Thursday night in Piscataway, freezing cold, a packed house on hand, an explosive Louisville team coming in to play a tough Rutgers defense keyed by ball control running. If 2012 has on some cosmic level been about recreating the magic of 2006, this game might as well constitute a proxy baptism for the lingering demons from that year. Rutgers football can't get over the hump, can't do this, can't do that, the same chorus has been repeated umpteenth times until now to largely death ears in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights let conference titles slip through their grasps in 2006, 2008, and arguably 2011 as well. There will never be a better chance than now to finally win a depleted Big East, with the cards (heh) literally lining up with an ideal conference home slate, and not having West Virginia around anymore to kick dust in our eyes. No, they're off the land of no defense, and that leaves the two remaining best conference football programs in a rightful showdown for bragging rights.
If the glory of the Orange Bowl (or the Sugar Bowl if Kent State both wins, and somehow avoids being punished by coaches' poll voters) was not motivation enough, there's also lingering bitterness from the last two contests. Louisville capped off an embarrassing 2010 season for Rutgers with a blowout win in Piscataway, and then won a nail biter last season thanks to missed field goals and dropped touchdowns from Rutgers. Indeed, this has been a series featuring a number of wild swings. You had Bobby Petrino blowing up Coach Schiano's pregame ritual way out of proportion in the 2005 laugher, which actually was pretty competitive in the first half. 2006 obviously, then Rutgers gave it away to Steve Kragthorpe in 2007. Then came the Mike Teel obliteration in 2008, nailing the coffin on Kragthorpe in 2009, and then UL returning the favor to help push Kirk Ciarrocca out the door the following season. It's more history than you would expect given the limited interaction between the two programs.
As to this specific game, some of the excuses being given in the press for the Rutgers offensive play calling are certainly debatable. Clearly, the very fact that the topic is being discussed underscores the fact that the Rutgers coaching staff is feeling at least some heat after last week. Here's the contrarian take: if you look at the games where Rutgers has had offensive success, they were in contests that were expected to be tossups at best coming in - USF, Arkansas, and Cincinnati. Arguably, Rutgers has looked the best when expectations are high, and struggled more against opponents perceived to be not as good in a given week (as Kent State for example, proved to be much better than its loss to Kentucky would indicate.)
That's the reason you have to be confident on our end besides the home game factor. The offense just plays with more aggression, gusto, and determination when risk taking appears to be necessary, and the whole team has benefited as a result. The keys are to get Jawan Jamison involved early, move the chains over the middle with Tim Wright, and pound the rock just enough to set up the inevitable sidelines bomb to Brandon Coleman. If it connects move often than not, if Rutgers can keep a lid on the stupid penalties, Nova can recapture his mid-season moxie, and Scott Vallone and Khaseem Greene can work their defensive magic one more time on senior night, then there's just enough room for optimism here to see a path to victory.
On the Louisville side, distractions are abound. They just made it into the ACC, and there are conflicting reports about Charlie Strong interviewing for Auburn, although let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he didn't. Beyond that, Teddy Bridgewater was injured in last week's game against Louisville, and the Cardinals are coming off a bad road loss to Syracuse, followed by an inexplicable, horrific, home loss to a terrible UConn program that had no business being on the same field as them. Pitt was an utter disaster for Rutgers, and we're not even at the same level of futility that they showed, even if both are kind of getting swept under the rug in the euphoria over conference expansion and having a shot at the conference crown.
Beyond that, does anyone else have the notion that this Louisville team is still quite young, and probably a year away from truly reaching their potential? Obviously, Teddy Bridgewater is brilliant, fantastic, any adjectives you want to throw at him. He's the best player in the Big East, one of the top in the country, and gives UL a chance against anybody. You simply cannot discount the possibility that he takes them on their back and wills them to victory, through no fault of Rutgers. As good as Gary Nova can be, and that is quite high when he's on, Bridgewater is in another level entirely. It's almost enough to discount the fact that for the other twenty one starters on the field, you probably would give the edge at more positions to Rutgers. RU has had injuries, but none that hurt quite as much as Michaelee Harris and Senorise Perry on offense. RU has the far superior offensive line, but its total offensive numbers are in the doldrums due to outrageously conservative play calling. They also have the better defense, while both teams have had issues in the punting game.
This is not to take anything at all away from Louisville. They are quite good, very capable of winning, and they are definitely poised for even bigger things in the future. In this game though, more of the underlying factors point towards Rutgers. What else did you expect? Go to Card Chronicle and you will probably find a lot of good reasons why they will win. Me, I'm looking forward to freezing my butt off tonight, and being groggy as all heck tomorrow. Let's hope that it ends up being worth it.
Prediction: Rutgers 20, Louisville 16.