Cincinnati running back George Winn had certainly seen holes appear this season -- he just needed to know where the lane was opening. The Bearcats were engineering an impressive 226.8 yards per game on the ground heading into last Saturday, but the noon derby on their home turf saw Winn desperately looking for running room in his own backfield.
He didn’t get to look for very long either, as he was quickly hounded by Rutgers’ front seven after virtually every handoff. Cincinnati finished with 3.2 yards per attempt thanks to Scarlet Knights’ defenders Khaseem Greene, Steve Beauharnais, Scott Vallone, and Jamil Merrell, who proved to be menacing run-stoppers in a virtuoso performance from both Rutgers’ o-line and d-line.
Rutgers overpowered the line of scrimmage, and was able to maintain long, clock-eating drives, controlling the time of possession for 37:13 of the game’s 60 minutes. Once again, it was Rutgers’ playmakers on defense who set the tone.
In the first half, in fact, it was a transcendent play on defense that allowed Rutgers to flip possession -- a possession that enabled the Scarlet Knights to score the game’s only touchdown.
Cincinnati quarterback Brendan Kay’s interception swung 14 points, as cornerback Logan Ryan was able to take the ball away from the Bearcats inside the five-yard line. The Scarlet Knights’ forced turnover saw them start their drive at their own 3-yard line, but they rode their running game out of danger.
Jawan Jamison had four carries for 37 yards in limited action due to an ankle injury suffered against Army, but fellow running back Savon Huggins was able to consistently emerge with steady gains in his first start, giving Rutgers two consecutive first downs and the ball on the Rutgers’ 29. The subsequent play was an electrifying touchdown in a game that was short of offensive highlights.
Cincinnati was cheating on defense, with their defenders poised to attack and stop the run. Quarterback Gary Nova sold a play-action and delivered a tight spiral to wide receiver Mark Harrison, who shed the tackle and sprinted to paydirt, giving Rutgers a 7-0 lead.
Rutgers with a lead is like a boa constrictor – when ahead on their opponents, their defense will asphyxiate. Cincinnati got into the red zone three times on Saturday, but came away with only a meaningless field goal in the waning seconds. Rutgers has conceded 10 touchdowns in 27 red zone opportunities this season and, quite simply, when there is a shorter field to work with they do not budge.
Rutgers’ second stop in the red zone came on a fourth-and-one at the Knights’ 7-yard line in the opening minutes of the third quarter. Rutgers’ bend-but-don’t-break defense allows them to nullify a productive drive, as Winn was pushed back at the point of attack with a sea of white, red, and silver. Greene and Beauharnais led the assault, and the Bearcats would never seriously threaten again. (Greene is a runaway choice to repeat as Big East Defensive Player of the Year, and only cushioned his lead by providing 11 tackles, two sacks, and 3.5 TFL.)
Offensively, coach Kyle Flood allowed Huggins to run and run and run, with an astounding 41 carries totaling 179 yards. Huggins looked more fluid as the day progressed, and Rutgers’ o-line sustained dominance in each quarter. The insurance field goal by Nick Borgese from 42 yards in the fourth quarter pushed the game to a two score contest, and removed any doubt that Rutgers would achieve its first 5-0 start in their Big East history.
The clear irony is that as Rutgers appeared to be finally vanquishing their Big East demons, news had begun to disseminate that a possible move to the Big Ten would include the Scarlet Knights and Maryland. And the team that now held sole position of first place in the Big East, that is 5-0 on the road this season, that had finally conquered the slog that a tough conference and out-of-conference schedule afflicts, did appropriately jump conferences 48 hours later.
This is a huge opportunity and achievement for Rutgers (more on this in Rutgers vs. Pittsburgh preview), and in a society that places importance on structural forces like conference alignment and BCS bowl games, Rutgers’ victories on Saturday and Monday come out much bigger. Rutgers will now be classified as a Big Ten team, and that collectively changes the perception of how the public views the university athletically and academically.
A famous American historian, Gordon Wood, once wrote, “Ideas and language give meaning to our actions, and there is almost nothing that we humans do to which we do not attribute meaning.” He is right, and the meaning of the current culture in college football is that if a football team does not play in a major conference, that team’s merit and accomplishments are downgraded. Rutgers is on to its next phase.