The Big 12 meets the Big East, as the Rutgers Scarlet Knights are set to take on the Cyclones of Iowa State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
Iowa State closed out the regular season by winning three of its final five games, including a thrilling victory over then second-ranked and previously unbeaten Oklahoma State despite being four-touchdown underdogs. The Cyclones also routed 19th-ranked Texas Tech 41-7 in late-October, while also posting key victories over instate rival Iowa and the Big East's Connecticut. The Cyclones are appearing in their seventh bowl game in the last 12 seasons, although they are just 3-7 all-time in the postseason.
"We are thrilled to have the chance to extend our season with a bowl trip to New York City," said Iowa State Coach Paul Rhoads. "Our team has improved all season and is playing its best football. Every year we start with a goal of winning a bowl game and we'll have that opportunity in the Pinstripe Bowl against an outstanding Rutgers team."
Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights are playing in their sixth bowl game in seven seasons under head coach Greg Schiano. Prior to Schiano taking over, the program had made just one bowl appearance in its 135-year existence. Rutgers has won its last four bowl games, the most recent of which was a 45-24 victory over UCF in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl. The team had a three-game win streak snapped in a 40-22 loss at Connecticut to finish the regular season.
"It is a terrific situation when you can play your bowl game in the greatest city in the world," said Schiano. "Getting an opportunity to play in a bowl game hosted by the New York Yankees is a great reward for our players."
These teams have never met on the gridiron. The Scarlet Knights are 1-3 all- time versus the Big 12, although that victory came against Kansas State in the 2006 Texas Bowl to secure the school's first-ever bowl victory.
Early in the year, Iowa State lost top running back Shontrelle Johnson to a season-ending neck injury. The team also replaced starting quarterback Steele Jantz with freshman Jared Barnett midway through the season, a switch that sparked a string of three straight victories. Barnett, who started preseason camp buried at No. 4 on the depth chart, has been able to make plays with his arm and his legs, as he ranks second on the team with 435 rushing yards despite starting only five games. Barnett developed an instant chemistry with wideout Josh Lenz, who hauled in 35 passes for 438 yards and two touchdowns. His presence has helped take some pressure off top receiver Darius Reynolds, who leads the team in receptions (41), receiving yards (655) and receiving TDs (seven). In the running game, James White stepped in for the injured Johnson and ran for a team-high 701 yards and eight scores behind an offensive line anchored by consensus all-conference left tackle Kelechi Osemele.
While the Cyclones may have found their quarterback of the future in Barnett, they also face a potential transition in offensive philosophy. Following the bowl game, offensive coordinator Tom Herman will head to Ohio State, where he will serve as offensive coordinator and play-caller for new Buckeye head coach Urban Meyer.
Defensively, ISU is led by a pair of standout linebackers. Junior A.J. Klein was named the Big 12 co-defensive player of the year by the league's coaches after racking up 101 tackles and a pair of sacks this year. He also returned an interception 78 yards for touchdown, his third career return for a score. Klein is flanked by Jake Knott, a first-team All-Big 12 pick after ranking second in the league with 107 tackles. The junior posted a career-high 18 stops against Baylor and also finished the season with two interceptions and three forced fumbles. His pass breakup in the second overtime against No. 2 Oklahoma State led to an interception by teammate Terran Benton to seal one of the biggest wins in program history. In the secondary, senior cornerback Leonard Johnson has six career interceptions to go along with six forced fumbles and eight recoveries over his storied tenure.
While the Cyclones certainly have a few playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, the unit is a bit soft up front. ISU ranks 100th nationally against the run (195.2 ypg) and 99th in total defense (432.3 ypg). However, the defense made some strides late in the year. During a four-game stretch against Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, the Cyclones led the Big 12 in scoring defense (18.5 ppg).
ISU's defense will face a Rutgers' offense that ranks 115th in the nation in rushing average (91.5 ypg). However, the Scarlet Knights do have some dangerous weapons in the passing game. One of those weapons is junior wideout Mohamed Sanu, a unanimous first-team All-Big East pick who shattered the school and conference single-season receptions record with 109, which also ranked fifth nationally. Sanu, who ranks second in school history with 204 career receptions and had seven 100-yard receiving games this year, finished the regular season with 1,144 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He figures to draw plenty of attention from the Cyclone defense.
Just like their counterpart for this contest, the Scarlet Knights underwent a QB switch in the middle of the year as coach Schiano inserted true freshman Gary Nova over incumbent starter Chas Dodd. However, it remains to be seen who will start the bowl game. Schiano went back to Dodd in the fourth quarter against USF and the sophomore signal-caller rallied the Scarlet Knights to their first of three straight victories. But against UConn in the regular- season finale, Nova entered in relief of an inefficient Dodd and threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
Whoever gets the nod will work behind an offensive line led by All-Big East right guard Art Forst. The wildcard for RU in this matchup may just be the running game, which has been more miss than hit throughout the season. As recently as the team's second-to-last game against Cincinnati, sophomore running back Jawan Jamison went off for 200 yards and two TDs on 34 carries. However, the very next week he was bottled up, rushing for just 19 yards on five totes as RU managed -9 rushing yards as a team. Provided his team avoids falling behind early, expect coach Schiano to try and stick with the running game a bit more to try and keep the Iowa State defense off balance.
Leading the way for the Rutgers defense is junior linebacker Khaseem Greene, who was named the Big East co-defensive player of the year, the first Rutgers player ever to garner that honor. Greene had a monstrous season with a conference-leading 127 tackles, including 17 in a win over USF on Nov. 12. No Scarlet Knight has amassed that many tackles in a season since current Indianapolis Colts linebacker Gary Brackett had 130 in 2002.
Greene was joined on the All-Big East First Team by junior strong safety Duron Harmon, who finished second in the conference with five interceptions during his first year as a starter. Teaming with Harmon in the secondary is sophomore cornerback Logan Ryan, who tied for the league lead with 13 pass breakups. Together, that duo helped form the nation's sixth-ranked pass efficiency defense.
Overall, Rutgers led the Big East in total defense (314.4 ypg), pass defense (168.3 ypg), scoring defense (18.8 ppg), pass efficiency defense (104.09), red zone defense (46 percent TDs) and first downs allowed (15/game). If the Scarlet Knights are to come out on top in this game, look for the defense to have a big game.
RU ended the regular season with a lopsided loss at Connecticut, which ended the team's hopes for a share of the Big East title. The Cyclones also played UConn this season, and they claimed a 24-20 victory in the third week. Although ISU held the edge against a common opponent, the Scarlet Knights have a unique advantage in that they already played at Yankee Stadium this year and are not likely to be caught up in the environment, posting a 27-12 victory over Army on Nov. 12. RU also figures to have plenty of fan support as its campus is less than 50 miles away from Yankee Stadium.