Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene leads the Rutgers Scarlet Knights against the Virginia Tech Hokies, who are looking to end the season on a high note, in the Russell Athletic Bowl at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando on Friday, Dec. 28.
This game might be a bittersweet one for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights had a chance to win their first-ever outright Big East title and earn a BCS bowl bid, but lost in the final game of the season to Louisville (20-17) to have those hopes wiped away. RU was forced to settle for a four-way tie for the conference crown while the Cardinals earned the BCS bowl bid due to their higher ranking in the BCS standings.
"This one hurts, and it's going to hurt," Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood said after the loss. "It's going to hurt, but we're going to get through it as a football team. When we go out to play that bowl game, we're going to do it the way we do every year, and we're going to go out there to win that bowl game."
Even though the regular season ended on a sour note, the Scarlet Knights' overall body of work is still stellar. The team finished with a 9-3 record, giving it nine wins in three of the last four seasons. Rutgers had only five seasons of nine wins or more in the previous 95 years. The Knights are also making their second consecutive bowl appearance and seventh in the last eight years. Rutgers had just a single bowl appearance before this recent stretch. Flood is not wrong to be confident in his team's chances considering Rutgers has won its last five bowl games.
For most teams, a season ending with a bowl bid would be deemed a success. However, Virginia Tech is not most teams, at least over the last decade or so, thus leaving an empty feeling among fans and the team alike after the Hokies posted a 6-6 record. The lackluster showing breaking an eight-season streak of at least 10 wins for VaTech, a team that was supposed to compete for the ACC title this season. The Hokies also finished the season outside of the top-25 for the first time since 2003. A streak that does live on is the program's 20- straight seasons in a bowl game, the third longest streak in the nation.
"This has been a different year than we are accustomed to at Virginia Tech, but we won our last two games and are extremely proud to be going to the Russell Athletic Bowl," Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer said. "We are also proud to be one of just three schools that have gone to 20 or more consecutive bowls."
Virginia Tech nearly missed out on bowl eligibility as it needed wins in each of its last two games to earn the bid. Those wins did not come easily as the Hokies topped Boston College, 30-23, in overtime before winning on a last- second field goal over intrastate rival Virginia on the last weekend of the regular season.
These former Big East foes have met 14 times previously, but not since Virginia Tech left the league after the 2003 season. The Hokies lead the series by an 11-3 margin, posting wins in each of the last 11 meetings. Rutgers hasn't earned a victory against the Hokies since 1992.
Gary Nova might be the most anxious player to get on the field for Rutgers. The team's quarterback threw an interception on the final play of the regular season, that play capping off a rather poor finish to the year for Nova. He threw for 2,566 yards and 22 touchdowns, but completed just 58.6 percent of his pass attempts while being intercepted 15 times. An unsightly 13 of those picks came during the last six games when Nova had at least one pick in each contest. Nova was protected relatively well this season and was the victim of just eight sacks.
Also needing to improve on his efforts is running back Jawan Jamison. Jamison was slowed by a ankle injury late in the season which took him off the torrid pace he was on to begin the year when he rushed for 100 yards in six of the first seven games. Since then, Jamison has yet to eclipse the 100-yard mark and has just 101 yards combined over the last three contests. Jamison once led the Big East in rushing and now has 1.054 yards and 4 touchdowns on 242 carries. Savon Huggins (362 yards, 2 TDs) is a capable backup, but unless Jamison is re-injured Huggins won't see too much time.
With Jamison's production limited in the season finale, both Brandon Coleman and Mark Harrison put together stellar performances in the final game of the regular season. Coleman (39 receptions, 663 yards, 10 TDs) is a sizable receiver at 6-foot-6 and has been really dangerous in scoring situations, as he pulled in the most receiving touchdowns in the Big East this season. Harrison (42 receptions, 131 yards, 6 TDs) has also turned in a solid season leading the team in receptions after a season best five-reception, 131-yard effort against Louisville. Tim Wright (38 receptions, 438 yards, 2 TDs) is another reliable pass catcher, while Jamison (27 receptions, 322 yards, 2 TDs) makes contributions in the passing game as well.
There is certainly talent on the offensive side of the ball for Rutgers, but the Scarlet Knights have largely been less-than-stellar in that regard. The Scarlet Knights rank sixth in the Big East in scoring (22.4 ppg) and total offense (341.1 ypg).
Such meager offensive numbers did not hurt RU as much because of how impressive the team is on defense. Rutgers is the 14th-best defensive unit in the nation in terms of total yardage (321.3 ypg), and the fourth-best in points allowed (14.3 ppg). That type of stinginess puts the Scarlet Knights in the same class as teams like Notre Dame, Alabama and Florida. Rutgers really does a nice job of creating negative plays and forcing turnovers as it is tied for 18th nationally in tackles for loss (85.0) and 14th in takeaways (29).
Powering the unit is Greene. The senior linebacker was a beast in the front seven for Rutgers and earned Third-Team All-America honors for his efforts. Greene has 125 tackles, 10.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks this season, while also collecting a pair of interceptions and forcing six fumbles. Greene was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season. The Scarlet Knights have additional defensive talent in guys like Logan Ryan (87 tackles, 4 INTs) and Scott Vallone (50 tackles, 12.0 TFL).
Virginia Tech hasn't been one of the stronger offensive units in the ACC this season. The team averages 391.8 yards per game which is good for only the ninth-best mark in the conference. The Hokies also don't pile up points, scoring just 26.1 per game while leading at halftime only three times all year.
Many thought Logan Thomas was a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy, or at least to break out as a star quarterback. Thomas didn't live up to those expectations in the regular season, as he completed just 52.6 percent of his pass attempts for 2,783 yards while having nearly as many interceptions (14) as touchdown passes (17). Thomas failed to complete more than 50 percent of his passes in four games, and threw for more than 300 yards just once. Thomas did make up for his less-than-stellar passing by being a threat with his feet. Thomas leads the team in rushing yards (528) and rushing touchdowns (9), as foes struggle to contend with his combination of speed and elusiveness.
Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller are the two best options down field for Thomas. Davis (47 receptions, 891 yards, 5 TDs) leads the team in receptions and yards, and has a team-best four games of more than 100 yards receiving. Davis is the fifth-most productive receiver in the ACC in terms of receiving yards, despite ranking 16th in receptions. Fuller (41 receptions, 769 yards, 5 TDs) also showed the ability to break off big plays. Dyrell Roberts (32 receptions, 366 yards) is the only other player to haul in more than 20 passes this year.
There is a stable of backs for Coach Beamer's squad when Thomas doesn't run the ball himself. J.C. Coleman (201 carries, 486 yards, 2 TDs) is the top rusher outside of Thomas, and the only player to earn a 100-yard rushing game after he piled up 183 yards and two scores against North Carolina. Tony Gregory (297 yards) and Michael Holmes (282 yards, 4 TDs) each carried the ball more than 60 times.
As usual, Virginia Tech has some standout players on special teams, particularly return men Demitri Knowles and Kyshoen Jarrett. Knowles handles kickoffs and racked up 595 yards, the second-most in a season by a Hokie ever. Jarrett is the sixth-best punt returner in the nation, averaging 13.9 yards per return.
The defensive focus of Virginia Tech is much more consistent and impressive than its exploits on offense. The Hokies rank second in the ACC in scoring defense (23.9 ppg), and third in terms of total defense (344.6 ypg). Like Rutgers, Virginia Tech really excels in disrupting opponents in the backfield. The Hokies rank 14th in the nation in tackles for loss per game (7.3). VaTech also locks down foes on third down with the eighth-best third-down defense in the country (.298).
A linebacker is also the leader of Virginia Tech's unit, as Jack Tyler earned All-ACC First-Team honors after ranking third in the league in tackles (112) including 11.0 for loss. James Gayle (40 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks) and Bruce Taylor (65 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks) also produce at a high level. Atone Exum is a pest in the secondary, logging four interceptions while breaking up 15 passes.