Isaiah Wharton moves past rough outing against Indiana
The Rutgers football team's 34-32 loss to Indiana on Saturday brought back flashbacks to a nightmarish 2015 season for Isaiah Wharton and the rest of the Scarlet Knights' secondary.
In a position group that was dismantled by injuries and off-field issues, then-true freshmen Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin were both thrust into the starting lineup for nearly all of last season and received baptism by fire as the young pair of cornerbacks experienced many more lows than they did highs during their introduction to the collegiate game.
The Knights finished the season with the third worst passing defense overall in the Big Ten, while allowing a second-worst average of 277 yards per game, a worst 9.5 yards per reception and 15 total touchdowns through the air across their eight conference games.
Wharton surrendered 43 catches and five touchdowns, compared to just five passes defended, across his 64 targets all of last season, according to Pro-Football Focus.
Against the Hoosiers, Rutgers' secondary, and most notably Isaiah Wharton, had a performance that was reminiscent of that forgettable 2015 season.
Indiana pierced the Knights for 420 passing yards and three scores through the air. Richard Lagow completed over 70 percent of his passes and converted on eight deep balls — ranging between 18 and 42 yards — against a Rutgers' defense that prides itself on playing an aggressive, press man-to-man coverage.
Wharton was in coverage for six of those long completions and was also called for pass interference on an additional deep attempt that fell incomplete.
"Basically what a lot of teams do, when you're in tight one-on-one coverage, they throw it up and they hope that their guy can go get it or they can draw a pass interference call," said head football coach Chris Ash. "Going into the game, when you watch teams that do that, those are called 50-50 balls. You hope to win 50 percent of them. If you win 50 percent of them, you're going to be okay. We didn't win 50 percent of them, that's where it got bad, especially in the first half. I would not have anticipated that happening."
While the Hoosiers' rushing attack was coming off a 400-plus yard, six-score game against Maryland and was matched up the Knights' Big Ten worst rush defense, Rutgers was able to come out on top of that lopsided battle.
Save for two Indiana rushing touchdowns that accumulated 93 total yards, the Knights held the Hoosiers to 54 yards across their other 42 carries.
That stout defense against the run forced Indiana to become more one-dimensional than it admittedly would have preferred, but that over-reliance on the pass was what ultimately led to Rutgers' demise.
Lagow challenged the Knights' corners downfield and placed the ball in positions where only his receivers could make a play on it. This was on display in Lagow's 40-yard-touchdown connection to Camion Patrick in the middle of the third quarter, which brought the Hoosiers within four points.
Wharton was in tight coverage of Patrick every step of the way but never turned his head around to make a play on the ball. This allowed Patrick to track the pass, adjust in his route and make a leaping catch over Wharton's back as he fell into the end zone.
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) November 5, 2016
"I feel like 50-50 balls, they can go either way," Wharton said. "That's why they're called 50-50 balls. I feel like I left some plays out there Saturday that I know I can make. I'm really confident in myself. I have a really good coaching staff behind me that's pushing me everyday. So next time I'll make them."
The type of coverage Wharton played on the 40-yard touchdown was a common theme across all of the long completions he allowed on Saturday. The sophomore wasn't simply getting burnt — something that plagued Rutgers' corners early in the season — but rather wasn't getting his head turned around while in tight coverage.
Wharton said not turning his head around was by design because he didn't have a feel for where the ball was being thrown. For instance, he could've turned his head towards the inside only to have the ball being thrown to the wide receiver's back shoulder.
As with anything, Wharton, along with his defensive coordinator, said it's something that will become more natural and improved upon with more repetition.
"All you can do is continue to put them in those situations and make sure they understand on those throws the technique that they're supposed to use down the field. It depends on where you're at relative to the receiver," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "Up until Saturday we had won a fair share of (50-50 balls) and more, in my opinion. But didn't work that way Saturday. We just gotta go back and the main thing I guess from my perspective is to reinforce the confidence that we have in those guys because they have played well and they have been consistent."
Wharton, in addition to Austin, have made substantial strides in their second year as starters on the onside. In the week leading up to the Knights' game against Indiana, Pro-Football Focus named Isaiah Wharton one of the 18 most improved players in college football this season.
Per PFF, Wharton has upped his 49.0 overall grade from 2015 to 76.8, only allowing four catches on 11 targets in the five conference games preceding the loss to Indiana.
The stark improvement that Wharton made since last year is one of the reasons why Rutgers' coaching staff isn't overreacting to his one rough outing.
"I thought Isaiah Wharton had been playing pretty consistently for us and had been playing well," Ash said. "Unfortunately he was on the losing end of a lot of those one-on-one battles. He's our guy. He'll continue to work and get better. We will work with him on finishing some of those plays better."
Cornerbacks that play as much man-to-man coverage as the Knights need to have short memories, especially when a team challenges them as often as Indiana did. Wharton said that cornerbacks coach Aaron Henry harps on the position group that "you can't let a play beat you more than once".
Wharton's already moved on to the next play and he's hoping Michigan State goes after him when the Knights meet the Spartans in East Lansing on Saturday.
"Every corner does," Wharton said when asked if he hopes he's targeted more on Saturday. "After they watched the film I'm gonna get targeted more this week so I gotta be ready."