Every team considers each game in their season important, but both Rutgers and South Florida have plenty of stake with tonight's matchup. The Bulls have lost three in a row, including a blowout to Pittsburgh, and a drubbing by hapless UConn. Rutgers is coming off two straight heartbreakers against Louisville and West Virginia. The winner of this one will have a much better chance of making a bowl, with the loser poised to see their season spiraling out of control at the worst possible moment. One week after Rutgers was playing for glory against West Virginia, everything is hanging on by a thread against USF. One team was the preseason media darling, the other was the preseason media goat, and now their paths cross with quite a bit at stake.
If you've followed USF at any point over the past decade, you know the score by now. Speedy defense, inconsistent quarterback, can't get it done in November and December. They may have replaced Matt Grothe with B.J. Daniels at QB and Jim Leavitt with Skip Holtz at coach, but it's frightening how much each of these two teams resemble their recent historical incarnations. That could be a very good thing for Rutgers, who had USF's number for years before 2010's late stumble in Tampa. The weather played a role, but the streak was mostly attributable to matchups, as Rutgers was one of the few conference teams that has been able to match USF's speed year in and year out. Throw in Leavitt giving away a few games with embarrassing gaffes, and there you go.This game will more likely be lost more than won. USF's problem as of late is that B.J. Daniels is the prototype for a feast-or-fame passer. He can light up great teams, only to self-immolate against the likes of UConn. Daniels understandably is a terrific athlete, but all of his natural gifts are undone by a tendency to make horrid decisions. Rutgers fans watching Daniels tonight have to be desperate that they are not watching a preview of how Gary Nova will look in two years (relatively, as one is more of a passer and the other a runner.) If the light would just go on for Daniels, no one can stop him. It never has for a sustained period of time.
For both teams, the key is to limit mistakes while baiting the opposition into a critical error. USF will want to run bigger backs like Demetrius Murray and Darrell Scott, especially considering their thin depth chart at receiver. Rutgers will try to use a spy to keep Daniels contained in the pocket, and is hoping that its suddenly moribund pass rush can wake up after two weeks of inactivity. Rutgers has not shown the slightest bit of hesitation with Nova, but it remains to be seen how aggressive the offense will stay if he can't cut down on his mistakes. The running game showed signs of life last week with Michael Burton seeing more time as a blocking fullback, and Frank Cignetti likes to balance his aggressive pass calls with a pounding ball-control run attack.
On paper, Rutgers is a little better than USF, and gets more of a boost from home field (you have to put history aside, as tempting as it may be to call for a blowout.) As much as last week's loss hurt in the specifics, West Virginia was clearly the better team. Today, Rutgers has a distinct advantage. It does not mean they will win (which depends on Nova and the defense getting back on track), but the odds are in their favor. Let's get back to basics -starting with Scarlet jerseys and helmets, please - and get back on track for the last quarter of the season. Throw some slants to Mohamed Sanu, grind it out for the first few quarters, all that matters is getting a win no matter how ugly the final result may be.
Prediction: Rutgers 23, USF 17