Sept. 3, 2009
DATE OF CONTEST: Come Monday (it'll be alright)
VENUE: Newly expanded Rutgers Stadium (52,454)
HOLIDAY KICKOFF: 4 p.m.
THE SERIES: Rutgers by a hair 7-6-1
LAST TILT: Bearcats won 13-10 in '08 with Chazz Anderson at the helm
Here we go Bearcat fans, your Labor Day weekend becomes complete with this made-for-TV Big East spectacular at the school that gave you Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and the lovely Natalie Morales from the “Today Show”. I once again will be writing you these somewhat biased, but fairly factual and truthful previews this season. Also, for home games you can catch me in the Sheakley Lawn area with the “Stadium Show”. Should you like to be a guest some week, we have a highly intricate screening procedure (you must come up to the table and speak into the microphone).
Anyway, this is a game that no sane coach would willingly schedule. However, when the TV gods shake those ever-so-handsome dollars around, nece$$ary decisions are made. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is in the same boat as Brian Kelly--he'd like to start with Howard, Kelly would just as soon be game planning for Southeast Missouri State. Both will face those titanic struggles next week.
On this day, it's first-place in the Big East up for grabs (for at least a month). While both coaches insist that it's just one game in a 12-tilt schedule, both also realize the importance of getting a good early start. Schiano particularly doesn't want to duplicate last year's 1-5 beginning. And, for the record, the Scarlet Knights haven't lost since the Bearcats beat them with a somewhat vanilla attack last October.
Rutgers had added 11,000 student seats to their stadium and the “Eastern hype” is on. Most news outlets have Rutgers highly favored to win the league, while UC is often listed in the middle of the pack. Undoubtedly, UC fans will feel the telecast will be slanted toward Rutgers, but they do have a good team.
How will the Bearcats stack up?
UC's offense vs. Rutgers defense
The Bearcats are not lacking in experience on offense. Eight starters return and when you consider guys like D.J. Woods and Isaiah Pead had decent playing time, you're seemingly in good shape. The biggest difference is having a clear-cut quarterback in Tony Pike throughout camp and into the opener. It's also noteworthy than Rutgers did not see Pike play in person and that UC didn't quite run a “no-holds barred” offense in last season's win with Chazz Anderson subbing at QB. UC has speed,length and dependability at receiver with Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns, D.J. Woods, Marcus Barnett and Jamar Howard. It's by far their deepest position. The line has veteran experience in Jeff Linkenbach and Jason Kelce, and I'd look for an improved running game (Jake Ramsey appears to be the frontrunner, but eventually I think you'll see John Goebel, Pead and Darrin Williams).
Defensively for Rutgers, they're led by senior LB Ryan D'Imperio, a preseason First Team All-Big East pick by a number of publications. He's a tough Jersey kid that started every game last season at that spot. In the secondary, you have veterans Brandon Bing (junior) and senior Devin McCourty that will have to contend with UC's speedsters. With Pike having more of the playbook to operate with than Anderson did last year, this could be a factor. Of note for this game, former Bearcat DB Chris Hewitt is the cornerback coach for the Knights. On the line, junior Alex Silvestro is the leading tackler of that unit. It's a senior/junior-oriented defense, but one that had its inconsistent moments last year.
NOD: As long as Pike throws to the guys wearing the same colored jerseys that he has, UC should be able to move the sticks. Of interest will be how the UC offense has progressed in short yardage, goal line situations.
Rutgers offense vs. UC defense
By now, you know the stat, “UC lost 10 of 11 starters on defense”. If you read preseason publications that work solely on numbers, the Bearcats don't have a chance. However, if you factor in rotations and substitutions, UC actually has a number of players that played AND STOPPED Rutgers last year. Aaron Webster is the returning starter at safety, but many forget Drew Frey was a starter 'til his injury in the Akron game. Brad Jones and Dominique Battle improved so much at corner, that Brian Kelly moved “Bones” Barnett back to offense. The big question is will UC show 3-4 or alternate 4-3. I've seen both. Either way, Andre Revels and Curtis Young have played and produced. Marcus Waugh and Demetrius Jones have switched positions are bring different levels and styles of athleticism. And, there's a young man named Derek Wolfe that's shaping up to be a beast and he's only a sophomore.
What the Bearcats face is the unknown as Greg Schiano won't show his hand at QB (although the smart money says Michigan State transfer Domenic Natale gets the call ,with Jabu Lovelace running some form of “Wildcat”). There's also a talented freshman named Tom Savage, but it would seem unlikely that Schiano would throw a true frosh into the fire in a nationally-televised home opener. Kordell Young who ran for 78 yards and threw a halfback option pass for a TD in the last game is injured, so big back Jourdan Brooks looks to be the feature back (although sophomore Joe Martinek has impressed). The biggest selling point for this offense is their massive line with almost everyone back. If they start pancaking Bearcats, it could be a long day as Schiano had his best teams running the ball with Ray Rice and Brian Leonard (both in the NFL). Kenny Britt is gone from the receiving corps, but Rutgers still has Tim Brown and a promising freshman in Mohamed Sanu. Also of note, former Bearcat WR Brian Jenkins coaches the Knights receivers.
NOD: If UC can stop the run, they'll be in business. Other than that, this is inexperience vs. inexperience. Without much to base a prediction, I'd have to call it even or give Rutgers a slight edge with the home crowd.
Kevin Huber's gone and it appears Jake Rogers will pull double-duty. However, Patrick O'Donnell's probably one shank away from trotting out. Likewise with the kicking game. While Rogers appears to be more mentally prepared, I would think Danny Milligan would be on the travel squad due to his versatility. Mardy Gilyard's always a return threat, the problem is, most teams know that.
For Rutgers, here's hoping you see a lot of P Teddy Dellaganna and not so much of San San Te. Te has a 50-plus yard leg.
NOD: Based solely on the kicking game, Rutgers returns veteran booters and is kicking on familiar turf.
Throw It Out And See Where It Sticks
UC has beaten Rutgers three straight years, with two of those games being pivotal in Bearcat history. The 30-11 win in '06 with Nick Davila and Mark Dantonio eventually led to Dantonio getting the Michigan State job and Brian Kelly coming to UC. In '07, Ryan Manalac's interception sealed a 28-23 win at Rutgers and started to put Brian Kelly more into the conversation on the “Gameday”-like programs of the world. Last year, with option #3 at quarterback, UC played ball control and held a reasonably-powered Rutgers offense to 10 points. Now, Schiano gets the 'Cats back in his refurbished stadium in the national spotlight. Kelly has taken over the “golden boy” headlines a little from Schiano and you know that type of behavior doesn't sit well in Jersey. To say that Schiano wants this game would be an understatement. Anyone with a microphone or laptop on the East Coast is drinking the Rutgers Kool-Aid and Schiano would like to keep it coming. A loss and much of the bandwagon media will abandon either team.
Prediction? Well, I didn't do them last year and I just don't think it's a good idea on a school site. You can't please everybody and nobody wins anything based on what a bystander thinks. Usually, you'll be able to read between the lines and figure out where I'm leaning.