing with 352 rushing yards (4.6 per carry, +3.9 Adj. POE) and 338 receiving yards (21.3 per catch, 36% catch) as a freshman. Rutgers had other, more traditional targets as well -- Mark Harrison (829 yards, 18.8 per catch, 65% catch at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds) and quarterback-turned-tight-end D.C. Jefferson (166 yards, 16.6 per catch, 46% catch), to name two -- but Sanu and Deering were what made Rutgers unique, for better and for worse. Everybody mentioned here returns in 2011.

Other tidbits:

  • It is incredible to think about how bad Rutgers' offensive line was last season. Ranking 107th in Adj. Line Yards and 120th, dead last, in Adj. Sack Rate, they staked a strong claim to "Worst BCS conference offensive line" status. From SBN's On The Banks:

    It was hard to determine how much of this group's poor play was attributable to schematic woes, but Rutgers ended up surrendering more sacks last season than any other FBS squad. Come the spring, line coach Kyle Flood responds by moving last year's line stalwart left tackle Desmond Stapleton to RT away from protecting Chas Dodd's blind side. ... Guard looks solid enough with Desmond Wynn and Antwan Lowery returning, and Betim Bujari in reserve. Any remaining anxiety is at center, where David Osei showed considerable progress during the spring, but JUCO transfer Dallas Hendrikson tore his ACL and is out for the year. They should have enough to field a solid two-deep, but any string of injuries will mean trouble. These guys reportedly looked decent in practice and weren't horrible in the spring game, actually resembling a genuine FBS for the most part. They cannot be unspeakably bad again, can they?

    In theory, no they can't. In theory. Four starters return, for better or worse.
  • It is odd to have gotten this far into a Rutgers discussion without mentioning a real, honest-to-god running back. What in the name of Ray Rice and Brian Leonard is going on around here? Actually, it's hard to know what to think about the running backs without knowing what will happen with Joe Martinek (276 yards, 3.2 per carry, minus-4.9 Adj. POE). Martinek was solid in 2009 but suffered through both injuries, offensive line ridiculousness, and a lack of fit in a spread setup, and as a result, then-freshman Jordan Thomas (417 yards, 4.4 per carry, -8.9 Adj. POE) got a lot more carries than probably originally intended. To address a scary depth situation, Thomas moved to the secondary this spring.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 80 75 89
RUSHING 54 39 59 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 108 105 107 15
Standard Downs 91 68 102 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 45 60 35 102
Redzone 117 111 117
Q1 Rk 81 1st Down Rk 91
Q2 Rk 90 2nd Down Rk 77
Q3 Rk 85 3rd Down Rk 88
Q4 Rk 51

For the season as a whole, Rutgers' defense was less of a liability than its offense was, but as the offense got a bit more on track later in the year, the defense gave away any potential advantages. The Scarlet Knights ranked 108th in Passing S&P+ and 102nd in Adj. Sack Rate, which rather quickly pinpoints the primary issue. They gave up a few too many big plays on the ground, but the pass was the problem.

That being the case, let's just say it isn't particularly encouraging that RU loses its two best pass rushers, Alex Silvestro and Jonathan Freeny (combined TFL/sacks: 21.5), and half its starting secondary. The pass defense was bad with these players, so their absence might not make that much of a difference, but on first glance it is difficult to see what new contributors will emerge to replace Silvestro, Freeny, strong safety Joe Lefeged (65.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 4 FF, 6 PBU) or cornerback Brandon Bing (53.5 tackles, 3.5 TFl/sacks, 1 INT, 4 blocked kicks). The Knights did not play a ton of players last year, so there are few proven backups. Running backs Jordan Thomas and Mason Robinson switched from offense to defense this spring, suggesting the coaches didn't necessarily know where the replacements were going to come from either. Luckily, it appears that Robinson in particular could thrive in his new role.

Other tidbits:

  • While the pass defense is still seriously in question, the run defense doesn't look too shabby. The Knights must replace linebacker Antonio Lowery (77.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 3 FR) and a decent tackle in Charlie Noonan, but in linebackers Steve Beauharnais (56.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks), LB-turned-DE Manny Abreu (35.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks) and tackle Scott Vallone (6.5 TFL/sacks), they've still got some interesting playmakers near the line of scrimmage.
  • Evidently free safety Khaseem Greene (61.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 4 FF) moved to linebacker as well (seriously, they had too many damn position changes to keep up with them all), which further fortifies Rutgers' run-stopping ability and further adds to the question marks against the pass. And this isn't exactly an encouraging development considering pass-and-pace-heavy coordinators Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen just came to the Big East.

Rutgers's 2010 Season Set to Music

What, did you think I was going to pass up an opportunity to dive into The Boss's catalog?

Ten Bruce Springsteen Songs That Could Be Applied To The Rutgers' 2010 Season
"Countin' On A Miracle"
"Darkness On The Edge Of Town"
"Downbound Train"
"Growin' Up"
"I'm Goin' Down"
"Lost In The Flood"
"Long Walk Home"
"Radio Nowhere"
"Waitin' On A Sunny Day"
"You'll Be Coming Down"

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 52
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 49
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +7 / +2
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (10, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.0

Let's play another game of Optimist Versus Pessimist!

What The Optimist Sees: A team whose recent history is much better than what they produced last year, a team whose offensive coordinator might be much more in tune to the talent at hand and has 10 returning starters at his disposal, and a team that plays in a conference won by the 55th-best team in the country last year. (In other words, a team that could win a lot of games if they recover to their recent levels.)

What The Pessimist Sees: A team that went 1-6 in the aforementioned weak conference, a team that could have been much worse without some fumble luck, and a team that couldn't stop the pass in a conference that just got a lot better at passing.

As a whole, Rutgers has gotten worse in three of the last four seasons, meaning their stumble to 4-8 is not an isolated incident. In fact, it wasn't even their biggest stumble in terms of overall quality -- that came the year before. If the Big East really is a zero-sum league (at least until TCU joins the mix), and Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Louisville, South Florida and Syracuse are all either getting better or likely to, then someone has to get worse, and recently that has been RU. If they are going to strike back, now's the time to start. I'm a fan of the underdog, so I have a bit of a sentimental attachment to a program like Rutgers that struggled for so long and found some sustained success, but I'm not particularly optimistic that they're going to find more sustained success. If they're going to prove me wrong, it begins in 2011.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.