The No. 21 Rutgers Scarlet Knights set out to keep their perfect conference record intact when they battle the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon.
Although Louisville is ranked higher in the polls, Rutgers is leading the Big East right now with a 5-0 mark against league foes. It is the first 5-0 record the Scarlet Knights have had in Big East play in school history. The Scarlet Knights are also a stellar 9-1 overall with the only loss a 35-23 setback at home to Kent State, who has since moved into the national rankings. The Scarlet Knights will take on Louisville next weekend which could decide the Big East championship if both teams stay the course.
Pittsburgh is playing for its postseason life in this matchup. The Panthers have lost two straight games and are now just 4-6 overall and in need of wins in each of its final two games to get the sixth win that would make the team bowl eligible. In terms of conference play, Pittsburgh has not had a great deal of success with just one win in five tries this season.
If history has anything to say about this game then Pittsburgh will be in good shape. In 29 previous meetings the Panthers have earned victories in 21 contests, although Rutgers has won five the last seven matchups, including a 34-10 triumph last season.
Lead rusher Jawan Jamison should be back this week for Rutgers. In his absence the Scarlet Knights still leaned heavily on the run game with Savon Huggins filling in and racking up 179 yards on 41 carries in a 10-3 win over Cincinnati. Still getting Jamison back (990 yards, 4 TDs) will be big and with Huggins waiting in the wings, the Scarlet Knights will more than likely pound the ball for most of the game.
"I think they make a good complement because they're both high-level players," head coach Kyle Flood said of the duo. " What makes them complementary backs is they're both capable of having a good day, and it allows you to keep a fresh running back in the game all the time."
When they're not running the ball the Scarlet Knights will put the ball in the hands of Gary Nova. The Rutgers quarterback has slowed down the stretch and has been especially prone to turning the ball over in recent weeks. Nova has thrown 10 of his 12 interceptions this season in the last four games and has not had more than 200 yards passing in back-to-back weeks. Overall, Nova has thrown for 2,125 yards and 19 touchdowns, while completing 61.1 percent of his pass attempts.
There is size and skill in the receiving corps especially in the person of Brandon Coleman. The 6-foot-6 wideout has hauled in 36 passes for 552 yards and has been a favorite target near the red zone with eight touchdown receptions. Mark Harrison (34 receptions, 403 yards, 5 TDs) and Tim Wright (29 receptions, 356 yards, 2 TDs) have also been bringing in receptions fairly regularly, although Wright has just two receptions in the last two games.
It really hasn't mattered what Rutgers has done on offense because of how good the defense has been. The Scarlet Knights haven't just been the top team in the Big East in total defense (312.6 ypg) but also rank 14th nationally in the category, while also stifling opposing offenses to the fourth-lowest point total (12.4 ppg). That puts Rutgers in the same rarified air as such ballyhooed defensive squads as Alabama and Notre Dame.
At the center of all of the Rutgers' defensive efforts is linebacker Khaseem Greene. The senior has been sensational this season and after racking up 11 tackles and a pair of sacks last week, earned his third Big East Defensive Player of the Week award. Greene has been an absolute beast all season, racking up impressive numbers across the board in tackles (107), tackles for loss (9.0) and sacks (5.5), while also forcing six fumbles and collecting a pair of interceptions.
For how good Greene has been, Flood still thinks Greene's best days are ahead of him.
"The more he plays linebacker, the better he's going to get. I don't think he's anywhere near where he's going to be a couple of years from now," Flood said.
Traditionally a school that runs the ball a great deal, Pittsburgh has been more of a passing team this season. The Panthers are averaging 271.8 yards per game through the air which is the third best mark in the conference.
Senior quarterback Tino Sunseri has been the steady hand that has kept the Panthers humming. Sunseri has completed an impressive 67.3 percent of his pass attempts for 2,665 yards and 16 touchdowns. Perhaps what has been most important is Sunseri's ability to keep his mistakes to a minimum as he has been picked off only twice this season.
Lining up with Sunseri in the backfield is talented, though less productive than expected, Ray Graham. The running back has amassed a team-best 1,125 total yards from scrimmage this season. Graham gets it done on the ground (835 yards, 8 TDs) primarily, but has also been a weapon in the passing game (31 receptions, 290 yards, 2 TDs).
The Panthers have been able to rely more on the passing game thanks to strong efforts on the outside from receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan. Street is the really star (59 receptions, 806 yards, 4 TDs) as he is the second-most productive receiver in the conference this season but Shanahan (44 receptions, 748 yards, 4 TDs) has also been racking up the yards and receptions. No other player on the squad has more than 20 receptions.
Overall Pittsburgh is squarely in the middle of the Big East in both scoring (27.5 ppg) and total offense (411.3 ypg). The Panthers are also one of four teams in the Big East picking up more than 400 yards of total offense per game.
Like the offense, the Panthers' defense is right in the middle of the pack, ranking fourth in both scoring (22.7 ppg) and total defense (358.6 ypg) but the conference's second best turnover margin (+8) has kept Pittsburgh competitive. THowever that has been more a symptom of the offense's discipline than the defense's play making as the Panthers have forced just 15 turnovers.
The defense could be even worse off with lead tackler Jason Hendricks (67 tackles, 4 INTs) listed as questionable with an undisclosed issue. Jarred Holley (61 tackles) is the team's second best stopper, while Aaron Donald (11.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) has been one of very few bright spots up front in terms of getting into the backfield.