PISCATAWAY, N.J. – If there was a true start to quarterback Gary Nova's career at No. 20 Rutgers, it came last year against Syracuse.
The then-true freshman replaced Chas Dodd in the second half against the Orange and rallied the Scarlet Knights to a double-overtime victory.
Nova and Dodd split the quarterback job the remainder of last season but Nova has been the starter since Kyle Flood took over as coach this season and there can't be any complaining about the results.
Rutgers (5-0, 2-0 Big East) will try to improve to 6-0 for the third time since 1976 and become bowl eligible for the seventh time in eight seasons when it faces Syracuse (2-3, 1-0) at High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday.
This will be the final conference game between the schools who have played every season since 1980. The Orange are moving to the ACC next season.
Nova has vivid recollections of the last game. He wondered whether his shoes were tied, his helmet was buckled and whether he had his mouthpiece.
"My head was spinning," he said, adding it looked like Syracuse had 22 players on the field for his first snap. "As the game went on — it usually slows down — but it didn't. I took a few hits, and it was kind of a welcome-to-college-football moment for me."
Things have slowed down for Nova in his second season, and his statistics show he's seeing the field a lot better. Nova has completed 92 of 151 passes for 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. Five of the scores have gone to wide receiver Brandon Coleman.
"Same approach I've taken every week," Nova said when asked about this year's game. "Just preparing hard and trying to give myself the best advantage I can get to mentally be prepared for them this week."
Nova has benefited this season from having a running game that features Jawan Jamison. The running back has gained at least 100 yards in all five games this season and sixth straight overall.
Syracuse's blitzing defense is coming off a big win over Pittsburgh, a game in which it limited the Panthers to 27 yards rushing.
"It didn't even start with Pitt," defensive tackle Deon Goggins said. "It started games before that when we fought the other teams like Northwestern, fought against teams like USC. Our defense has always been great. Just now that we're clicking and putting the little things together so that's what we want to capitalize from last week to this week and keep moving forward."
Goggins is also looking forward to the final game with the Scarlet Knights and he expects it to be rowdy .
"This year, they're ranked, top 20 or something like that," Goggins said. "Just go out there and play fast and physical with them, show them we can play with them and they're not above us."
On the other side of the ball, Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib ranks in the top 20 nationally in completions per game (27.4), passing yards (1,552), passing yards per game (310.4) and total offense (327.8.
However, he will be facing the nation's second best run defense (60.6 yards) and a unit whose 10 interceptions is also second overall.
"They're really good," Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "They fly around, they pressure, they play cover-2, they do a good mix. They really put a lot of stress on you by bringing a lot of people which causes you to make plays. The good thing is if you make plays, it's going to be a big one. If you don't, it'll probably be an incomplete or something like that. You've got to move on.
"There's not a lot of little gains there, like the 3-yard or 4-yard gains. They're going to come after you and if you can get something going, you've got a chance to make a lot of big gains in a row."
Rutgers has won five of the last seven meetings with the last two being decided by three points. If that's the case this season, the Scarlet Knights could be in trouble. Freshman placekicker Kyle Federico has been battling a lower body injury and his status for the game is iffy, at best.
Flood has a couple of options if Federico can't play. Nick DeLouisa, who missed an extra point in his first collegiate kick in the fourth quarter against Connecticut last weekend, and fellow walk-on Nick Borgese. The coach also had a tryout this week and added senior walk-on Joe Behnke to the roster.
"Kyle is Plan A," Flood said. "And everybody else is Plan B."