The hope that the offense would look improved in the first game of the 2023 season on Sunday came true. Quarterback Gavin Wimsatt was poised and played his best game for Rutgers in his career so far. Eight different Scarlet Knights had a reception and the rushing attack was solid without three running backs active. However, the biggest surprise for the offense was the aggressive play calling that new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca utilized on the first two drives of the game. It set the tone for the 24-7 win over Northwestern.
While Ciarrocca ran a run heavy offense at Minnesota, the Scarlet Knights threw an equal amount of the players through most of the first half. With a three score lead in the second half, the play calling shifted to the run. However, how they got the big lead was a product of Rutgers showing urgency by going for it on fourth down multiple times in the early going.
Twice on the opening drive of the season and once on the second drive, head coach Greg Schiano and Ciarrocca kept the offense on the field for a fourth down conversion attempt. Their faith was rewarded with Rutgers converting on all three attempts.
Less than three minutes into the game, Rutgers went for it on 4th and 1 from its own 48 yard line. It was a rush up the middle with Kyle Monangai taking it 8 yards to the Northwestern 44 yard line. The 7th play of the drive and the season showed Schiano’s willingness to trust Ciarrocca. This is a key takeaway long term.
With 10:23 left in the first quarter, Rutgers had the ball at the Northwestern 39. On a 4th and 5, Ciarrocca called Gavin Wimsatt’s number on the 11th play of the drive and he came through in a big way. Wimsatt made a critical throw under pressure and scrambling to his left that found Christian Dremel streaking towards the sideline. It resulted in a 17 yard completion that moved Rutgers right outside the red zone.
Ultimately the drive ended with another strong throw from Wimsatt to Ian Strong who made an amazing catch for the touchdown. Ciarrocca’s first drive back at Rutgers went for 16 plays, 75 yards and a touchdown that ate up 6:56 of the game clock.
On the second drive, Rutgers again found itself in another fourth and short situation. On the eighth play from the Northwestern 39 on 4th and 1, freshman Ja’shon Benjamin rushed 4 yards up the middle for the first down. Again it paid off, as eight plays later Wimsatt ran it in for a 6 yard touchdown. It was another 16 play scoring drive that went for 80 yards and amassed 8:12 of the game clock.
With 13:26 left in the first half, Rutgers led Northwestern 14-0. The offense had run 32 of the first 37 plays from scrimmage in the entire game. After producing just two drives of 16 plays or more all of last season, RU did it twice in its first two drives of 2023.
It was quite the debut for Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator. The best part was how Wimsatt looked so comfortable and was being trusted to make plays both with his arm and legs. As a Rutgers fan, it was everything you’d hoped for before the season.
While Rutgers scored just 10 more points in the game, the offense limited mistakes, had zero turnovers and finished with a time of possession of over 38 minutes.
Asked after the game if going for it three different times on fourth down was a tone setter for the season, Schiano said no.
“I wish I could tell you because it would write a nice story,” Schiano said. “But no, it was just what the plan was to win the game today. That’s what we do.”
Northwestern does not look like a good football team. Schiano knew the implications that would follow had Rutgers not won the game. So in that respect, it made sense to be aggressive in the early going. It also folded into a natural way to show confidence in Wimsatt and the signal caller responded. The biggest takeaway was the preparedness of the offense under Ciarrocca and how well they were able to execute the offense right out of the gate.
Schiano was asked if the offensive style against Northwestern was what fans should expect the rest of the season. His answer harped on mentality more than style.
“I think every game is different. Whatever gives us of the best chance to win is the kind of offense we’re going to run,” Schiano explained. “But we definitely want to have that physical nature. And I think there’s some things that we did not run today that I think are going to be good for us down the road, so that’s good that we didn’t have to use it. So I’m encouraged. But we’ve got a long way to go and we don’t have a long time to get there.”
Ciarrocca is known for his ability to adapt as an offensive coordinator. He’s had offenses centered around the pass and conversely, the run. While the deepest position group on offense is the running backs, that depth was depleted on Sunday. It might have been a blessing in the offense needing Wimsatt to step up in the passing game. He completed ten passes of 9 or more yards, which was a positive change for an offense that struggled to throw downfield much at all last season.
Whether Rutgers continues to be aggressive in 4th and short situations this season after only going for it 17 times in 12 games last season, the most important takeaway is clear. Schiano trusts Ciarrocca and his ability to develop Wimsatt. It’s why he was hired but to see it dictate the way the offense was called in the season opener was very encouraging. The impact was immediate. Schiano’s faith in Ciarrocca and Wimsatt paid off on Sunday and hopefully will many more times this season.
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