Offensive line looks to take step forward against Maryland

With a new leader under center in graduate student quarterback McLane Carter during the Rutgers football team's only win of the season against UMass on Aug. 30, the offensive line has had to adjust to new tendencies of the Texas Tech transfer. 

The offense downed the Minutemen in the season opener in a 27-point victory. In that game, Carter threw for a career-best 340 passing yards, a season-high for any quarterback on the Banks. But, a constant that plagued the team in 2018 made its appearance in the inaugural game of the new season: the interceptions, three of which were credited to the lefty.

For the entirety of the game, the offensive line held its own in the trenches, staffing off a UMass pass rush to give Carter time in the pocket. The front unit even captured Pro Football Focus' (PFF) top pass-block grade, clocking in with a 94.5 heading into week two.

Now with Carter remaining in concussion protocol since week two, the Scarlet Knights (1-3, 0-2) went back to square one of last season, tapping in sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski to call the shots under center.

Against Boston College, the offensive line gave Sitkowski some time in the pocket to throw and turned a 180 from the previous week against the Hawkeyes, where their defensive pass rush earned a sack and held the offense to 0 points.

But, it was in Michigan Stadium where most recently, the offensive line had difficulties protecting their second-year quarterback. Sitkowski was routinely hit from behind the line of scrimmage, facing a No. 19 Michigan pass rush that allowed opposing quarterbacks an average of 135 yards per game (fourth in the nation at the time) prior to last Saturday's game.

A lack of experience cannot be the justification for the play of the offensive line. The unit features four upperclassmen, returning four out of five linemen, who all started at some points into the season.

Alumnus left tackle Tariq Cole was the only member of last season's offensive line who graduated the program.  Redshirt freshman tackle Raiqwon O'Neal has assumed his task to protect Sitkowski and Carter's blindsides.

Each game since week two in Iowa City, Rutgers' five-man offensive front has had to deal with top pass rushers. Iowa's A.J. Epenesa, who was the Big Ten's leader in sacks last season, broke through the Knights' line and tackled Carter for a 9-yard loss in the second quarter of the Hawkeyes' shutout win.

Two weeks later, another pass rusher, Kwity Paye of the Wolverines (3-1, 1-1), broke through a gap and pummeled Sitkowski for almost 10 yards in the second quarter. Before Ash called a timeout, Paye had played tight one-on-one defense on junior wide receiver Bo Melton, who could not make the catch.

"(The Wolverines) are a great front seven," Venesky said after the 52-0 loss in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "They kept their relentless pursuit. They were just a really good up front. A better team than we were today."

Now entering its fifth overall game and first conference matchup at SHI Stadium, Rutgers' offensive line will face another prolific pass rusher: Maryland's Keandre Jones. Jones, who transferred to the Terrapins (2-2, 0-1), has recorded over one sack in their only wins over Howard and Syracuse.

Aside from Jones, Maryland boosts a pass rush that features eight other players with at least one sacks. If you include defensive lineman B'Ahmad Miller's 0.5 sack (essentially an assist), that's nine players who have broken through opposing fronts to successfully rush their quarterback.

For the offensive line, this first game of October should be used to take a step forward in the right direction. To hone in on blocking assignments to open holes for the Knights' backs, junior running back Raheem Blackshear in particular. Blackshear was held to 11 total yards, the second lowest of Rutgers' rushers, with his longest being only 6 yards. His performance in Michigan was 2 yards less than what the dual-threat attained against the Eagles.

Redshirt freshman tight end Matt Alaimo has also been drawn in as a sixth blocker in certain packages. He gradually saw more snaps following the Boston College game as a two-type tight end, one who can block and act as a receiver. 

A return to SHI Stadium could be all that the offensive line needs to recuperate. Against the Minutemen and the Eagles, the offensive line looked in top form, giving Carter in the first and Sitkowski in the second game time in the pocket. 

"They're not finished products, yet, by any stretch of the imagination," said offensive line coach Peter Rossomando. "We're getting better. They're working really hard at it. The tide will turn."

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