Rutgers must regroup after opening fiasco

September, 8, 2009
9/08/09
3:12
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Now what for Rutgers?

The Scarlet Knights' opener could hardly have been more disastrous. Picked by some, including yours truly, to win the Big East, they didn't look like they belonged in the same league as Cincinnati in a 47-15 home loss before a national audience.
 
 Rich Kane/Icon SMI
 True freshman receiver Mohamed Sanu was one of the few bright spots for Rutgers, hauling in 10 catches for 101 yards.

"We were a step behind physically, mentally, coaching ... the whole deal," head coach Greg Schiano said.

Even the team's supposed strengths -- defense and the offensive line -- failed to perform anywhere near expectations. The Bearcats neutralized Rutgers' front seven by going with a no-huddle, four-wide receiver scheme and having quarterback Tony Pike get rid of the ball quickly out of the shotgun. The Scarlet Knights got very little pressure and could not cover Cincinnati's receivers with linebackers and safeties -- or anyone else. Tackling, surprisingly, was also an issue.

The offensive line, which returned all five starters from a year ago, did not control the point of attack after Rutgers' first drive. Granted, the Scarlet Knights all but abandoned the running game after falling behind quickly, allowing Cincinnati to tee off on the pass rush, but the performance from what everybody assumed was the Big East's best line was uninspiring.

"We still have a lot of young guys on the offensive line," Schiano said. "We need to make large improvements before we're a dominant offensive line."

At least Schiano figured out his quarterback situation, by default. Dom Natale threw three interceptions in the second quarter, while the Jabu Lovelace package (he was 0-for-2 passing and ran for -2 yards on three carries) seems like a waste of time. The only spark from the offense came once true freshman Tom Savage came in to start the second half. The rookie showed a nice pocket presence and a strong arm, and it's hard to fathom why Schiano would start anyone but Savage from here on out.

"I was a little nervous going out there," said the highly recruited Savage, who completed 15 of 23 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown in his debut. "The older guys helped me out and got me cooled down.

"It was awesome going out there, and I definitely got my feet wet. I just want to move forward now."

The receiver position caused a lot of worry in the offseason but proved to be one of the few solid areas in the opener. Tim Brown (seven catches, 86 yards) showed he could be a No. 1 target, while true freshman Mohamed Sanu (10 catches, 101 yards) looks like a future star.

For whatever reason, a lot of Schiano's teams seem to come out of the gates slowly and improve as the year goes along. Rutgers got blown out at home by Fresno State in last year's opener and started 1-5 before turning things around. At least the players have the experience of knowing how to bounce back.

"We'll find out what kind of team we are," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "Maybe last year will be fortunate for this team. We understand you have to just keep playing and prepare for the next game because it can snowball on you."

It's unlikely that the Scarlet Knights will build a similar hole for themselves this year, simply because of the schedule. They have two FCS teams -- Howard and Texas Southern -- in their next four games, which also include a home date with Florida International and a trip to Maryland, which also got blown out in Week 1.

The next Big East game doesn't come until Oct. 16, when Pitt visits Piscataway. By then, conceivably, Savage will have had time to grow and the team will have straightened its issues out.

But there's no denying that Monday's loss dealt a blow to the excitement around the program. A record crowd of 53,737 filled the newly expanded Rutgers Stadium for the opener, and even the emergence of Savage probably won't get fans excited to come out for Howard, Texas Southern and Florida International.

"I just hope that people have learned this is a resilient program, a resilient team and a resilient coach," Schiano said. "This program will be back and be fine. We'll be exciting and we will win games.

"We've got to do it, though, because this is an event-driven era. You've got to be an event, and part of the event is winning."

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