College football is one of the more unique sports where one game can define an entire season. With a large number of teams and a high level of disparity, it's possible that some teams only get a few chances to prove themselves to the entire nation. For Rutgers, that chance comes Thursday night. After two straight losses to Teddy Bridgewater, the Knights get a chance not only to preserve a BCS bid, but for redemption. The series against Bridgewater's Cardinals may be 0-2, but a win on Thursday gives Rutgers a chance to end the rivalry on the highest of notes.
The yards given up to Derek Carr, the crazy two-point conversion allowed versus Garrett Gilbert...none of that will be remembered if RU leaves Papa John's Cardinal Stadium with a win. It's rare that a team has an opportunity for a program-defining win in back-to-back years, but fate has given the Knights a chance at glory for the second season in a row. Of course, with the move to the Big Ten, Rutgers should have plenty of opportunities for nationally televised upsets on the Worldwide Leader. Truthfully, however, this game is special. Rutgers and Louisville are equals in terms of prestige. They are seen as the heavyweights in their respective conference and are the centerpiece for the inaugural American Athletic Conference. Seeing programs like Ohio State, Michigan, and Nebraska visit the banks of the Old Raritan will be amazing. But Rutgers will always be seen as the underdog - maybe not in terms of seasonal talent, but in legacy and tradition. Yes, Louisville is the favorite heading into the game, but I don't think I'm lying if I say every Rutgers football fan believes that the Scarlet Knights can take down Teddy Bridgewater.
That's why this game is special, and that's why the stakes are high. It's not just a BCS bid. It's bragging rights for the right to say that in the end, Rutgers was actually the superior program - the team that deserved to play in January. We've been waiting for that moment for too long. The time is now.
You don't need a degree in blogging (which I don't have) to point out the obvious matchup. I think I can say without hyperbole that Teddy is looking to feast on a struggling back seven. Like a fat kid at fat camp, the middle of the Rutgers defense is soft. Opponents have utilized the short passing game to exploit the mismatch between the linebackers and faster receivers. Missed tackles have led to breakdowns, forcing RU to play on its heels. Dave Cohen lives by defending the big play, but in the process leaves his coverage open in the middle.
Funny thing is, Louisville is not a short-game team like Fresno State and SMU. Because of the weak competition, Bridgewater's receivers have been running wild deep into opponents' secondaries, giving the impression that the Cardinals are a team that live on the big play. Could that play into Dave Cohen's hand? Maybe. Probably not. But it does give Rutgers a chance. A disruptive defensive line is the best medicine against a big play offense, so the battle in the trenches will be a key factor on Thursday. Louisville could really be down if deep-threat DeVante Parker can't go. The junior wideout is Bridgewater's favorite target, leading the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. The Cardinals have a stable of wide receivers, however, so if Parker is forced to sit, they still have options.
In reality, the pressure will most likely be on the offense. The best way to limit Bridgewater would be to keep him off the field entirely, so QB Gary Nova better bring his A game. A productive running game will help take the pressure off, and if Goodwin's performance at SMU is any indication, the offense should be able to move the ball. Louisville has lofty rankings in both rushing and passing, but a look at their schedule elicits a hefty dose of skepticism. Rutgers is a team that really feeds off of big plays on offense, so it is imperative that Flood stays with the hot hand at running back. Savon Huggins hasn't looked good against anyone, so if he doesn't do anything with his early carries, it's best not to see him for the majority of the game.
So far this season, Rutgers is uncharacteristically -1 in turnover margin, compared to +7 for the Cardinals. That puts even more pressure on the offense for big play momentum, because Bridgewater has been razor sharp through five games.
Personnel-wise, Rutgers actually matches up well with Louisville in terms of scheme. The Cardinals do not use a short-passing game as a replacement for the running game, but instead rely on the long ball. Rutgers has seemingly put all its focus on stopping the big play, which Louisville loves to do through the air. Can the Knights keep up on defense? We'll find out tomorrow.
How can you even think that Rutgers has a chance against Louisville, especially after seeing the Scarlet Knights surrender miles of offense to lesser squads? Because like the fans, the players and coaches have been preparing for this game since the clock hit zero in Piscataway last year. Coach Kyle Flood or LB Jamal Merrell won't say it, but make no mistake: this is the game for Rutgers. If they are going to give one complete effort this season, this is the time, and they know it. For that reason, I have Rutgers pulling the upset, 35-34.
Now it's your turn. Who wins the final conference game between Rutgers and Louisville? Leave your comments below!