NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12: Former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand #52 takes part in the coin toss before a game between the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Army Black Knights at Yankee Stadium on November 12, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City. LeGrand was paralyzed during a kickoff return in October 2010. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
The stakes could not be higher with Cincinnati coming to town on Saturday. The Bearcats aren't exactly West Virginia, but Rutgers has to be ticked off about losing four straight to this week's opponent, including a memorable trap game in 2006 that cost the Scarlet Knights a sure shot at the Orange Bowl. Cincinnati symbolically stunted their rise five years ago, and have been a thorn in the team's side ever since. Rutgers, quite simply, has never been over to get over the hump under Greg Schiano and break through to the next level, and the RU-Cincy series is the epitome of that frustration. A restless fanbase is at its wits end after a blown lead against West Virginia two weeks ago, with two consecutive subsequent wins doing little to quell the mounting flurry of higher expectations.
Rutgers and Greg Schiano need to win this one, to give them a puncher's chance in the Big East conference race, and prove that 2011 isn't yet another year of the same old Rutgers program being stuck in neutral. A few factors are working against the Knights - mainly blowing two winnable conference games in Louisville and West Virginia, and coming off a week against a triple option team in Army (that scheme is known to hurt defensive performance in following weeks.) However, Rutgers might get a second lifeline with the news that Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros is out for the season. In his place steps in untested mobile scrambler Munchie Legaux, and Rutgers can suddenly visualize a path to victory. Years after Cincinnati turned Rutgers football into a pumpkin; can Coach Schiano finally reinvigorate his tenure with a program-defining victory?
This one isn't just about being hungry for a conference championship after countless near misses, finally getting Cincinnati's number, or senior day. It may also be Mohamed Sanu's last ever game in Piscataway as an amateur athlete. The star receiver has exploded into a supernova this season, with his inevitable selection in the first round of the NFL draft next April a mere formality. Sanu would be a certain All-American if voters actually ignored hype and were able to weigh context properly. They're not, which is why he'll have to be content with his looming NFL riches, and the opportunity to put the program on his shoulders yet again and will them to victory, as he has so many times already during his career. If Sanu really is more than a good player, and wants to be great, this will be the time to show it. Even if that means a quiet game while facing double and triple coverage. The truly great players find a way to succeed, and opening up single coverage for other receivers would certainly qualify.
If the Army game was any indication, quarterback Chas Dodd will largely lock onto Sanu throughout the game, with an occasional back checkdown, or long bomb to Mark Harrison or Brandon Coleman. Harrison, of course, torched a horrific Bearcat defense in 2010. Cincy is far improved, relatively, but still are a sieve in the defensive backfield. They get a lot of sacks and tackles for loss, and rank superbly against the run, but give a QB time to throw and all bets are off. This is where Dodd could be a liability. A lot of his passes are blocked at the line of scrimmage, and he does not execute play action as well or distribute the ball as evenly as Gary Nova does. That, unfortunately, will hurt the offense's ability to keep Cincinnati honest, and not try to tee off on Dodd early and often. Rutgers needs to give Cincy a taste of its own medicine from the past few years, and slant their zone coverage to death to keep their rushers backpedaling and on their toes.
Not having to face Collaros is a significant positive on paper, as he was a legitimate dual threat under center. This isn't exactly Brian Kelly's Cincinnati though, as the Bearcats have been moving more to a running attack under Butch Jones. Isaiah Pead is the best tailback in the Big East not named Ray Graham, so that shift is with good reason. His side is an awful matchup for an undersized Rutgers defense inside. Conceivably, Rutgers will load up the box and dare Legaux to beat them in the air. He was basically B.J. Daniels last week (great runner, not-so-good passer) against a bad West Virginia defense. Legaux isn't the worry here; it's Pead and their defensive line. USF pretty much had that game won before they imploded, because they're USF, and that's what USF does. Rutgers won't have that luxury this week, and the prospect of Pead ripping through a defense still licking their wounds from a date with the triple option is not the most enticing thought in the world.
Prediction: Cincinnati 24, Rutgers 21
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