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Rutgers-Syracuse game preview

Doug Marrone had an apt observation about Saturday's game.

Marrone is 2-0 vs. Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano but 0-2 vs. Knights offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. That’s because Cignetti was the coordinator at Pittsburgh last season and was hired by Schiano when Panther coach Dave Wannstedt was reassigned following last season.

"He’s done a great job against us in the past when he was at Pittsburgh," Marrone said, referring to 37-10 and 45-14 victories Cignetti engineered against the Orange.

Give Syracuse and Marrone all the credit in the world. They have things going in the right direction. Rutgers football was fighting with one hand tied behind its back the past two years. That does not mean RU would have won those games, but we simply did not have chance due to a horrible offensive coordinator. Syracuse wasn't itself when Greg Robinson was head coach. Rutgers wasn't itself when Kirk Ciarrocca was offensive coordinator. That's not to say that Frank Cignetti is a world beater, but merely being some vague degree of competent has done wonders for RU's previously beleaguered pass protection. What once was a concern is now basically a non-issue, all thanks to Cignetti not running a poorly designed offense. Look for Rutgers to try to air the ball out against an injury-depleted Syracuse secondary. It sure would be nice if Brandon Coleman and Mark Harrison started living up to their (literally) enormous potential, and made the easy catches look easy for a change.

Cignetti will have his hands full scheming against a blitzing specialist on Scott Shafer (could the Wildcat possibly return after last year's success?), but the coordinator matchup that truly matches up in RU's favor is against Syracuse OC Nate Hackett. Did everyone suddenly forget that Hackett called a horrific game against us last year? They had Delone Carter running for five yards a carry against a depleted defensive line. The Rutgers secondary was getting cut to shreds all year by being spread out and slanted to death. Yet Hackett stubbornly stuck to his guns, playing into the one strength Rutgers had: generating a pass rush against immobile pocket passers. Hackett isn't as bad as Ciarrocca, and it's difficult to separate scheme from talent, but criticism of Hackett has been steadily growing in upstate New York over the past several weeks. Look for Syracuse to try to take some shots deep with receiver Van Chew, even though Ryan Nassib's numbers point towards him being more of a dink and dunk guy at QB.

Syracuse will be under a lot of scrutiny Saturday, coming off a controversial win over Toledo, and playing in their first Big East conference game since announcing their departure for the ACC. It would be natural to expect a few blown calls against them, but that speculation is probably wrong. The league office in Providence has had it out for Rutgers for years, and RU earned itself little good will in leading the charge against John Marinatto and the conference status quo over the past summer. Those efforts were wrongly viewed as destabilizing the Big East (they were the result, not the cause, as football-centric expansion was the only way to save the league.) Indeed, that might actually be one area where Rutgers and Syracuse can find common ground. Considering the BE's past shortsighted thinking, they may well see Syracuse as already out the door. Weakening Rutgers gives them leverage over an athletic department that has been eyeing the door for seemingly years.

Ultimately, Rutgers looks like the better team on paper, which may be why the line dropped from opening at -3. Both teams beat up reasonably good MAC visitors last weekend, but the Scarlet Knights looked somewhat more impressive. Syracuse has won a few close games, which tends to happen when you're well coached, but eventually that luck has to swing. Of course, you could have said the same two years ago, and we all know how that went. The Dome is a tough place to play, and doubly so when the SU athletic department is trying hard to drum up attendance. Weird things have tended to happen in this series (outside of the GRob-blowout era.) If this is indeed the last time these two programs meet for the near future, it's likely to be as memorable as RU's recent rivalry games against UConn.

Prediction: Rutgers 27, Syracuse 23