You start a true freshman quarterback, and you take the good with the bad. Mistakes are going to happen. Growing pains are going to be expected.
Rutgers starter Gary Nova has shown his fair share of flashes, with a big arm and an unmistakable pocket presence. But he's also has had his fair share of mistakes, and those have wound up hurting the Scarlet Knights in two straight losses.
Nova has thrown five interceptions in those two games, two in a 41-31 loss to West Virginia last week. He had a critical fumble with the team trailing 34-31 midway through the fourth quarter. West Virginia recovered and scored a touchdown to seal the game.
Against Louisville, Nova threw one interception in Cardinals territory on the first drive of the game; the next one came deep in his own territory, which the Cardinals converted into a touchdown; the final one came with 1:41 remaining as he tried to rally the team for a win. Dexter Heyman said afterward that he expected the route because he saw it was one the Scarlet Knights relied on during his film study, so he knew exactly what to do to get the interception.
So now, Rutgers has gone from 2-0 atop the Big East to 2-2 in league play, needing major help to win its first-ever conference title. To be fair, not all the blame falls on the shoulders of the young man playing quarterback. But still, the continual mistakes have to be addressed before the Scarlet Knights sink further.
Schiano said he stayed up late Sunday night watching every offensive play featuring Nova and Chas Dodd, who went into the season as a starter. He plans on sticking with Nova on Saturday against USF because, quite simply, he believes the freshman gives his team the best chance to win.
"What I see is I see Gary making some plays that I think give us a chance to win," Schiano said Monday. "We scored 31 points. Thirty-one points is plenty of points to beat West Virginia. We didn't play defense well enough to beat West Virginia, that's what it boils down to. It's not offense.
"But again ... you're not going to stay in there if you turn the ball over. You can't stay in there. It's no different than a running back doing it. That's kind of where I am right now."
Nova is 2-2 since taking over for Dodd in the second half against Syracuse. He led the comeback victory in that game, and Dodd has not seen the field since then. To be sure, Dodd played a bad half against the Orange, going 14-of-31 for 166 yards with an interception. Does it warrant not getting another opportunity? That is a question that has vexed Rutgers fans during this recent stretch.
There is no arguing that Nova has a stronger arm and better escapability from a collapsing pocket, something that is a huge plus as Rutgers continues to rebuild its offensive line.
But in the last three games, Nova has had his hand in nine turnovers. Go back to the narrow 21-20 win over Navy, and Nova had an interception returned for a touchdown, and another that set up a field goal that Rutgers eventually blocked to preserve the win. A team that does not beat itself, Rutgers has found itself on the negative side of turnover margin in those three games. Compare that to the first five games of the season, when Rutgers was a combined plus-14 in that category.
Despite the mistakes, Schiano believes Nova is getting better.
"He's made improvement, sure," Schiano said. "He's made some big throws, too. He's rolled some digs in there and some deep balls that got dropped that are really big‑time throws, and not only did it ‑‑ but did it under pressure. The thing he does very, very well is when he feels pressure, moves in the pocket. That's where I think we've saved ourselves some sacks, moving in the pocket, feeling the pressure and yet keeping his vision down the field, maybe too much. Maybe he's got to learn to tuck it and go like he did and got the first down; maybe he's got to throw it out of bounds and live to see another down."
There are no maybes there. Nova has to cut the mistakes for Rutgers to keep winning.