WHAT: UC vs. Rutgers
WHERE: Back at "The Nipp"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. when it's good and frosty.
SERIES: UC leads 7-6-1
LAST ONE: The Bearcats opened the 2009 season with a convincing 47-15 win on the road.
Up is down. Black is white. In is out.
That's the best way to describe Big East football as early projections have been about as reliable as the numerical projections ill-advised fantasy owners rely on during NFL Sundays. The defending two-time Big East champion Bearcats now occupy the cellar. Next to them, is a Rutgers team that was 9-4 and won the Beef O'Brady's Bowl (and the admiration of all chain restaurant workers).
Topping the Big East in 2010 is Pittsburgh, which may have been predictable, but they have just TWO more wins than UC. Next, is Syracuse, last year's "armpit". The Orange are back to playing representative football after being bullied around the last couple of years.
South Florida then follows albeit by a mysterious route. The Bulls typically are gangbusters starting out, then fold like a house of cards. This season, Skip Holtz has the Bulls on late season surge (which may have started by bringing heated benches to Nippert in 56 degree weather).
From there, West Virginia, Louisville and Connecticut, all one-time Big East threats, are Jekyll and Hyde. It's split-personality football as you never know which one is going to show. They've all looked miserable and beatable and then have rebounded to look like contenders.
UC had that look early on. Now, I'm as confused as I've ever been about a Bearcat football team. I guess it all boils down to match-ups and luck, and UC hasn't had much of the latter.
In previous years, you could kind of get a gage on a team. I've seen a 3-8 team that I actually thought was pretty good and I've seen bowl teams that were just fortunate under Rick Minter.
Mark Dantonio had two winning seasons at UC and in both had to rally from losing records (2-4 start in '04, 1-3 in '06). Both of those teams put on tremendous late season rallies.
With Brian Kelly's teams, you kind of just sat back in amazement. You knew the offense could move the football, but you never really felt like you had an overpowering team because of the amount of points the defense (or style of play) would allow.
With Coach Jones' group, I watched with great excitation the first quick scores against Fresno State and figured this team had not missed a beat. Then, the game imploded and Vidal Hazelton went out injured.
In game two, I was perplexed at the first half against Indiana State, but then reassured with a powerful second half.
I didn't see NC State coming in game three, but then was rejuvenated by UC's performance against Oklahoma at PBS (where possessing the football would've meant a win over a Top 10 team). That feeling was magnified the following week by an absolute destruction of Miami (OH) followed by a nice road win at Louisville. 3-2 never felt so good going into the Big East.
But, BJ Daniels resuscitated USF's offense with a Joe Montana-like performance against UC. Then, Syracuse came in and held the highly-touted Bearcat offense to 7 points. Last week in Morgantown, it was just 10 points against a Mountaineer team that should've been beaten by Marshall early in the season.
Are their justifiable reasons for this?
Sure, it involves youth and injuries and a lack of focused recruiting once a certain coach knew he'd be calling the real estate agent. None of that make it less painful though and less curious.
What it does point out is the absolute truth that the game is a team sport and that when you take "hits" to so many vital areas, it's tough for a handful of guys to handle the residual extra workload.
If I could bottle the energy and enthusiasm and effectiveness for UC's first two scores of the season against Fresno State, I would. A season full of effort like that and I think we'd all be formulating holiday football plans right now.
Instead, we're holding onto a thread that the Bearcats can reel off three wins in a row to gain bowl eligibility and at least make the season .500. Unfortunately, Rutgers is in that same predicament as they have holes in their lifeboat as well.
It all makes for an interesting game.
It won't have the fervor there was for the weeknight game in '06 when Nick Davila, Brent Celek and the Bearcats knocked off the 7th-ranked Scarlet Knights 30-11, but it will have league-wide implications (for someone).
UC OFFENSE VS. RUTGERS DEFENSE
Barring TO, UC should be able to move the ball. That's not Terrell Owens who has his own issues with the Bengals, that's TO as in TURNOVERS. Catch the ball, possess the ball as the ball is very valuable. Zach Collaros can find his receivers on anyone. The problem is the whole unit is forced into mental mistakes when UC is forced into playing "catch-up" football. Handing a team a lead on a silver platter like they did at WVU is unacceptable. Allowing those mistakes to multiply is worse.
What it does is take you out of your run game with Isaiah Pead, putting all of the pressure on Zach to make plays and Armon Binns and DJ Woods to contort their bodies in various configurations to catch crucial passes. There's no problem with the offensive talent, there's a great issue with the offensive rhythm that has been thrown off repeatedly this season.
Also, among the folks you miss the most on offense are guys whose names were rarely called. C Chris Jurek and OT Jeff Linkenbach clearly were bigger factors than anyone could've imagined. If you missed it Sunday, Linkenbach was on the line for the Colts protecting future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
Rutgers is obviously playing with a heavy heart after the loss of DT Eric LeGrand from a paralyzing hit early in the year.. Senior LB Antonio Lowery leads in tackles, but their strengths are in CBs Khaseem Greene (4 INT) and Joe Lefeged (2 INT, second leading tackler). The Scarlet Knights can be scored upon (41 by Pitt, 28 by USF). The key for each team in the current Rutgers three-game skid has been a strong running game.
HOW 'BOUT IT?
IF Isaiah Pead can hit the 100-yard mark, I would predict a Bearcat win. Pead is a weapon that has been constant in the UC victories. Running yards takes significant pressure off the throwing game as this team needs to do more than "chuck and duck". The loss of a change-up in Darrin Williams has probably hurt the Bearcat offense as well (and remember ineligible Travis Kelce ran for two "Wildcat/Bearcat" touchdowns last year in Piscataway).
UC DEFENSE VS. RUTGERS OFFENSE
Rutgers doesn't exactly have stability at QB this season as last year's sensation Tom Savage, gave way to Freshman Chas Dodd this season (who has the better passing numbers). However, Savage was back in the game last week leaving us with the proverbial "gametime decision" by Coach Greg Schiano. There's also been some issues running the ball. Senior Joe Martinek has a gimpy ankle, and he was replaced by Freshman Jeremy Deering. Deering responded with 166 yards, so perhaps those issues are resolved. Prior to that though, Rutgers was having the most success out of "Wildcat" formations with WR Mohamed Sanu and others. WR Jordan Thomas also gets some carries.
Sanu is also the biggest pass threat with 41 grabs, but the long threat is Sophomore Mark Harrison at 6-3 and 230 pounds. They also have a massive TE in Junior D.C. Jefferson (6-6, 258).
You have to figure Schiano and Co. would take some shots downfield on UC's secondary which has been torched and/or confused more often than anyone would like. Reuben Johnson has made some plays this year, but the Bearcats severely miss Dominique Battle and the youth of these players has been taken advantage of week by week. Again, to amplify the losses of last year, Ricardo Mathews (former DL) lined up and played for the Colts vs. the Bengals Sunday. Derek Wolfe usually gives great effort each week and Dan Giordano normally finds the QB, but the lack of depth has made other guys that you noticed last season (Walter Stewart and JK Schaffer) less effective.
Should Jeremy Deering reel off yards like he did against Syracuse, look out. Furthermore, if UC's defense is insistent on drawing yellow flags, this could be another frustrating game at home. The antidote to all of this would be if the Bearcats could be the ones forcing the turnovers and penalties instead of the other way around. A defense depends on its crowd and a couple big plays could get everyone's confidence back.
Jake Rogers was one of the few bright spots last week as he typically can find the endzone on his kickoffs and drilled a 49-yard field goal to finally get UC on the scoreboard in Morgantown. Patrick O'Donnell is a nice young man, but I'm simply tired of seeing him on the field. With what's at stake at this point in the season, I look at anything from the 40-yard line on as "four down territory".
Anthony McClung's gotten some turns on kick returns, which might be a good idea since DJ Woods is relied on for so much in the offense.
San San Te is the most visible member of the Rutgers special teams unit, mainly because he's the kicker with the pony tail. He's had his share of kicks, but his accuracy is questionable making just 13-19. Of note too for the Knights is that PR Mason Robinson has had a 60-yard runback and multi-purpose man Joe Lefeged has returned a kick 75 yards.
Rogers over Te on the kicks and over Rutgers P Ted Dellagamma on kickoffs. Having a guy that orbit the ball into the endzone can obviously prevent runback threats. Unfortunately, regardless of my desire not to see any punters, I'm guessing we'll be seeing O'Donnell and his counterpart multiple times.
When it comes to forcing a pass and throwing an INT though, the punt is very desirable play.
WHO DRINKS THE WINE AND WHO STOMPS THE GRAPES?
In this league...who knows?
My gut tells me UC gets a better-rounded game this time around and stays alive just so the various national commentators can continue venting on the league. (Realistically, their thoughts are justified based on the numbers. Thus, the stories of TCU, etc.)
Should UC lose this game I'll have to attribute the cause to mental issues and not physical ones. Yes, they don't have much depth, but the ones that play are as talented and capable as anyone else in the league. I'll leave the speeches and sayings to Coach Jones, but this is where a team shows some guts and pride and plays for the love of the game. Some of these guys don't have many games left in their careers.
They can either go out with a hard-fought effort that will serve them well in life, or they can be complacent and get walked over by teams that watched them in BCS games the last two years.
This game may have very little meaning this year to either team, but could have major implications for years to come on a lot of levels.
On that note, I'll see you at the UC/IPFW (sounds like a union gathering) basketball game and then under the lights at Nippert.
Just the way we like it.