Rutgers receivers aim to combat drops, press coverage struggles
Drew Mehringer said he felt like vomitting after the Rutgers football team converted on just 1 of 4 red zone trips in a 14-7 loss to Iowa Sept. 24.
After not advancing the ball into the red zone once — let alone past Ohio State's 38-yard line — in a 58-0 rout at the hands of the No. 2 Buckeyes on Saturday, it's safe to assume the first-year offensive coordinator was feeling even worse about his offense's performance than the week before.
"Looking back on this weekend, I don't think anybody that stood up on this podium would say this is what we were looking for or something that we're happy with," Mehringer said on Monday in his first time being made available to the media since the blowout loss in Columbus. "Did not feel like we played well, coached well. Got to do a much better job obviously. When you're in the Big Ten, or any conference, and you're playing top-10 teams, top-five teams you come out and play subpar for us, or for anybody, not very good things are going to happen."
Save the game's opening drive, the Scarlet Knights (2-3, 0-2) had nothing working for them on the offensive side of the ball against Ohio State, mustering up just 116 total yards.
For a rushing attack that had carried the Knights through the first month of the season, the Buckeyes held Rutgers to a minuscule 2.2 yards per carry across 38 attempts.
Making matters worse, Rutgers was even less effective in the passing game.
Junior quarterback Chris Laviano (3-for-12 for 33 yards) and his true freshman teammate Tylin Oden (0-for-4) both struggled through the air as the Knights went the final three-plus quarters without a single completion.
When an offense sputters the way Rutgers' did on Saturday, a large brunt of the blame usually gets casted at the quarterback position.
But the root of the Knights' struggles in the passing game go well beyond the play its getting from under center.
"Everyone’s to blame," said redshirt freshman receiver Jawuan Harris, who accounted for all three of the Knights' receptions against Ohio State. "We had some opportunities as a receiving corps. We could’ve made some more plays, but it's a lot of things going into the passing game so you can’t really just blame the quarterback."
More than a third of Rutgers' incompletions against the Buckeyes came as a result of dropped passes. In total, five pass attempts went through the hands of the Knights' wide receivers and tight ends.
Senior wide receiver Andre Patton had two drops, while Harris and tight ends junior Matt Flanagan and senior Nick Arcidiacono each had one apiece.
On each of the three combined drops made by Patton and Harris, the starting receivers had initially made the catch but lost control of the ball after a Buckeye defender made contact with them. In contrast, the tight ends were each uncontested when they failed to secure a pass from their quarterback.
"(Drops are) a concentration thing," said wide receivers coach Jafar Williams. "I played the position, I know that. I don't think anybody in our room doesn't have good hands, but it's a matter of focusing, concentrating on catching the ball before you run, squeezing the ball once you do. You're gonna go against some good corners in this league and they're taught to rip the ball out. So we have to do a good job with having strong hands and focusing on catching the ball."
Before the receivers even have an opportunity to make a catch, they must first create separation from the defenders to give the quarterback an open pocket to deliver the ball into.
Ohio State's cornerbacks mainly played press, man-coverage against Rutgers, jamming the Knights' receivers at the line of scrimmage with the intention of making the route longer to develop, which the Buckeyes were successful in doing.
The receivers ineffectiveness against press coverage against Ohio State wasn't an anomaly either, but rather a recurring theme to this point in the Knights' season. While Mehringer said the receivers have made strides in countering press coverage since the beginning of the season, there are still improvements to be made.
"(Going against press coverage is) something we work on everyday," Williams said. "I think one of the issues with us is continuing to improve with our hands. Making sure our hands are up and ready, not letting the defender get his hands on us before we're able to release. So, it's improving our hand combat that's gonna be important."
Wide receiver was considered to be one of the major positional question marks for Rutgers even before senior Janarion Grant went down with a season-ending lower-body injury in a 14-7 loss to Iowa. While Grant was the most dynamic of the bunch, he did most of his damage as a receiver on bubble screens and swing passes and wasn't nearly as much of a threat downfield.
Through five games, the Knights rank dead last in the Big Ten in passing offense (140.2 yards per game) and completion percentage (47.4 percent). Drops and receivers not breaking free downfield, in addition to the play of the offensive line and quarterback, have been the contributing factors to Rutgers' passing attack ranking in the basement of the conference.
On Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium, the Big Ten's worst passing attack will meet the conference's best pass defense with No. 4 Michigan (5-0, 1-0) coming to Piscataway.
Rutgers is going to continue to see steady dose of press coverage against Michigan, but against arguably the best pair of cornerbacks the Knights will face this season in All-American Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling.
If Rutgers has any chance of breaking out in the passing game against Michigan, it's going to need its offense line to hold up against a talented Wolverine front-four and for Laviano to deliver accurate passes.
And when the ball reaches the receivers, they have to hang onto it.
"I've said this week-after-week, how do we throw the ball better — we have to protect better is one," said head football coach Chris Ash. "Two, we have to be able to get open. Three, we have to be able to set our feet and throw with the proper fundamentals and the fourth one we are not doing very good at is catching the ball also ... Right now our ability to get those four things done consistently, it's not where it needs to be, so it's a work-in-progress. It's something that we emphasize weekly in all those areas and it's got to get better if we want to have the balance that we want on offense."