by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 9/14/00
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A Revitalized Rutgers Team Takes the Measure of Itself Against the Mighty Hokies
The last time Rutgers beat Virginia Tech was in 1992. They topped the Hokies 50-49 in Piscataway, NJ, in a game that was the epitome of everything that was wrong with Virginia Tech football that year. It was also the last time that Rutgers, who went 7-4 that year, had a winning record in football.
The Rutgers football program remains an enigma. They have a fertile recruiting ground in New Jersey, great facilities, and a solid (but small) fan base, yet their program continues to wallow in mediocrity -- and mediocrity may be too kind a word. Since 1992, they have posted records of 4-7, 5-5-1, 4-7, 2-9, 0-11, 5-6, and 1-10. Rutgers coach Terry Shea, who has headed the program since 1996, has been told, "Deliver a winning record in 2000, or you're out."
The Scarlet Knights are doing all they can. They are 2-0, having pasted Division 1-AA Villanova (34-21) and Division 1-A Buffalo (59-0) by a combined score of 93-21. Senior quarterback Mike McMahon has 10 TD passes in the first two games with just one interception and is ranked #10 in the country in passing efficiency.
The Rutgers defense, in the type of statistical anomaly that is often present this early in the year, ranks #4 in the country in rushing defense (25.0 yards per game) and #34 overall (279.0 yards per game). Those numbers aren't likely to last, because Rutgers has only 3 starters back on a defense that finished 105th in the country last year. But in fairness, last year's defense was decimated by injuries, and the Knights have a new defensive scheme that promises to serve them better -- and it has so far.
A Tale of Two Programs
In 1992, the Hokies and the Scarlet Knights were programs that were generally on the same level. Since then, they have rocketed in two different directions. 7 years later, while the Hokies were playing for a national championship, the Knights were sitting home with a dismal 1-10 record.
In recent years, the Scarlet Knights have lacked something that they used to have in bunches: playmakers. The early-to-mid-90's Rutgers teams featured some great players on the offensive side of the ball: quarterbacks Ray Lucas and Brian Fortay, running back Terrell Willis, tight end Marco Battaglia, and wide receiver Reggie Funderburk, just to name a few, used to strike fear in the hearts of Hokie fans.
Those days are gone. The talent level at Rutgers has diminished considerably since the mid-90's. After the 1992 win, in the 1993 and 1994 seasons, Rutgers fell behind Tech early, staged a great comeback, but then lost.
In 1995, the Hokies started to separate themselves from Rutgers, crushing the Scarlet Knights 45-17, and the last time Rutgers seriously challenged the Hokies was in 1996, when they were tied with Tech in the third quarter before falling 30-14 in Blacksburg. Here's the recent history of the matchup:
Senior QB Mike McMahon has been playing for the Knights since about 1987, it seems. In 1998, in his last visit to Lane Stadium, McMahon had a horrible day, throwing five interceptions, two of which went back for touchdowns. Last year in Piscataway, he ran for a score and threw for a score before leaving the game with an injury. McMahon's efforts had staked Rutgers to an early 14-14 tie with Tech, but once he left, the Hokies blew the Scarlet Knights out with 35 second quarter points.
As mentioned above, McMahon is #10 in the country in passing efficiency and is having quite a year so far. He is 44-of-69 for 572 yards, 10 TD's, and 1 INT. Sure, that's against weak competition, but McMahon is no doubt as confident as he'll ever be to face the Hokies. He has his three leading receivers back from a year ago (senior wideouts Errol Johnson and Walter King, and junior tight end L.J. Smith), and they may be able to give a Hokie defense that is struggling against the pass some trouble.
The key for Tech, as always, will be to pressure McMahon. Rutgers is inexperienced and thin on the offensive line, so they have simplified their blocking schemes to give the young guys time to develop. The only downfall is that "simpler blocking schemes" implies less misdirection and less opportunity to confuse Tech's young defensive line. From that standpoint, the Hokies may find this to be the easiest offense to defend that they'll see all year, and it may just come down to who can make plays, not who can fool whom. In that case, the odds favor Tech.
In the running game, the Knights have only been able to amass 233 yards on 71 carries so far, which is not a very impressive yards per carry average against subpar competition. So far, no one has really separated himself from the pack in the Knights backfield. Jason Ohene leads with 13 rushes for 102 yards. Rutgers has former SuperPrep All-American Ravon Anderson on their roster, and he backs up Ohene, but Anderson has only contributed 13 carries for 27 yards so far.
After getting smoked last year, Rutgers' injury-plagued defense ended up 105th in total defense. And then they lost 8 starters.
What to do? The Knights scrapped their old defensive alignment, changing from a 4-3 to a 3-4 that Coach Shea says will give them more flexibility with their nickel schemes and will improve their pass rush. Rutgers needs it. They only had 18 sacks last year. They have 6 so far this year, but again, that's against less than stellar competition.
As mentioned previously, the Rutgers defense has been strong against the run so far, giving up just 50 yards on 60 carries. They yielded 57 to Villanova and held Buffalo to (-7) yards.
Players of note on the defense are LB Wes Robertson, LB Terrel Freeney, LB Nate Leonard, CB Brandon Haw, and CB Tony Berry.
Rutgers Special Teams
Rutgers has an experienced placekicker in Steve Barone, but their punter, Mike Barr (from Brookville High School in Lynchburg, VA) is taking over the punting duties for the first time.
Even more critical is that their punt snapper, Brian Hohmann, is a freshman. With the Hokies' renewed emphasis on kick-blocking, it will be interesting to see how they do. Worth noting is that Rutgers employs an interesting three-man-back blocking scheme on punts, and Tech hasn't blocked a Rutgers punt since 1993. That's the longest that a Big East opponent has gone without getting a punt blocked by Tech.
It's hard at this point to judge how good Rutgers is or isn't. For the third game in a row, an experienced quarterback goes up against the young Hokie D, and the last two have had some success passing, so until the Hokies prove otherwise, I think this QB will have some success passing the ball, as well.
I doubt, however, that Rutgers will be able to run the ball, since their rushing attack has been pretty weak against weak competition so far. And the Knights will probably have a devil of a time trying to stop Tech's offense. The simple truth is that Rutgers is just thin on defense, no matter where you look.
The Scarlet Knights will get two solid TD's, plus a cheap one late in the game. The Hokie offense will have their way with Rutgers, and the special teams might, as well.
Virginia Tech 56, Rutgers 21.