Gary Nova has some improving to do

Anybody who watched the Russell Athletic Bowl saw Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova end the season with a major thud.

And yet, coach Kyle Flood never considered benching his clearly struggling starter. And he has not entertained the possibility of opening up the quarterback competition headed into the spring.

I asked him point blank after a 13-10 overtime loss to Virginia Tech whether he was confident in Nova as his starting quarterback going into 2013. He looked me straight in the eye, and unflinchingly said, "I am confident in Gary as our starting quarterback."

While I appreciate that Flood has stuck to his word, disavowing any and all games of musical quarterbacks, something happened to Nova in the final six games of the season. He is a quarterback who gets very clearly rattled at the first sign of pressure, or the first sign of problems, and I think that impacted the way he played with the pressure ratcheted up down the stretch.

You note his performance in a 7-0 start to the season: 123-of-201 for 1,503 yards, 15 touchdowns and three interceptions. Nova managed the game as asked, and even had an eye-popping 397 yard, five-touchdown day in a win at Arkansas. So yes, Nova can throw it accurately, and throw it well.

But we really only saw one glimpse of that. In the 2-4 close to the season, Nova went 98-of-187 for 1,192 yards with seven touchdowns to 13 interceptions. His completion percentage dropped nearly 10 points, from 61 percent in the 7-0 start to 52 percent in the 2-4 finish. In the three-game losing streak Rutgers posted to end the season, Nova failed to complete 50 percent of his passes.

He threw two interceptions in the final five minutes of a loss to Louisville at home. The first allowed the Cardinals to kick the game-winning field goal. The second ended Rutgers' comeback chances.

He threw one against Virginia Tech in the fourth quarter, too, allowing the Hokies to tie the game. His performance in that game, with a month to prepare, was absolutely abysmal. I will go far as to say it was worse than his six interception day against Kent State, as he completed just 17 of 40 passes with no touchdowns. Rutgers managed 196 yards of TOTAL offense against a Virginia Tech team that was 6-6 going into the game and allowed 2-10 Boston College to take it to overtime (with 23 points score to boot!).

Despite the ups and more recent downs, Flood never turned to Chas Dodd, prompting some to wonder -- is Dodd really that bad? While Nova and Flood say they have never wavered in their confidence, I think it is pretty telling that Virginia Tech players noticed how quickly Nova gets rattled in games, and made it their biggest objective on defense to well, rattle him.

"He had a tendency down the stretch to turn the ball over a little bit and we knew if we got to him we could make that happen," Hokies linebacker Jack Tyler told me after the game.

With all the losses Rutgers is going to take on defense headed into next year, the offense will be the most experienced group. But nobody knows for sure whether this group can be a strength without major improvements from Nova in the offseason.