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Mega Rutgers Q&A With Bleed Scarlet

State University of NJ in the house!
Syracuse takes on Rutgers this Saturday in the Carrier Dome at 3:30pm in the last home game of the 2009 football season. To get you prepared and informed for this event, as well as other various Rutgery things we went straight to the source. Jon from the great Rutgers blog Bleed Scarlet joins me today as we trade questions and answers. He also sent some questions my way, which is available here. Check them out and gear up, as football is almost done for another year.

1. Orange::44: Rutgers looked unstoppable against South Florida last week. Was this surprising for you, as your team has only looked alright in Big East play?

Jon: Not in the sense that I didn't think USF was any good this year, beyond the fact that they usually don't play Rutgers well, and tank in the second half (while RU usually gets better late in the year). It was a surprise that the game was that much of a blowout, but it was crazy to think that the Bulls would win, or even make it a game. Part of the final score was on USF just not showing up, but the Rutgers defense is pretty good this year, and the young skill guys on offense may be finally putting it together.

2. Orange::44: What was the key to the turnaround? What has Rutgers playing so well as of late?

Jon: Was there a turnaround? Rutgers beat the bad and average teams on its schedule, and lost to the good ones. Cincinnati was the first game of the season, and not only could they be the best team in the Big East, but Rutgers didn't even have a prayer with Dom Natale's turnover meltdown at quarterback. I don't think that they were all that bad to begin with, and they may not be that good now. RU did destroy USF, but was very fortunate to beat UConn on a last-second, miracle play from Tim Brown. They haven't shown enough to be in the top 25 yet, not with how the offense has played this year. That being said, it's a little of column A, and a little of column B, because the entire team is steadily improving week to week. Particularly with the freshmen starting at QB, WR, and RB. Rutgers is a generally solid team in all, with various strengths and weaknesses with respect to certain matchups.

3. Orange::44: Is QB Tom Savage "the guy" at Rutgers in the next few years, or do you see someone else coming in and being a better leader for the team?

Jon: There's little debate there. Not only has Savage looked good for a true freshman, but he doesn't have any legitimate competition on the horizon. Backup D.C. Jefferson might have turned into a good QB, but he was moved to TE because of depth issues, and eventually took over the starting job there. Rutgers won't have anyone else nearly as good as Savage over the next few years, so they'll be in big trouble if and when he misses time. Savage has all physical tools you look for in a blue chip QB (watch out for his surprising scrambling ability), and has impressed early with his leadership and decision making. He still needs to improve his accuracy and get better touch on his passes, learn more of the playbook, and develop a rapport with the team's younger receivers. I don't know if he's capable of winning a game by himself yet, but he's not killing the offense with turnovers, and his deep ball is starting to garner respect from opposing secondaries. You can never be absolutely certain with how a player will progress over his tenure, but the early results are promising.

4. Orange::44: What will Rutgers' game plan be heading into the Dome this Saturday? How much success do you see Rutgers earning?

Jon: Rutgers currently ranks 4th in the nation in sacks. Some of that is the result of playing a terrible out of conference schedule, but they've done well in Big East play too, and that aspect is always a strength of Greg Schiano's defenses. They're going to go after Greg Paulus early and often, with lots of disguised blitzes and twists/stunts up front, and hope that putting eight and nine in the box can stifle Delone Carter to some extent. They'll want to clog up his passing lanes, speed up his delivery, and make him hear footsteps in the pocket. This scheme is as aggressive as it gets. It's always tough to play in the Carrier Dome, so I see them trying to get momentum early by going after a few punt blocks (can't go about spotting two touchdowns again). Devin McCourty has had a great year at corner, but he's really stood out on special teams, with a few blocks/forced fumbles, and big returns.

I think it's interesting that while SU does get a lot of sacks on defense, they're one of the worst in defensive passing efficiency in the country. Even though you'd think the natural move here would be to run the ball and keep the defense fresh and rested, I want to pass, pass, pass. Couple quick strikes to get Savage into a rhythm, then get the ball downfield to Brown and Sanu, keeping things up tempo and trying to build up an early lead. That could force Syracuse into pass-only mode, take away Carter, and let the DL tee off on Paulus.

However, it's impossible to emphasize enough how poorly the Rutgers OL has played this year. They were supposed to pretty good, and they were a weakness until the USF game. Natale at QB was always a roll of the dice, so the line was the biggest reason that the team didn't live up to their early expectations.

5. Orange::44: Let's be honest, Rutgers' non-conference schedule is a huge joke, and has been the last few years. Do you actually like that Schiano schedules cup cakes like the likes of Howard, Morgan State, and Texas Southern, or do you not give a good care about it?

Jon: Hate it, hate it, hate it. What happened was that Rutgers expanded the stadium this year, even though the athletic department didn't have enough money on hand in the near term. Promised state assistance fell through because of New Jersey's fiscal crisis, so they raised ticket prices, and absolutely had to have 7 home games to pay off the construction bonds. Navy canceled on them to play Ohio State for a big payday, so I can sort of understand replacing them with FIU on short notice. The TSU game really does piss everyone off though. The old athletic director put them in an impossible position by not doing enough long-term scheduling (canceled ND series may have had something to do with that), and insisting on playing Army in a yearly home and home series.

Surprise surprise, you can't really get a good opponent on short notice. Not that it would have even been decent, but RU was close to bringing in Indiana before Virginia offered them more money. My preference then would have been to swallow their pride and play a road game against a top team. Now, Star-Ledger beatwriter Tom Luicci used Arkansas as an example, and said that they offered Rutgers $1.3 million for a game in Fayetteville with no return trip, and the A.D. said no because they can make $1.5 million per home date with the new expanded stadium. Me, I would have taken that offer, simply because it's better to make Arkansas pay for a good game, than to make Rutgers fans pay for a glorified scrimmage that none of them care about.

The new athletic director knows what's up, and he's scheduling better OOC games in the future with the likes of Penn State, Miami, and UCLA, and is starting to get back to the long-term strategy that Rutgers had abandoned in recent years. The scheduling won't get better for at least three years though - not until those deals start up, and Army is finally off the schedule. I think fan support is pretty good still, but it's not Penn State. People don't want to pay $70 a ticket to see a cupcake. The big loss in the opener deflated the fanbase for a while, and that really hurt attendance against the midseason stretch of cupcakes. Hopefully, now the athletic department knows that everyone is sick to death of that nonsense.

6. Orange::44: Are you heading to the Carrier Dome this weekend? If you are, what are your plans while visiting Syracuse, and if not, what is it you enjoy about seeing a game in Piscataway?

Jon: Nope, although apparently Rutgers sold out its visiting allotment again. It has nothing to do with preferring Piscataway, I don't have the time to make the entire trip and back. There's a good stadium atmosphere at Rutgers now, and it's been fun to watch that grow from when they had to force all the freshmen to go to the Buffalo game during my orientation. That gives it a bit of personal aspect to me - having followed the team when they weren't very good, essentially "growing up" with the team during my college years, and watching them get to double digit wins as a senior. It was satisfying to stick with something, and get a payoff in the end.

Piscataway itself, it's a suburban town; there's not all that much to do (although, New Brunswick is right across the river, and it's near a lot of more interesting places). The upside is that there is a lot of room for a good tailgating atmosphere on game days. The crowd can get going when needed, and the stadium has undergone a lot of changes. Any visitors who hadn't been there in a while would be surprised, although I only have only a couple of other live football games (college or pro) to compare it with.

7. Orange::44: Finally, Rutgers basketball has not been great the last few years. Is there buzz starting to surround the hoops program again, or are you just waiting for them to escort Fred Hill out of town? Sell the program to me.

Jon: Can't sell the program, beyond thinking that they do have some talent, and will be somewhat better than last year's miserable result. Mike Rosario and Greg Echenique looked good as freshmen last year, and they have some interesting transfers coming in with Jonny Mitchell and Jim Beatty. Problem is, not only is the Big East strong and deep, but there's no reason to have any confidence in Fred Hill's abilities as a coach or developer of talent. He can recruit them (well, he did before this year), but then guys come to campus and stagnate and regress. Now even the good metro talent have written off the program, and recruiting was supposed to be Hill's calling card.

In fact, Rutgers basketball is probably now worse than the football program ever was under Terry Shea (Schiano's predecessor), although it doesn't get nearly as much attention or headlines because it's a football school where basketball takes a back seat. Did you know that only Northwestern and Oregon State have longer NCAA tournament droughts? Because really, that's what it's all about. NIT bids are for suckers, and I cringe every time I see those banners in the RAC. Which, by the way has turned into what the Carrier Dome is for football; a once-proud facility stripped of its magical powers by a bumbling gang of fools.

Hill simply has to go. I'd love to be wrong there; he's a local, and returned to campus as the prodigal son who actually wanted the job, but he's not getting it done. By year three, there has to be some semblance of progress, but they keep hitting new lows. I understand not doing anything in-conference, but they're getting regularly waxed by MAAC teams. Now, because the athletic department still doesn't really have any money (although they're making some progress on fundraising), word is that not only is Hill 100% safe through this year, but he'll get a fifth season to screw things up even further. You know, really tighten the noose. And that scares the hell out of me. The RAC is a ghost town, the practice facilities and locker room blow, and the fans have given up entirely. Things haven't been this bad in decades. All keeping Hill on does is delay the inevitable. They're further putting off rebuilding, and ceding any chances of bringing in a hot candidate this year like Fran McCaffery from Siena.
Sucks, but there's no way to salvage this mess. Time to cut our losses and start fresh, for seemingly the umpteenth time over the past two decades. There aren't any good options, so I choose the least-worth path. Even though, again, it's not going to happen. Hill will get two more years, RU will get destroyed in conference play again, I'll crack a few Bobby Gonzalez jokes, and then stare at my Kenny Britt poster while counting down to football season.

Editor's Note: Thanks again to Jon. Great stuff as always. Check out Bleed Scarlet for all things Rutgers.

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