The Big East leading Rutgers Scarlet Knights will be in for a tough road test this weekend with a matchup against the talented Cincinnati Bearcats at Nippert Stadium.
Rutgers has not played in a Big East contest since a 35-10 win at Temple on Oct. 20. That win pushed the Scarlet Knights to 4-0 in Big East play and with Louisville's loss to Syracuse this past weekend, the Scarlet Knights are in sole possession of first place in the conference. In the time away from Big East action Rutgers did suffer its first loss of the year (35-23 vs Kent State) but rebounded with a 28-7 victory over Army last weekend.
Although his Scarlet Knights are at the top of the conference right now, head coach Kyle Flood preached how important this game will be.
"When you are playing an opponent like we are this week, a team that has been able to call themselves the Big East champions three of the last four years they have your attention right away," Flood said. "There is certainly nothing else on our mind this week."
Cincinnati is still very much in the running for the Big East crown with a record of 3-1 against league foes this season. Cincinnati won its second straight game in league play and overall this past weekend with an easy 34-10 road win over Temple. The win pushed Cincinnati to 7-2 overall. This season Cincinnati has been invincible at home with a perfect 5-0 mark at Nippert Stadium.
The all-time series between these squads is split with each team earning eight wins along with a tie in the previous 17 meetings. Cincinnati has had the advantage since joining the Big East in 2005 with a 5-2 mark against the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers has not won a road game in the series since 1987.
Offense has not been a strength for Rutgers this season. The Scarlet Knights are ranked sixth in the Big East in total offense (347.6 ypg). The two teams Rutgers is ahead of in the category are Temple and Connecticut, who are a combined 3-8 in league play this season. The Scarlet Knights also struggle to score (25.3 ppg) with the lowest red zone conversion rate in the conference (77.8 percent).
The consistent force on offense has been running back Jawan Jamison, who has rushed for 953 yards and four touchdowns on 214 carries. That is more than twice as many carries as the rest of the team combined. Jamison is one of only two running back in the conference to average more than 100 yards rushing per contest (105.9) and his rushing total this season ranks second in the conference.
There is concern that Jamison may not be able to go in this contest with Flood saying that he is '50-50' in his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
If Jamison can't go, Savon Huggins (52 carries, 175 yards, 2 TDs) will likely get the start. Flood also said that B.J. James would get some carries if Jamison sits out.
Stability in the passing game has been a less attainable goal. Although there has been no question as to who the starter is, with Gary Nova accounting for 264 of the team's 266 total pass attempts, production has been an issue. Nova has completed a healthy 61.4 percent of his passes and has 18 touchdown passes but his yardage total (1,939) is the third worst among quarterbacks in the Big East with at least 150 pass attempts. Nova has also shown a tendency to turn the ball over in recent weeks with eight of his 10 interceptions coming in the past three games. Six of those came in a loss to Kent State.
Last weekend Brandon Coleman showed just how dangerous he can be in the passing game with two touchdown catches. The 6-6 sophomore leads the team in receptions (34), yards (508) and touchdowns (8). Mark Harrison (30 receptions, 297 yards, 4 TDs) has also picked up a number of catches but little in terms of yardage.
All of the Scarlet Knights' offensive deficiencies have been swept away thanks to Rutgers' stellar defense. The unit is not just one of the best in the Big East but in the nation overall. Rutgers ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense (13.4 ppg) and 14th in total yards (309.4 ypg).
Leading the way is a player certainly destined to be a nominee for Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Khaseem Greene. The senior linebacker has stuffed the stat sheet with a team-leading 96 tackles, 3.5 sacks, a pair of interceptions and six forced fumbles.
Matching up with Rutgers' punishing defense is the explosive offense of Cincinnati. The Bearcats are the Big East leaders in points per game (34.2) and are nearly at the top in terms of total offensive production (455.6 ypg) where they rank second behind Syracuse. Cincinnati's offense can strike with rapid speed at any time as the Bearcats have the most plays in the Big East of more than 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70 yards.
There has been a change at quarterback late in the season though for Cincinnati. Brendon Kay made his first career start last week against Temple and looked solid, throwing for 244 yards and two touchdowns while completing 13-of-21 pass attempts. Munchie Legaux was the starter to begin the year but struggled to complete passes consistently (52.2 completion percentage) and in his last three starts, he threw six interceptions.
Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones has not named a starter for this week yet but is confident that whoever is put in will play well, and that whoever sits will do what he can for the betterment of the team.
"The great thing with this football team; even though they are extremely young they take it and go with it," Jones said while also acknowledging that both quarterbacks will be fighting hard in practice. "Make no mistake about it; they are going to come out here and compete and battle against each other too."
Having a running back like George Winn in the backfield has made for a much smoother transition between signal callers. Winn is the leading rusher in the conference with 980 yards, while also leading in touchdown runs (9).
On defense Cincinnati does not allow teams to sustain drives on a regular basis or score at a high rate from in the red zone. The Bearcats are the second best team in the conference on third down (36.7 percent), while ranking at the same spot in opponents' red zone success rate (75.0 percent). Thanks to the strong play in the red zone, Cincinnati is allowing only 18.8 points per game.
Greg Blair is the team's leader in tackles with 89. The Bearcats don't possess much in terms of a pass rush, which has been even more apparent since Walter Stewart (5.0 sacks) was lost for the season in mid-October with a spine injury. Dan Giordano and John Williams are the next best options but have just 2.5 sacks each.