By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Aug. 25, 2014) – The toughest thing for Rutgers’ defensive linemen to come to grips with in Thursday’s opener against Washington State is that for all the passing the Cougars do it really won’t afford that many opportunities to sack quarterback Connor Halliday.
That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, especially when a team averages 58 pass attempts per game, as Washington State did last year.
But because of the quick, three-step drops – a defensive lineman’s worst nightmare – and an efficient, fast-paced approach, the Cougars allowed just 32 sacks in 756 pass attempts in 2013. By contrast, the Scarlet Knights yielded 35 in 442 attempts.
“It makes it really difficult (as a defensive lineman),” said junior tackle Darius Hamilton, who compared Washington State to Fresno State, last year’s opening game opponent. “The hardest part for me last year was that frustration against Fresno. That was very frustrating. You just have to take it one play at a time.”
The strangest part of it is the Cougars make no secret about their intentions. They ranked last nationally in rushing a year ago. Their roster features 17 wide receivers and a single tight end. And yet, getting to Halliday is still rare because of the scheme.
“We’ve got to stay patient and know those opportunities (for sacks) will come,” said defensive end David Milewski. “If it’s a quick passing game we’ve got to get our hands up to try to bat passes down. Also, with the quick game you have to identify it immediately, get in the mix, get out of the stacks and run down to make tackles.
“That’s a big part of the defensive line’s role this game. If they’re trying to hit you with quick passing plays the defensive line can have a presence by retreating fast to run to the ball.”
Head coach Kyle Flood said it’s a matter of being patient, waiting for Halliday to take a five-step drop on deeper throws and then seizing those opportunities.
“I think it’s important (to get pressure) on the downs where they hold the ball,” he said. “They run a very high percentage of their passing game where they are not going to hold the ball. And then what becomes important is not so much the pass rush but those guys re-tracing in their lanes -- if it’s a screen, getting back into the rush lanes to be a factor on the plays down the field.
“When they do hold the ball there’s no doubt it’s a factor. But there’s a certain percentage of plays they run every game where the pass rush is not going to be a factor because they get rid of it too quickly.”
The Scarlet Knights’ biggest advantage may be that their defensive line is arguably the deepest and most talented unit on the team.
“You get tired when you constantly pass rush, especially against this type of offense,” Milewski said. “That’s why having a deep line helps. You can go all-out on every play and if you’re gassed you know you have someone else coming in. That’s a big advantage we have. We will still be fresh in the fourth quarter.”
Washington State isn’t big on long drives, either. The Cougars’ average time of possession last season was 28:37 minutes per game – yet they still averaged 31 points per game.
Halliday, a senior, threw for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns last year, completing 62.9 percent of his 714 throws. Yet the Cougars averaged just 10.2 yards per completion.
“You have to go into the game plan knowing that’s the kind of team we’re playing and you have to prepare for it,” Milewski said. “We know what they want to do, but as a defensive linemen you can’t anticipate three-step. You have to rush every play like it’s going to be dropback, and then you react to three-step.
“You have to rush every time like you’re expecting drop back because on the one time that it is and you’re anticipating three-step there’s no way that you’ll get there.”
Though the Cougars may be without leading receiver Gabe Marks (74 catches for 807 yards and seven TDs last year) because of an injury, they feature five other returning receivers who caught at least 37 passes last season. That’s apiece, not combined.
“They make it tough on you but as a pass rusher, as a defensive front, we’ve got to take advantage of every opening they give us,” Hamilton said. “They’re a good team. They don’t leave many openings but the openings they do leave us we’ve got to take advantage of.”