PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 29: Ray Graham #1 of the Pittsburgh Panthers celebrates his fourth quarter touchdown run against the South Florida Bulls during the game on September 29, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Panthers defeated the Bulls 44-17. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Pitt seems to be a heavy favorite over Rutgers this week, which is an analysis that ignores several relevant factors. Outside of last week, Pitt has looked very shaky this season. Who can take a team that struggled with Buffalo and Maine seriously? Averaging out the season, while Pitt has looked better, they do not have an insurmountable edge. In fact, the two teams are close enough that Rutgers should be favored at home. Most of the Pitt hype stems from their home demolishing of USF last Thursday. Why exactly should that count for anything? Doesn't USF start hot every single year before tanking? Everyone has a right to be skeptical as RU, but the this week's visitors have just as many question marks working against them, if not more.
Pitt has an All-American candidate in Ray Graham, who pulled off his own vintage Ray Rice impression last week. Graham isn't Dion Lewis; he's better. Lewis was explosive, but earned his yards in starts and fits. Graham is like a bowling ball. He's a downhill runner who doesn't quit, and gives Pitt a chance in every game that they can keep close. Pitt is transitioning to a weird, dust bowl-style spread this year, but Todd Graham (we can't fly in Wannstedt to be a special guest on the home sidelines for this one, can we?) knows who his meal ticket is for the time being.
They had better, because if Rutgers goes ahead early, Pitt is not well equipped to come back from a hole. Their offensive line was a question mark entering the season, and that was before the Panthers lost their two best linemen in Chris Jacobson (for the season) and Lucas Nix (for this week at least.) Tino Sunseri is more than shaky as a passer, but has looked better the past few weeks on a few option reads. Justin Francis and Scotty Vallone could be in for another big day. Part of the problem for him is with their receiving corps, where Devin Street has quickly contracted Brandon Coleman/Mark Harrison disease (he's a physical specimen that drops far too many passes.)
The Rutgers offense should have a fair number of opportunities on Saturday, but it largely depends on their ability to keep their offense multi-dimensional. Rutgers can protect the quarterback, but only if the run game is working to decent effect. Pitt's corners have been horrific for years running, and the Maine/Buffalo stat lines offer little evidence to the contrary that anything has changed. Pitt observers certainly have been grumbling a bit about Frank Cignetti this week, with plenty of snider comments during the Syracuse game. It came off as tone deaf around these parts - a year ago, Rutgers loses to Syracuse by twenty. If Pitt wants to go no huddle while Rutgers is content to grind it out (especially if they can grab an early lead), Rutgers will take that trade any day of the week if it means tiring out the Panther defense by the 4th quarter.
They are also transitioning to a 3-4, which is a mixed bag for the Rutgers offense. The one thing Wannstedt could do well is recruit, and they still have some good players up front to eat space and occupy blockers for Graham's blitzing schemes. The downside, or upside for Rutgers if that's how you're looking at it, is that their linebackers have greatly struggled in coverage to this point. Mohamed Sanu was moving around a lot in the slot last week to try to exploit matchups against linebackers and safeties, and more could be on tap for Saturday. Just slant, slant, slant to Sanu to draw the corners in, and then Cigs goes nuts with the deep passes to Coleman and Harrison that you just know he wants to call on every down.
The key of course for Rutgers will to be to get something, anything from the run game. Even three yards per carry would be great - which is exactly why so many are so down on the Knights this weekend. Not only would even a mediocre running game open up play action passes downfield, but the Syracuse game proved what happened when defenses don't have to be honest. RU had some red zone struggles, but they were largely able to move the ball and eat up clock as long as the running game at least had somewhat of pulse. When they were down ten and had to abandon the ground game during the fourth quarter, that's precisely when Syracuse stopped living off one big hit/fumble and played their best football of the afternoon. Yes, Syracuse only played one good quarter last week. Everyone should stop saying they blew the game. They were outplayed by any objective metric.
It may seem odd that the above analysis doesn't mention any supposed quarterback controversy between Chas Dodd and Gary Nova, but the thinking here is that Dodd will get the early nod. He was rattled against Scott Shafer's blitzes in the dome, but this won't be a hostile environment, and Pitt could be hesitant to go full bore early if Sanu can get established inside. Dodd is a sophomore, and like most quarterbacks will have his fair share of ups and downs. Even with a crummy performance last week, he outplayed Orange senior Ryan Nassib, and Dodd doesn't face even a tenth of the pressure that Tino Sunseri is under at the moment. Sunseri, of course, could conceivably lose his job to freshman walk-on Trey Anderson. If Pitt is so great, why do they make RU's madcap QB depth chart look enviable in comparison?
That's not too completely write them off - far from it. Pitt still has a lot of talent, probably the second most in the league after West Virginia. They have played a tough schedule, and probably are the better team, but it's not by much, and the teams are close enough that RU playing at home gives them the slight edge this weekend by most statistical metrics. Count on this one coming down to blocked punts, turnovers, botched snaps, missed field goals - something along those lines. Unfortunately, there's no Dave Wannstedt to give away this one with inexplicable game management decisions. This is about as pure a tossup as you can get, one of a string of upcoming swing games on RU's schedule.
p.s. No hard feelings about the ACC move and all, but as one parting gift can everyone please admit that the game-ending call back in 2007 was legitimately OPI? Because, after all, it was. In what universe is a pushoff not OPI? Just because most WRs usually get away with it does not mean that they should.
Prediction: Rutgers 24, Pitt 22