The way things are going, Rutgers might want to think about changing its nickname. Wildcats seems a lot more appropriate.
No team in the country is relying more on the Wildcat formation than the Wild .... er, Scarlet Knights. The formation, in which a running back or receiver takes the snap from center, has become a bigger and bigger part of Greg Schiano's offense. On Saturday against Syracuse, Rutgers lined up in the Wildcat for nearly half its plays -- 36 out of 73 snaps.
How successful was it? Well, freshman Jeremy Deering ran 29 times for 166 yards and a score from the formation, by far the best rushing day a Rutgers player has enjoyed this season. Yet the team only scored 10 points, a typical day at the office for an offense that ranks 113th in the FBS in total yards and 101st in scoring.
The Wildcat has gained widespread popularity in recent years, but almost every team that uses it does so as a change-of-pace look for a handful of snaps. The Scarlet Knights' heavy Wildcat employment has meant a constant shuffle with their quarterbacks. In the Syracuse loss, Chas Dodd started but Tom Savage replaced him at halftime. Schiano hasn't named a starter yet for this week's game at Cincinnati.
No matter who starts, he may only play about half the snaps. Schiano, though, doesn't think the Wildcat upsets the rhythm of his young quarterbacks.
"I am sure there are many schools of thought," he said Tuesday. "I am not sure what the rhythm there is handing off and then watching the play because that is what the quarterback does on a run play in a conventional offense. We are not a huddle team so it is not like he is in the huddle [saying] ‘Let’s go, guys.’ He is getting the signal, handing the ball off and then we are on to the next play. So whether he is standing there on the side next to me or he is out there handing it and then watching the running back, I am not sure how much off a difference it makes to tell you the truth.”
It's not like Schiano is trying to reinvent football. He's just trying to find some way for his offense to actually gain some yards.
The Rutgers offensive line is the worst in the FBS in sacks allowed, which is doing a whole lot more to hurt Dodd and Savage than anything else. In losses to Syracuse and Pitt, Dodd was just 11-of-30 for 92 yards combined. Savage is completing only 51 percent of his passes this season.
Though Schiano said he believes his team can run the ball through conventional methods, the stats suggest otherwise. Rutgers is last in the Big East in rushing yards per game at a paltry 112 yards per game. Tailbacks Joe Martinek and Jordan Thomas are combining to average under 3.5 yards per carry, and Martinek has been injured much of the season.
So when you can't protect the quarterback or run the ball, what can you do? The Scarlet Knights are lucky that the true freshman Deering is so adept at the Wildcat, because Mohamed Sanu -- who was the Wildcat trigger man last year and most of this season -- has a leg injury and won't be 100 percent for this week's game at Cincinnati. They used a new wrinkle against Syracuse that saw offensive lineman Antwan Lowery lining up in the backfield as an extra blocker for Deering.
That addition helped a little but not enough. The Wildcat is a tiny Band-Aid on the gaping wound that is the Rutgers offense. The line hasn't played well for two years, the running game has lacked explosiveness since Ray Rice left town and young players with major promise like Savage, Jordan Thomas, Mark Harrison and D.C. Jefferson aren't being served by the ineptitude. I believe that at the end of the season, Schiano needs to take a long, hard look at both the offensive philosophy and his staff and make major changes if this program is to become more than just consistently mediocre.
Until then, exactly how wedded is Rutgers to that Scarlet Knights nickname, anyway?