The No. 20 Rutgers Scarlet Knights look to keep their perfect record intact when a feisty Syracuse Orange squad comes to High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday for a Big East brawl.
Syracuse got out to a 14-point lead early and held on for a 14-13 victory last Friday to capture its first conference victory of the season against Pittsburgh. It was the first win for the Orange against Pittsburgh since 2004, ending a seven-game losing streak. The win also came following a bye week where the Orange are now 4-1 under head coach Doug Marrone.
Rutgers has not missed a step with former head coach Greg Schiano gone to the NFL. The Scarlet Knights have continued to dominate on defense en route to a 5-0 record and a national ranking. After a 19-3 victory over a solid Connecticut squad, the Scarlet Knights moved up to No. 20 in the most recent poll.
In historical terms this series has been dominated by Syracuse which has 30 wins in 42 previous meetings. The teams have been a bit more even in recent years with each of the last two games decided by a field goal, including a 19-16 double-overtime thriller in the Carrier Dome last year.
Led by senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, Syracuse has been the most prolific passing offense in the Big East this season. Nassib has thrown for a conference leading 1,552 yards, while completing 65.9 percent of his pass attempts. He has also thrown 10 touchdown passes but has had a tendency to turn the ball over with six interceptions.
Marcus Sales' return to form has been a major part of the offense's reliance on the pass with the wideout catching 33 passes for 445 yards and a Big East-leading five touchdowns. Alec Lemon has also been solid as a possession receiver with 21 catches for 212 yards, while Jarrod West (21 receptions, 317 yards) has been a good third option.
Syracuse's ability to throw the ball is not lost on Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood.
"[There's] a very talented group of receivers surrounding Ryan Nassib, who has been the top quarterback in our conference. [It's] a great challenge for our entire defense," Flood said.
Syracuse is also third in total offense (451.0 ypg) but that hasn't added up to big point totals, as the Orange are ranked second to last in the Big East in scoring (24.4 ppg).
In terms of rushing, there has not been a great deal of production from the Orange with Jerome Smith (63 carries, 288 yards) and Prince-Tyson Gulley (37 carries, 171 yards 2 TDs) the main ball carriers.
The offense got a significant addition in the game against Pittsburgh with the return of offensive tackle Justin Pugh, who missed the first four games with injury.
Defensively Syracuse has been an average team in terms of total yardage, ranking fifth in the Big East (355.2 ypg). However, in a conference with several strong defenses, the Orange are second to last in points allowed (26.2 ppg). Still Syracuse has been strong on third down, allowing teams to convert only 38.9 percent of attempts.
Brandon Sharpe has been a force up front with 5.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss this season, while Siriki Diabate (31) and Dyshawn Davis (29) have each been the most effective tacklers.
Rutgers is near the middle of the pack in the Big East in offensive production this season. The Scarlet Knights rank fifth or lower in both scoring (25.4 ppg) and total offense (371.8 ypg) but thanks to the team's stellar defense, they have been competent enough to get the team in the win column each time out.
The offense is built around the running game, specifically the efforts of running back Jawan Jamison who leads all rushers in the Big East with 601 yards on the season. He is also second behind Connecticut's Lyle McCombs in rushing attempts with 130. No other rusher in the conference has more than 89 carries this season.
Where the success of the offense has hinged is on the play of quarterback Gary Nova who thus far has been solid. Nova has completed only 59.7 percent of his passes for 962 yards but has limited turnovers (two interceptions), while tossing nine touchdown passes and coming up with a number of critical passes in key situations.
Efficient would not be the right word to describe Rutgers on defense. Dominating would be more fitting as the Scarlet Knights rank 15th in the nation in total defense (296.8 ypg) and fifth in scoring defense (10.8 ppg). The Scarlet Knights are especially tough against the run, ranking second in the nation (60.6 ppg). That was evident in the win over Connecticut, as Rutgers held the Huskies to 53 yards on 1.9 yards per carry.
Khaseem Greene is the leader of the offense in tackles (40) and sacks (two). The Scarlet Knights have collected only eight sacks this season, which Flood has accredited to teams' mind sets when facing his squad.
"I think when people play us, there's a conscious effort to get the ball out quicker," said Flood, who believes that strategy has led to Rutgers' Big East leading 10 interceptions. "I think it certainly has been a part of the reason why you've seen our interception numbers go up."