MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The one hard lesson learned from West Virginia’s loss last Friday night at Syracuse was that the Mountaineers have to get better at handling blitzes.
Syracuse blitzed and blitzed and blitzed its way to a 49-23 victory. Earlier this week, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said the Orange brought pressure on almost every snap.
“Blitzing 75 percent of the time is a lot, and I haven’t faced that personally,” he said. “I’ve been on a lot of teams that handle blitzes better, and you make them pay for it.”
Guess what Rutgers coach Greg Schiano likes to do? That’s right, blitz, blitz and blitz some more.
The Scarlet Knights opened the season with nine sacks against North Carolina Central and show 24 sacks heading into this weekend’s game. Rutgers is averaging 3.4 sacks and 7.9 tackles for losses per game, and even more impressively, the Knights have produced 25 total turnovers. Rutgers leads the country with 15 interceptions and is seventh in the nation with 10 fumble recoveries.
“The thing most impressive about their defense is how hard they play and how aggressive they are to attack the ball and get the ball out,” said Holgorsen. “They lead the nation in turnovers – they’ve got 25 of them and we’ve got eight, if I’m not mistaken. They do a good job of that.”
After watching the way West Virginia handled pressure against Syracuse, look for Schiano to bring the house on Saturday against the Mountaineers. Holgorsen said it will be imperative that West Virginia make Rutgers pay when it does bring pressure.
“We want them to blitz because that means there’s less space behind them,” he explained. “If we identify it and do a good job of handling it, we could have easily scored 49 points (against Syracuse).”
According to Holgorsen, the responsibility for handling blitzes falls on everybody.
“One of the biggest problems with what was happening was when they brought pressure, our offensive line just got whipped,” Holgorsen said. “That goes back to who was playing harder. It was very evident to me on tape that (Syracuse) was playing much, much harder than we were - which is disturbing. That’s one area of it.
“Calling plays is another area of it. Geno (Smith) getting the ball out of his hands is another; receivers adjusting their routes is one area of it and receivers making plays downfield is something that we’ve talked about for a long time.”
As for other aspects of Rutgers defense, Holgorsen is very impressed with their speed and how well the Scarlet Knights attack the football.
“They make plays on the ball whether it’s in the dude’s hands or if it’s in the air,” Holgorsen said, adding that Rutgers has been exceptional in the red zone this year. “They’re first in the conference, I think. Their opponents have been there 20 times and have only scored on 12. They do a good job of blocking kicks, and they do a good job of creating turnovers when they’re in the red zone.”
Offensively, Rutgers is starting over once again with new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, and it appears Cignetti has decided to go with a true freshman at quarterback in Gary Nova.
Nova made his first start against Pitt on Oct. 8 and performed well, completing 11 of 24 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns. Nova passed for a season-best 271 yards in a 21-20 win over Navy, led the Scarlet Knights to a 19-16 overtime win at Syracuse, and passed for 207 yards and a touchdown in last week’s 16-14 loss at Louisville.
For the season, Nova is completing 55.3 percent of his pass attempts for 890 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Sophomore Chas Dodd, who played in last year’s game against West Virginia in Morgantown, has also been under center some this year and is completing 54.3 percent of his passes for 754 yards and six touchdowns.
“He’s getting better,” said Holgorsen of Nova. “He’s like all true freshmen quarterbacks – guys that are young struggle at times, but consistently get better. They have been going back and forth, and they may still go back and forth, you never know. Once you settle on a guy and give him reps, he’ll get better and better.”
The one guy on offense for Rutgers who is getting plenty of reps is junior wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, quite possibly the most lethal weapon in Big East this year. Sanu is big, physical (6-2, 215) and fast and that has led Rutgers to utilize him in a variety of ways during his career. Sanu has been used as a quarterback in the Wildcat offense, rushing for 669 career yards and nine touchdowns, but more recently he has been doing most of his damage in the passing game.
Last year, Sanu caught 44 passes for 418 yards and two touchdowns and this year, Cignetti has not been afraid to feed him the football. Sanu caught a Big East-record 16 passes in the victory against Ohio University, and last week caught 10 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown against Louisville.
Sanu leads all Big East receivers with 65 catches while also collecting 684 yards and six touchdowns through the air. He is on pace to eclipse Kenny Britt’s school record for single season receptions with 87, which Britt achieved in 2008.
“We’ve got to cover him,” said Holgorsen of Sanu. “If he’s out wide, we’ll be in situations that it’s one-on-one with the corners. If he’s inside, we’ve got to pass him off, much like we didn’t do with the tight end last week (against Syracuse).”
Rutgers has struggled to run the football this season, averaging just 91.7 yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry and freshman Jawan Jamison leads the Scarlet Knights with 376 yards and a touchdown, producing his first career 100-yard performance against Navy on Oct. 15. But he is only averaging 3.0 yards per carry.
Rutgers’ running game difficulties could benefit a reeling Mountaineer defense that gave up 194 yards on the ground to Syracuse last Friday and is now allowing an average of 130.4 yards per game. Maryland was able to rush for 188 yards against the WVU defense in week three and LSU had 186 yards in week four; opponents have eight rushing touchdowns against West Virginia this year after the Mountaineer defense surrendered only three on the ground in all of 2010. It is this inability to control the running game that has allowed teams to find openings in the secondary with play action passes.
Some, but not all, of WVU’s troubles handling the run game can be attributed to inconsistent play up front.
“Our defensive line coaches aren’t coaching any differently than they did last year, minus a body or two,” said Holgorsen. “There are a couple of guys that were here last year that were good players. If we’re not replacing them with as-good or better players, then we need to do a better job of recruiting. We’ve got nine scholarship defensive linemen and 14 scholarship offensive linemen that we need to get better. If they’re not what we’re looking for, then we need to go recruit them.”
Despite throwing for 338 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse, quarterback Geno Smith is coming off his most difficult performance of the season against Syracuse. Smith was sacked four times and threw two interceptions, one coming in the end zone when West Virginia was looking for points. For the season, Smith is completing 64.8 percent of his pass attempts for 2,763 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Sophomore Stedman Bailey has been West Virginia’s most reliable offensive player, catching seven passes for 130 yards and a touchdown last week against Syracuse to extend his 100-yard game streak to five straight games dating back to Maryland. Bailey had a career-best 178 yards receiving against Connecticut two weeks ago and shows 41 catches for 764 yards and six touchdowns for the year.
Junior Tavon Austin appeared headed for a big year after producing back-to-back 100-yard games against Maryland and LSU, including 187 yards receiving versus the No. 1-ranked Tigers, but his production has tapered off of late. In his last three games against Bowling Green, UConn and Syracuse, Austin has managed just 201 yards receiving and one touchdown. Still, Austin leads the team with 48 catches to go along with 624 yards and two touchdowns.
True freshman Dustin Garrison remains the team’s top ball carrier with 494 yards and five touchdowns, but 291 of those yards came in one game against Bowling Green. Garrison has run for 138 yards and a touchdown so far in Big East play.
West Virginia and Rutgers will be playing for the 39th time overall and have met every year since 1980. The Mountaineers own a 32-4-2 overall record in the series; all four of Rutgers’ victories have come in New Jersey, the last in 1994.
“They’re going to be fired up about playing at home, and they’re going to be fired up about playing the Mountaineers,” said Holgorsen. “We’re going to get their best shot. If we want to win a championship this year, then we’ve got to be able to handle that. We didn’t handle it last week, and we need to be able to handle it this week.”
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. at High Point Solutions Stadium. The contest will be televised on ABC.
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