Published November 20, 2014
There was a time when a game against a Mid-American Conference program could be counted as a win for Rutgers.
That's changed this season.
Ohio is ranked No, 23 and MAC teams have posted wins over Big East foes Cincinnati, Connecticut and South Florida already, with Cincinnati dropping its first game of the season to Toledo last weekend.
It's no wonder the No. 18 Scarlet Knights (7-0, 4-0 Big East) are wary heading into Saturday's homecoming game against Kent State (6-1, 4-0 MAC) and its sensational running back-returner Dri Archer.
Archer leads the nation in all-purpose yards (a 212.9 yard average). He ranks 33rd nationally in rushing (98.1) and is first in kickoff return yardage (47-yard average).
"You just have to keep doing the things that got you to this point. You can't take anybody lightly," said Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova, who threw four second-half touchdown passes last week against Temple. "Everybody can give you their best shot. Obviously we just got a great example. Cincinnati just lost to a MAC team. The MAC, you can't take anybody lightly. Definitely a top contender in Kent State that is going to come in here and fight their heart out. We have to be ready for the shots they're going to give us, and we have to respond."
If there is a concern for the Scarlet Knights, it's looking ahead. After this week, they will face Army in their final non-conference game and then continue pursuit of their first conference title with games against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Louisville.
Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Green tries not to pay too much attention to conference affiliations or records.
"It's not about our opponent. It's about us and how we perform," Greene said. "It would definitely be a letdown for us if we don't take care of business because we know what we're playing for and where we want to be at the end of the season. For us to lay an egg, it would definitely be a letdown and we don't plan on having that problem."
Favored by 13 points, Rutgers will be looking for its fourth 8-0 start in 143 years of college football. It would be the third since 1976 and the second since joining the Big East in 1991.
To get there, the Scarlet Knights need to slow down Archer, a speedster who is tied for third in the nation with 14 touchdowns.
"He's a real special guy. One of the faster players," Rutgers defensive tackle Scott Vallone said. "You can see him in the open field, outrunning defenders. He flies, and he's all-purpose. He's a kick returner, punt returner, he plays a little tailback, slot receiver. They do whatever they can to get him involved. He's their No. 1 guy, and he's a really special player."
Archer, however, will be facing an outstanding defense. The Scarlet Knights are ranked third nationally in scoring (11.3).
"They're very stout. They got a great front. They're constantly moving," Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said. "The linebackers are making turnovers all over the field. They play a lot of man coverage and they play a lot of Tampa 2 coverage. We've been able to run the football pretty successfully throughout the first half of the season. But there will be some tough running going on Saturday so we'll have to figure out what to do."
The Golden Flashes have topped 40 points four times this season.
"We just have to do what we do, and that's get to the ball fast, tackle and hit people hard," Greene said. "(Archer's) a fast player, he's leading the nation in all-purpose yards, they line him up in the slot, everywhere. He's a very fast guy. But it's about us at the end of the day doing what we do and that's playing our style and attacking people. It's definitely a challenge when you go against a guy like Archer, but it's more about us."
Kent State will look for its first six-game winning streak since 1940. It won't be easy.
Defensively, the Golden Flashes need to slow down Nova and running back Jawan Jamison, who ranks 20th nationally and first in the conference, averaging 111.3 yards.
"He's very efficient with the football and he looks like a great leader," Hazell said of Nova. "He definitely has command of the offense so we're excited to play him."
The game will not only be homecoming for Rutgers, but also for Hazell, who coached under Greg Schiano here from 2001-04.
"It will be fun for me," Hazell said. "My family grew up about 45 minutes out (Cinnaminson) from Rutgers. So it's going to be fun to get back there. We're obviously playing a very tough opponent.
"It's going to be a formidable test for us this week, but we're excited to get out there."