Rutgers is a program that’s in flux right now. After starting out the season white hot at 4-1, and a two-point conversion away from undefeated mind you, the Scarlet Knights have dropped two of their last three, narrowly escaping Temple last week. Unlike in past years, the defense is Achilles heel of this team. Rutgers gave up 52 points to Fresno State on opening weekend, 52 to Houston, and 49 to SMU. While those teams can certainly light up the scoreboard, the fact that the Scarlet Knights aren’t do much to slow them down says something.
On the season Rutgers is surrendering over four touchdowns per game (79th nationally) and over 300 yards through the air per game (121st nationally). Clearly the turnover in the Scarlet Knights’ secondary is impacting the defense this season. But part of those higher-than-normal scoring numbers by the defense could the team’s abysmal turnover margin of -0.75. Quarterback Gary Nova has thrown 11 interceptions this season, which certainly doesn’t help keep a defense fresh and I’m sure is forcing them to defend short fields.
While Cincinnati hasn’t scored more than six points combined against Rutgers over the last two years, all signs point to the Bearcats putting up some strong numbers on Saturday. Let’s get to the five keys to the game.
1) Test The Secondary With The Short Passing Game
I think it’s pretty obvious from the data above that Rutgers is susceptible to the pass. But what isn’t so obvious is how to go about attacking the weakened secondary. It’s not necessarily throwing it deep as the Scarlet Knights are essentially sitting in the middle of the pack at defending passes over 25 yards (51st nationally). The key is to utilize the short passing game to dink and dunk them down the field, perhaps utilizing the same strategy as against SMU last week and Temple in mid-October.
2) Focus On Stopping The Run
Rutgers runningback Paul James is listed as “probable” to return this week. The junior was averaging 7.4 yards per carry before he went down with a lower leg injury two months ago. Since this would be James’ first game back since September, it’s unclear if he will perform at that same level. But if he isn’t able to go, freshman Justin Goodwin is more than capable of shouldering the load and overall the Scarlet Knights run the ball pretty well. This a run-first team and relies on it to advance the offense upfield.
3) Gary Nova Wants You To Intercept His Passes, So Abide By His Wishes
The Rutgers quarterback has thrown 11 interceptions this year and just seems to be inconsistent in general. In one game against Houston Nova completed just 50% of his passes for zero touchdowns and three picks. He was immediately benched. Then in the next game against Temple he threw for 371 yards and three touchdowns. So it appears to be feast or famine with Gary Nova and it’s unclear just which one UC will see on Saturday. If it’s the “throw errant passes all the time” Nova, the Bearcats need to take advantage, pick them off, and turn those interceptions into points.
4) Blanket Leonte Carroo
With stud receiver Brandon Coleman battling injuries this year, sophomore Leonte Carroo has emerged as a favorite target in Rutgers’ passing game. He leads the Scarlet Knights in yards (455) and receiving touchdowns (9). Clearly Rutgers has found an anchor at the receiver position in Carroo. Now, the Scarlet Knights don’t pass a whole lot unless they have to. Like I mentioned above they’d prefer to run. But with the way Cincinnati’s secondary has had trouble tackling in open space this season, letting Carroo get loose could prove devastating.
5) Finish Drives
Cincinnati has a nasty habit of stalling in the redzone. The Bearcats are just 112th in the country in converting redzone trips into points (either field goals or touchdowns). It’s odd, really. UC doesn’t seem to have any trouble moving the ball between the 20’s and scoring from 30-40-50 yards out but just can’t seem to finish when they get near the opponent’s endzone. More than a few times this year Cincinnati has traded touchdowns for field goals and, even worse, interceptions. This is one aspect that has gone overlooked in 2013 but needs to be cleaned up during this critical three-game stretch.
AAC Games – 2013 Record: 37-7 (84.0%) – A full slate of American action this week.
Temple v. UCF: Temple is an up-and-coming team that has played far, far better than at the beginning of the season. But they face a more complete Central Florida team this week that has its sights set on the first ever AAC championship. Knights win on the road, no matter how much it pains me to write that. UCF 42, Temple 17
SMU v. UConn: The Huskies are 0-8 and are heading towards their worst football season since moving up to the FBS level, if they haven’t already reached that level of futility already. The Mustangs put up the yardage last week but a bend-don’t-break Cincinnati defense stifled them near the redzone. Still, Connecticut just doesn’t have the “horses” to run with Southern Methodist. SMU 37, UConn 10
South Florida v. Memphis: Yikes, two teams who pride themselves on defense and can barely move the ball offensively. The Tigers and Bulls might score 20 points combined in this one. Memphis 14, South Florida 10
Louisville v. Houston: The most intriguing game of the weekend comes at 7 pm on ESPNU. Louisville needs to keep winning to have a shot at an AAC title and in many ways Houston is in the same boat after coming up short against Central Florida last week. I could see this one going either way but I’ll take the Cardinals at home. Louisville 38, Houston 33