I was fortunate to hold a brief Q&A with Jon over at Bleed Scarlet on the upcomning game this Friday with Rutgers. Below are his answers to my questions. Please visit his site, Bleed Scarlet, to view my answers to his questions.
1. Tom Savage was regarded as one of the top incoming recruits in the Big East this year. He's yet to throw an interception so far this year. What else can you tell us about him? Has he met/exceeded fan expectations?
It's hard to talk about Savage without contrasting him with the competition at QB. Jabu Lovelace is only used in option packages. Dom Natale is accurate and can scramble a little, but he has a weak arm, and makes poor decisions. His turnover meltdown turned the opener with Cincinnati into a blowout. Natale could move the ball a little, but at this point, the staff is so scared of him throwing a pick that they don't trust him to throw the ball at all.
Tom Savage is the team's best option at the moment. He has good arm strength, and as you noted, has managed not to turn the ball over to this point. He helps merely in virtue of teams respecting his arm to the point where they're no longer crowding the LOS, as they do with Natale.
Has he met expectations? Some fans see the press clippings and expect him to be John Elway from day one. I'm satisfied that he hasn't been a complete disaster as a true freshman. Savage has mostly been used as a game manager, with the occasional deep strike to Tim Brown, or a nice run every so often. They're trying to protect him - lots of handoffs, and WR screens from the Shotgun. He's shown flashes, showing some poise, and fits of inconsistency. He is far ahead of where Mike Teel was at this point in their careers.
2. Rutgers came out of the gate losing to the conference favorite to date, Cincinnati. Their level of competition hasn't been all that great since that game, but they've responded with four wins. Do fans still think that the conference championship is still a real possibility this year after that first game? How have expectations changed since starting 0-1, now being 4-1?
I think most fans are cautiously optimistic, although there was a lot of knee-jerk anger after the loss in the opener. Because of the recent schedule, it's hard exactly to get a handle on how the team has improved over the past month. I still see the Big East as wide open, and Rutgers as having just as much a chance as any team to finish near the top of the conference. I expected Cincinnati to be the best team in the Big East this year, and for Rutgers to finish third, and I'm going to stick with that for the moment.
My main reason for optimism is how exactly Cincy won the opener. Dom Natale had an epic meltdown under center, and Cincinnati's gameplan took our defense completely out of its element. The strength is with the front seven, and an aggressive dose of blitzes to hit the QB, and speed up his throws. They need to be attacking and moving forward. It's not that the pass rush played poorly in the opener; they didn't even have a chance. Cincy's offense was spreading out, Pike took three step drops, and quickly released the ball to whichever receiver receiver beat the zone coverage.. I don't see anyone else on the schedule with the personnel or schemes to mirror that strategy.
That's not to say everything looks great. The OL and secondary have shown improvement, but are still works in progress. RU hasn't found a third receiver to replace the injured Mason Robinson (sort of our version of Dickerson, a big time talent who has yet to stick at a position). Certain units still look out of sync at times, and need to develop better chemistry. It's a young team, and they're still meshing. The game on Friday will be a useful barometer for accessing just exactly where everything is at by this point.
3. The schedule really broke well for Rutgers this year as they get many of the top conference teams at home. What do you see left as their toughest remaining game as we look at what teams have done to this point? And if you had to make a gut prediction for a final record, what would it be?
I'm not sure what to expect from West Virginia going forward, but the Mountaineers have had RU's number in recent memory, and they have been the best program in the Big East as of late. Until proven otherwise, the road to the BIg East championship still goes through Morgantown. From top to bottom, Pittsburgh does have by far the best roster in the conference. I'm in awe of Jonathan Baldwin. Him and Michael Floyd are my two favorite receivers to watch in the country. I always find myself watching Pitt games and cursing the team for not getting Baldwin the ball more. Have to give my props to Romeus too.
Rutgers will obviously beat Army, and I'm not expecting much trouble from road dates at Syracuse or Louisville. Everything else is a tossup, so I expect to finish between 8 to 10 wins, which is mostly an indictment of how bad the team's OOC schedule was this year.
4. Senior wideout Tim Brown wasn't really seen as an All-Conference performer this year and looks to have been overlooked. His production has already almost exceeded last year's. Was Rutgers expecting this type of output from him or was it completely unexpected?
If you look at his statistics from the past few years, Brown was fairly productive as a slot receiver. He more than earned a starting job this year, although I was concerned about how his small frame would hold up taking more hits. Part of his high yardage total owes to the weak schedule, but Brown is good. Not in the same neighborhood of Baldwin or Kenny Britt, but he's a lot better than Tiquan Underwood. Brown will drop a ball here or there, but makes up for it with his explosive speed. He also shows surprising leaping ability for such a little guy.
Now, if only another young receiver would step up besides Mohamed Sanu...
5. After Greg Schiano's 11-2 season in 2006, the team has posted two more solid seasons of 8-5. Even though Rutgers has now strung together four consecutive winning seasons, do the local fanbase/media feel that they've garnered more national attention or do they think it is going to take a few more similar years before the program is recognized nationally?
The team's profile is steadily increasing, but that can be a double edged sword, especially in the New York City/New Jersey marget. Sometimes being under the spotlight can magnify wrinkles too. The Rutgers football program seems to be in that generally solid, occasionally threatening, top 40 range, and that's about where they deserve to be before they can start showing more consistency. Forget years; it takes decades to get true national recognition. That isn't going to happen overnight. As long as the team keeps showing steady progress, as long as fan support keeps improving, that's the way to sustain manageable and realistic growth.