I haven't done much in the way of game previews this season (for several reasons), but the coming contest with USF is rather important. Rutgers has won three straight against USF (largely on the back of Ray Rice). Spotting 14 points to Syracuse in a rather-embarrassing fashion has hopefully quelled any premature thoughts of running the table to get to 7-5; but finishing with a winning record after RU's poor start would be a profound achievement, and it's only possible with a win on Saturday.
With the obligatory Rice mention out of the way, let's think about what his absence means to this game for a minute. I can recall many games during the past few seasons where the offensive line opened up so many holes that anyone could have ran through them. Not that it wasn't the case vs. USF as well, but I always thought that they were an especially good matchup for Rice. Jim Leavitt and USF DC Wally Burnham don't place the same emphasis on a relentless pass rush in their defensive scheme as Greg Schiano does, but they are kindred spirits in their love of speed and athleticism on that side of the ball (USF does like a little more size up the middle however).
Jourdan Brooks is really the only back on the roster with the power to match up well with USF's defense; however, he hasn't been seeing many snaps lately, and he clearly lacks Rice's burst and otherworldly vision. USF may have lost the heart and soul of their defense in Ben Moffitt, but they still have the athletic Tyrone McKenzie to deal with in their linebacking corps. USF ranks fifth in the nation in run defense this year, surrendering only 85 yards a game. LeSean McCoy (who else) is the only back that has really made a dent against them, even though they haven't seen Donald Brown or Noel Devine to this point.
I have been somewhat critical of George Selvie in the past, but I still think that he's an incredible edge rusher. USF has been working to move him around a little more to combat double teams, but Anthony Davis will likely be tasked with matching up against Selvie for much of the game. Davis has been respectable this season, but did have a poor game against Cincinnati's Connor Barwin. I was a little surprised to hear that USF's athletic department said that teams have shied away from targeting Selvie 80% of the time while rushing the ball this season. It's hard to shake the vision of Pedro Sosa, with a little help from chipping Tight Ends and Mike Fladell, running straight at Selvie during last year's contest. Eureka! Want to run at George Selvie? Just have Pedro Sosa on your roster and you're good. Generally though, football teams on all levels generally do want to run straight at a team's best pass rusher on the weak side, both out of the belief that he's probably weak against the run, and for purposes of tiring him out later in the game.
Due to the threat from Selvie, I'd like to see a similar gameplan to the one against Syracuse, with a lot of high-percentage throws to keep the defense on the edge. Corcoran is not going to be a big priority for opposing coverage, and Young and Robinson have the speed to be dangerous in space if they get a few catches. What's important is to not go overboard with the deep ball. I think Kansas, UCF, Pitt and Cincinnati (the four USF games that I've seen this season) mostly carved them up by dinking and dunking to death.
Where USF is significantly worse than last season is in the secondary. With the awesome combo of Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams, both now in the NFL, USF could basically leave both corners on an island playing man (I'm still in awe of the job Jenkins did mugging #88 at the LOS in last year's game). That freed up safeties Nate Allen and Jerome Murphy to crowd into the box and focus on Rice (which ironically, led to bigger runs if he got past them). During the past three seasons, USF ranked 16th, 11th, and 8th, respectively, in I-A pass efficiency defense. USF's new starting corners have the size to try to out-physical RU's receivers in this contest. Former safety Jerome Murphy has laid a few very big hits during the past few years. I saw Kansas especially pick on Murphy though, and USF's P.E.D. has consequently fallen to 37th this season. That's still good, but not as intimidating as it has been in recent memory. It might be worth trying to exploit the matchups on offense to try and get Timmy Brown and Dennis Campbell lined up against Murphy.
If Mike Teel is accurate, stays off his back, and keeps the turnovers to a minimum, then RU will be able to sustain long drives against this defense. However, I'm very worried that a couple of those things won't happen, and that RU won't be able to run the ball consistently, if at all.
Matt Grothe has definitely improved as a passer this year, although he's coming off his worst performance of the year in a three-interception performance against Cincinnati (a team that has excellent DBs I might add). When I saw Grothe earlier in the year, his deep ball looked improved, and he was showing good chemistry with WR Taurus Johnson and TE Cedric Hill. He was doing a better job of throwing the ball away quicker, and wasn't scrambling as much as he had in the past. Grothe faced a lot of pressure in recent losses to Pitt and Louisville.
I have no doubt that RU can get to the QB, and that Grothe will hold onto the ball too long at times, but my worry here is that RU's tendency to blitz so frequently will cause Grothe to be less hesitant about taking off and scrambling. He's no Pat White, but definitely someone that you want to keep in the pocket if you can.
The key for USF on offense will be negating RU's rush. They'll probably use a lot of rollouts and screens, and maybe try some misdirection with their speedy receivers. The X-factor for me though is USF's running game. They've used a committee approach this year, which does have a better YPC than RU has had without a feature back for much of the season. Mike Ford is the closest thing they have to one, and he hasn't played in nearly three weeks. Ford definitely has the size to be a matchup problem for RU's undersized front line if he plays. Backup Jamar Taylor has been injured as well.
It wouldn't be much of a surprise if the result of the game ultimately came down to a few big plays, penalties, and special teams. USF's new kicker Maikon Bonani does seem to be a bit of an upgrade accuracy-wise over Delbert Alvarado. USF has a marked advantage in most special teams categories. USF's turnover margin isn't great, but RU has one of the worst in the country, owing to the play of quarterback Mike Teel, and a secondary that has done very little ball-hawking this season.
One area where Rutgers does have the decided edge is team discipline, as they are 11th in yards penalized this season, while USF checks in all the way down at 93rd. On average, USF commits four more penalties a game than Rutgers, for 25 additional yards. USF has been one of the most-penalized teams in the country during Leavitt's tenure. Some of that will come from aggressiveness on defense, but anecdotally, I think the Bulls are very sloppy, and sometimes win by the force of sheer talent. If they occur at crucial moments, penalties undoubtedly may be USF's achilles heel in this contest.
There's just too much volatility in Mike Teel's performance from week to week for me to give RU much of a chance on Saturday. USF has been trending downward over the past month, and RU upward, but I think USF is too good to keep struggling for the rest of the season. Of course, I thought Rutgers would get blown out by Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. Sagarin seems to think the difference between these two teams is worth about three points. Add in another three-four for home field advantage, and that's a reasonable expectation as to how this game will play out.