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Rutgers at Cincinnati preview: Knights can define their Big East legacy

rutgersR092411_optBY SAM HITCHCOCK
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
COMMENTARY

In his podcast the other day, college football sports writer Ivan Maisel pointed out that possibly the most impressive thing Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin accomplished in his inaugural season was to get the seniors to buy in. Generally, the always forthright Maisel noted, that is not the case.

No one will mistake the Big East for the SEC, but that pithy adage of how the seniors must buy in has a lot of truth to it. Rutgers coach Kyle Flood has his players believing in the program, even under a new regime.

“We are a very mature team,” said wide receiver Brandon Coleman. “The senior leadership on this team does a great job of keeping us together. We had a week off to regroup to focus on what we need to focus on.”

Flood, who served as an assistant for former head coach Greg Schiano (2008-11), has made the transition seamless. In fact, Rutgers is in position to reach territory this week that his predecessor never accomplished if they can win this week’s matchup at Nippert Stadium against a very good Cincinnati team.

Here is what is at stake: Rutgers has a chance to move to 5-0 in the Big East play for the first time in school history while quashing the Bearcats’ chance at another title or share of the title. (Cincinnati has won or shared three of the past four.) If the Scarlet Knights win out, sole possession of the Big East title would be theirs.

Saturday could be a seminal moment for this 2012 squad, a chance to separate themselves from the comparisons to the 2006 team. They would be one step closer to winning a Big East title, something the ‘06 Rutgers’ team could not achieve when they lost in triple overtime to West Virginia (and the 2006 team also lost to Cincinnati that year). The order is a tall one, though, as Rutgers’ last win at Nippert came in 1987 and they are facing the most productive rush offense in the Big East (Rutgers went 0-6-1 at Nippert after that win in ‘87).

The most interesting wrinkle to Cincinnati is that they are 7-2 overall (3-1 in the Big East), average 34.2 points per game – and just made a quarterback change (Huh?). Munchie Legaux is no longer the starter because of poor decision-making, and senior Brandon Kay deputized his role last week, replacing him with a stellar performance of over 300 total yards (244 passing) and two TD passes against Temple.

Cincinnati rolled over the Owls, and a large reason for that is the Big East leader in rushing, George Winn. Winn comes in with gaudy statistics, averaging 5.7 per carry on the season, a number that jumps to 6.2 at home. Winn has a nose for the end zone (9 TDs on the season), and Rutgers’ ability to prevent the Bearcats at the point of attack will be a deciding factor in the game.

Another deciding factor is the health of running back Jawan Jamison, the only other ball-carrier in this matchup who is on the cusp of 1,000 yards rushing. But Jamison injured his ankle in last Saturday’s victory over Army. If he is not good to play, Savon Huggins will take over.

Huggins has shown flashes, displaying good burst through the gaps and the power to shed tackles, but he has not been consistent enough on his carries in his limited role to suggest that he could successfully replace Jamison for such an important game. Notwithstanding, even if Huggins does get the nod because Jamison is not healthy enough, Rutgers will continue to execute their usual game plan of run-run-run, and then a short-to-intermediate pass.

Cincinnati has been a thorn in Rutgers’ backside in recent years, which heightens the drama given the important ramifications on Saturday. In 2006, Rutgers started 4-0 in the Big East, but then lost to Cincinnati 30-11. That loss was the first puncture in a season that would fall just short of earning a piece of the Big East title. In 2010, Rutgers got embarrassed by the Bearcats 69-38. With many holdovers from that ’10 team, this defeat still resonates.

Now that league commissioner Mike Aresco has announced that the Scarlet Knights will be in the same division (after the realignment) as the Bearcats for subsequent years, Rutgers will need to hurt some feelings if they want to be a favorite in the East division in the future.

This means playing physically on both sides of the line of scrimmage; swarm tackling and employing gap control; forcing turnovers and not conceding giveaways; running the football and reaching the second level; and passing efficiently within the game plan.

Rutgers continues to have one of the best defenses in the country, allowing only 13.4 points per game, and they will need to rely on defensive playmakers Khaseem Greene and Scott Vallone to dictate the tempo. Offensively, they should work to get more manageable third down conversion opportunities, and try to get the ball in Coleman’s hands as much as possible. Cincinnati will undoubtedly cheat with their safeties and linebackers to plug the run and, when they do, quarterback Gary Nova will need to exploit the mismatches that are presented.

Rutgers joined the Big East in 1991, and a win tomorrow will give them not only their first 5-0 start in the conference, but also a 5-0 road record. A win against the Bearcats, a perennially tough opponent, will demonstrate that Rutgers is the face of the Big East conference as realignment approaches. The chief responsibility falls on the team’s seniors, but under Flood, they have embraced this opportunity.

Ductus Exemplo – “Lead by Example.” The Scarlet Knights have been leading, and on the road against a foe with whom they have experienced so much turmoil, they will be looking to define their legacy.

 

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