In the beginning stages of walking, a baby takes several steps, gets excited and starts to run, and then promptly falls on its face. You could make an analogy to the Rutgers football program, given the team’s propensity in recent years to fall on its face in spotlight moments.
Rutgers had a chance to win the Big East title outright last Saturday, but lost 27-6 to Pittsburgh. Last year, the Scarlet Knights had a chance for a share of the Big East crown but lost to a Connecticut squad that, like Pittsburgh, had a losing record. On second thought, the analogy of a baby beginning to walk is not entirely fitting, considering that this university played in what was deemed the first intercollegiate football game 143 years ago. Rutgers has a long, long history, just not a storied one. But against Louisville Thursday night, that can begin to change.
Rutgers walked onto Heinz Field last weekend brimming with confidence. They had transformed their Napoleonic complex of the-overlooked-school-fighting-for-respect by going undefeated in the Big East under first-year head coach Kyle Flood. Furthermore, last Tuesday they accepted an invitation to join the Big Ten in 2014. (This week’s opponent, Louisville, announced Wednesday that they will join the ACC.)
An uninspired effort does not capture what transpired between the Scarlet Knights and Panthers last weekend. Rutgers did show up, but got no traction in the running game and were regrettable in the pass game. Pittsburgh took advantage of excellent field position (the winds were strong, but punter Justin Doerner needs to be a lot better) and countered the aggressiveness of the Scarlet Knights’ defensive playmakers with screen passes when Rutgers blitzed off the edge and inside gaps.
In the first half, Pittsburgh outscored Rutgers 21-0. It would have been an even higher margin, but a fumbled exchange by Panthers’ quarterback Tino Sunseri and center Ryan Turnley at the Rutgers 2-yard line allowed Rutgers to avoid being in a 28-point hole after two quarters. Sunseri was tossing the pigskin around well in the frigid weather, but he also benefited from the Panthers’ receivers consistently beating the Scarlet Knights’ corners in man-to-man coverage. The Scarlet Knights offense was non-existent, only accounting for three first downs in the first half, and the team punted eight times.
Rutgers’ confidence stems from its stinginess on defense, and ability to force turnovers and run the ball effectively. The Panthers accrued 365 total yards, conceded one fumble, and held Rutgers to 50 yards rushing. But amazingly, unfathomably, Rutgers came away from the mess unscathed.
Remember in the show “Lost,” the storyline was built around each character’s second chance and opportunity for redemption? Rutgers survived the symbolic plane crash when Louisville lost to UConn in three overtimes last week. The Scarlet Knights get a second swing at winning the league championship wholly and clinching a BCS bowl berth Thursday night at High Point Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Here is what will need to transpire to capsize an already reeling Louisville Cardinals team.
The challenge will be generating pressure on the hobbled and broken-winged Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater is suffering from a broken left wrist and injured ankle, and after taking a gladiator-esque punishment against UConn, will have very limited mobility. Pittsburgh was able to complement Sunseri’s good decision-making and precision passing with running back Ray Graham’s tough positive yardage against Rutgers. (Graham finished with 113 yards on the day against the vaunted Knights’ rush defense.)
The Cardinals do not bring that running threat, as they lost their leading running back, Senorise Perry, two weeks ago, and not so coincidentally have lost their last two games, to Syracuse and UConn, after having reached 9-0. The Louisville rushing total against Syracuse and UConn is a miniscule 75 yards combined, and the one-dimensionality of the Cardinals’ offense has become their most glaring wart. Bridgewater has attempted 102 passes in Louisville’s last two games, so the onus will be on the Scarlet Knights’ secondary to stop dynamic receiving threats DeVante Parker and Damian Copeland.
Rutgers’ NFL prospect Logan Ryan is an elite athlete, who has proven all season to be a shutdown, pesky cornerback, as hyped. Ryan has been instrumental in their pass defense, but they will need to see Brandon Jones and Marcus Cooper step up their play and not allow the Cardinals’ receivers to get behind them like Pittsburgh’s wideouts were able to do.
Louisville’s receivers have good burst to separate and big-play potential, but Bridgewater is so injured he can only line up out of the shotgun formation. Backup Will Stein will be the signal-caller in all other formations, which should leave the Cardinals predictable. Rutgers’ defensive coordinator Robb Smith will need to call the correct plays and put his defensive players in the right matchups. He certainly has the personnel to do it; they will just need to execute better and capitalize on Louisville’s mistakes.
Against USF, Syracuse, and UConn, Rutgers was able to force four or more turnovers, thanks to a relentless pass rush and opportunistic back seven. If they can replicate those results against a Louisville team that is dealing with adversity for the first time, then they will win the Big East championship solely and enjoy the chance to play in a BCS bowl game.