Rutgers offensive line continues to adapt to playing spread offense at game speed
The transition from a pro-style offense to a more modern power spread isn’t seamless and doesn’t happen overnight, or even over an eight-month long offseason.
The Rutgers football team learned that lesson the hard way right off the bat in its season opener.
Facing a top 25 team in No. 14 Washington that returned a majority of the top defense in the Pac-12 last season, the Scarlet Knights (0-1) were manhandled by the massive — both in size and experience — tackles on the Huskies defensive line, resulting in the 48-13 shellacking they suffered in Seattle.
Junior quarterback Chris Laviano had two fumbles lost — though one didn’t count thanks to a defensive penalty — one interception and was sacked three times, resulting in a total of 38 yards lost.
The Glen Head, New York, native usually had little time to work with upon receiving snaps from senior center Derrick Nelson out of the shotgun, quickly seeing giants in purple coming his way after his offensive line struggled to contain them.
Rutgers’ run game suffered a similar lack of success stemming from the same issue, with neither senior running back Justin Goodwin nor junior Josh Hicks being able to get into a rhythm after constantly being stuffed at the line.
In short, the offensive line didn’t have a good day in its first taste of live action in the power spread after months of playing at practice speed, an ongoing adjustment that played a large part in its difficulties.
“Obviously, game speed is more intense than practice speed,” Nelson said. “No matter how much you try and make it seem like it’s game speed (in practice) there’s nothing like a game. Nothing like it. We can obviously condition more in practice but the game speed is a lot different.”
The first series of the game is a prime example of that speed — the Knights ran three plays, all hand offs from Laviano to Goodwin, in 63 seconds.
That would be the usual amount of time between running a play, getting into a huddle, going back to position and snapping the ball for the next play in the pro-style Rutgers is accustomed to.
The tempo the Knights played at was what offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer was hoping for, but it did have an effect on the lineman who are still adapting to it.
“I thought the tempo was fine. You look at it, we had 88 total plays in the game, the operation was good,” he said. “I think the one thing that’s gotta happen ... (is) we cannot abandon technique, we cannot abandon communication. When those things break down, that’s when we see major problems in our run and pass game, so for us as an O-line, they handled the operation well, they have to improve on technique.”
It took Rutgers a full quarter of action to be able to string together a pair of first downs and sustain a drive for longer than two minutes, but once it did, the benefits of the fast pace became evident.
“I think we put together a 13 or 14 play drive and you could tell it wears on the defense,” said junior right guard Dorian Miller. “So I think that’s something down the road is a positive from the game that we could all take away from it is that it can really wear down a defensive line.”
Those long drives all start with the offensive line’s ability to hold off the defensive line for enough plays that the constant running to the line of scrimmage starts taking a toll.
And that begins with the basics.
“That’s the main thing with offensive lines, being technically sound is really the key to being a successful lineman. You know, little things, the pad level, the footwork, the different blocks,” Miller said. “People underestimate how being fundamentally sound could affect the game.”
Technique is developed through reps, Miller said. And while the Knights' line has done plenty of those in practice to developed its stamina and help prevent fatigue while constantly running to the line of scrimmage, the 88 in Seattle were the only ones played at game speed.
Rutgers will get its next opportunity to perform in the no-huddle spread in a game environment in its home opener this Saturday against Howard, a noon kick-off that will be televised nationally on the Big Ten Network.
The FCS program are coming off a one-win season in the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference, a league whose teams have yet to defeat the Knights in 12 attempts.
Going from facing a top 10 defense in the nation on a team that’s favored to win the Pac-12 championship to a Division I-AA defensive line will most certainly make the task more simple, allowing Rutgers to develop its technique at game speed before facing top level defenses in the middle of its schedule.
But don’t tell Miller that.
“The opponent never matters ... It could be anyone across the ball,” he said. “I approach the game, and even practices the same way. I’m gonna go out there and make sure I’m fundamentally sound and I handle business properly. Like I said, I don’t focus on the I-AA aspect of it. I just every week prepare like we’re facing the number one team in the country.”