The ramifications of Saturday’s noon game against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field are enormous. With Rutgers recently eloping to the power-conference business conglomerate affectionately known as the Big Ten, the school is already the week’s big winner. They bought the winning lottery ticket, but now comes the tricky part -- what they do with their newfound success.
The answer falls on the very muscular, proud shoulders of linebacker Khaseem Greene. After all, Greene, a senior, will not be around to call himself a Big Ten alumnus. The Scarlet Knights are 9-1 overall, and a sterling 5-0 in the Big East conference. The fact that Greene is hands down the best player in the league is a gigantic reason for the team’s success.
This has been a great season for a football program that has not had many good moments in its 143 year history; however, it will only be recognized as the high watermark if they have a strong finish. Greene knows this, and for all the juicy scenarios in front of the Scarlet Knights to come to fruition (win the Big East title and go to a BCS bowl), he will need to be the most impactful player in their final two games.
A win against the Panthers will guarantee Rutgers at least a share of the title, and will position them to win the league outright in their finale against Louisville next Saturday. That, in turn, sets up the possibility of the extremely lucrative and prestigious BCS bid if they finish the Big East slate undefeated. In the 21 years the Big East conference has existed, Rutgers has never won the league. It would be fitting for Rutgers to wipe its feet on the debilitated conference as it leaves for greener pastures.
Back to Greene. Watching him has been an absolute delight this season. His stat line speaks volumes about his dominance, as the standout performer leads the league in tackles (107), has accounted for ten turnovers (six forced fumbles, two recovered fumbles, two interceptions), and has caused Rutgers’ defense to be among college football’s best -- boasting a 12.4 points per game. Three teams allow fewer points, and those teams hold the No. 1, 2, and 4 positions in the BCS standings.
In a compelling twist, standing in Greene’s way is family since he will be competing against his half-brother, Pittsburgh’s star running back Ray Graham. Graham has gained 835 yards on the ground this season and crossed the touchdown pylon eight times. The other member of Pittsburgh’s dual-threat is Rushel Shell, and the pair presents the possibility of consistently accruing positive yardage with each carry, and the potential to explode for the big play.
Behind center, senior quarterback Tino Sunseri has shown flashes of adroit play. His numbers reflect that with very gaudy touchdown-to-interception production (16 TD passes and 2 INT).
But the Panthers have been Jekyll and Hyde all season, beating the ACC’s Virginia Tech and nearly upsetting No. 1 in the nation Notre Dame (they lost in a triple overtime thriller 26-23). The lows have been equally noteworthy to the highs, with losses coming at weak squads like the embattled Connecticut Huskies and FCS Youngstown State. Still, everyone has heard, read, and watched how physically imposing and skilled the Golden Domers’ defense is, so the notion that the Panthers could manufacture that kind of offense shows the untapped potential this opponent has.
So how does Rutgers make this game a sweet dream (instead of a beautiful nightmare)? It begins with Greene playing like the best player on the field (the one game this year in which he has not looked like by far the best player was against Kent State, a game they lost), and ends with running backs Jawan Jamison/Savon Huggins.
The passing game has been about as sharp as a plastic butter knife lately (quarterback Gary Nova has nine picks in his last three games), so establishing the run and capitalizing on the play-action is how the Scarlet Knights will score. Jamison has reported that he is nearly 100 percent healthy again, and if Rutgers’ offensive line can control the point of attack and win the blocking battles, Jamison can reach the second level and do his adept shifty/powerful-tackle-breaking/explode-past-the-defender thing.
Additionally, Greene and the rest of Rutgers’ litany of playmakers on defense will need to stave off the Panthers’ hulking offensive line (the loss to Kent State presented that problem for the front seven), because when they are disrupting opponents with their speed and aggression, they can blanket nearly any offense. Finally, Rutgers is a team that cannot fall behind by too much, so a good start will be of primary importance (although they rarely start fast).
When conference realignment happens, lots of sports writers and public voices feel the need to come out and bash the conference’s decision mercilessly like Ryan Gosling in the elevator of "Drive." But this football team and school have a lot of pride and many more talented football players than some in the national spotlight are willing to acknowledge. Everything is on the line these next two games, so it is time to step to the podium and start dismissing the haters. Greene will lead the charge.