How quickly a year changes everything. Rutgers fans by now are well familiar with their ascent back up from the depths of 2010. That was the season where Louisville started to move in the right direction under first-year head coach Charlie Strong, who quickly moved to erase the futility of Steve Kragthorpe's tenure. The prognosticators dropped the ball on Rutgers, but may not have been too far off on the Cardinals. They are a very young team, and their inexperience shows, but Strong clearly has the program moving in the right direction. Why else would he have just displaced Greg Schiano as the highest-paid coach in the Big East? Louisville may struggle over the next two months, but they have optimism and hope for the future, which is more than you can say for our friends in Storrs for instance.
A rebuilding year was in the cards, so to speak, and that is just what has happened thus far outside of a fun win over Kentucky. As to the matchup itself, it has all the makings of classic trap game. Next week's showdown with West Virginia looms right around the corner for Rutgers, with ABC picking up the game for regional broadcast, and Eric LeGrand musing about leading the team on to the field. Looking past UL would clearly be a mistake. They are due for an upset with that much talent concentrated on their roster. Rutgers has so much on the line though, and showed a good capacity to come back from adversity against Syracuse and Navy. RU cannot afford to look past Strong or the Cardinals, not on a short week. The hope is here that they will not, with the need to avenge last year's walloping in Piscataway still fresh on our team's minds.
This week's media theme seems to be comparing the myriad of similarities between Rutgers and Louisville in 2011. Both start freshman quarterbacks, play good defense, and struggle on offense. In terms of yardage - the Cardinals and Scarlet Knights are close. The main differences?
- Rutgers is far better in pass protection.
- Rutgers generates more turnovers.
- Rutgers scores more points.
- Rutgers has a better defensive pass efficiency.
When taking into account the sacks and turnovers, Louisville is likely a little stronger than Rutgers at moving the ball on offense, and at not giving up big plays. Rutgers is certainly vulnerable to the deep pass if they cannot get after opposing QBs, as was clear from the UNC game. The problem for Louisville is that the RU defense could force quarterback Teddy Bridgewater into freshman mistakes if a patchwork Cardinal line cannot protect him. Both teams have struggled on offense this year, but at least Rutgers has been able to score points (good field position and defense/special teams tend to help on that front.) Not only has UL's line been shaky, but Charlie Strong just sacked offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, who received a lot of credit for a surprising 6-6 campaign in 2010. Now QB coach (and former Nebraska OC) Shawn Watson is calling plays. Louisville may be forced to play it safe on offense, and try to capitalize on an opponent's mistakes. Hey, that strategy has worked well for Rutgers thus far.
Rutgers may not be able to replicate its yardage success against Navy on Friday. Gary Nova, while playing very well, tempted fate on numerous throws last Saturday. There will not be nearly as much open if the running game regresses to its usual struggles, although you can count on Frank Cignetti trying to run early and often to win the field position battle. One thing to look for is Rutgers trying to take a few more shots down the field with deep passes to Mark Harrison and Brandon Coleman. Cigs has been trying that strategy all season long, and it has gotten close a handful of times. After looking at what T.Y. Hilton did a few weeks back, and thinking about the temptation to be aggressive and go for the quick strike, the thinking here is that RU tries a lot along the sidelines once again. If the team gets in trouble in this one, it will likely owe to trying to force this issue to the detriment of field position and sustaining drives.
Prediction: Rutgers 26, Louisville 18