It is understandable if the Rutgers football program has difficulty maintaining focus this week. Scarlet Knight junior defensive tackle Eric LeGrand injured his spinal column covering a kickoff in last week's victory over Army. LeGrand was an important contributor who played considerable minutes for Rutgers, in addition to being a well-respected team leader. According to media reports he is presently paralyzed from the neck down. LeGrand's future prognosis remains uncertain while doctors attempt to learn the full extent of his injuries.
That tragic injury capped an all-around miserable day for Rutgers in the Meadowlands. Starting linebacker Manny Abreu was injured by an Army cut block and is expected to miss the next several weeks, and other starters like receiver Mohamed Sanu and tackle Desmond Stapleton are currently playing through injuries. Most worrying of all on the field was how the Rutgers pass protection struggled after Stapleton was forced to the sidelines during the second half. Rutgers gave up eight sacks total on the day, and now rank dead last of any bowl subdivision team in sacks allowed. The faulty pass protection doomed Rutgers to an early deficit, necessitating a furious second-half comeback in order to escape with a win.
Things will not get any easier this week when the Scarlet Knights travel to Pittsburgh for their second Big East conference game (and first on the road). The Panthers feature one of the nation's top receivers in Jonathan Baldwin, and a dynamic backfield duo in Ray Graham and Dion Lewis (Graham is the half-brother of starting Rutgers free safety Khaseem Greene.) They too are missing several key contributors, with end Greg Romeus and linebacker Dan Mason not expected to play, but another end in Jabaal Sheard is likely to give the struggling Rutgers line fits.
There are several signs for optimism, however. Greg Schiano has largely had Dave Wannstedt's number in this series, with the Pitt's coach reputation of being too conservative in close games following him from the NFL into the college ranks. If by chance the Rutgers offensive line can hold, then Pitt's secondary, which famously collapsed two years ago to spark Rutgers turning around its season, is ripe for quarterback Chas Dodd and his young, athletic receiving corps to pick apart. Pitt too has had their own issues on the offensive line. Rutgers may be down two contributors for this game, but tackle Scott Vallone and a stout front seven should still provide a considerable challenge.
The Rutgers defense has been paradoxical this season, generating a fantastic pass rush when viewed by the naked eye, but not registering many sacks or big plays. They have done a very good job of forcing teams below their season norms for points scored and total yardage, and that is likely happening because offenses are forced to adjust to the attacking Rutgers defense. Most deep passes have to go off the table, usually leading to a steady diet of runs and short passes. In many ways that plays into Pitt's strengths, and it will be up to Rutgers to respond with more zone coverages to try to force the Panthers into mistakes and unfavorable down and distance combinations.
Pitt seems to have a better kicking game, and while their offensive line is mediocre, they at least have been able to run the ball this year. Rutgers can light up their secondary, but the real challenge will be with keeping Dodd upright long enough (and healthy) to deliver those footballs. The main concerns should be with losing the field position and time of possession contests, forcing/preventing turnovers, and making plays on special teams. Unfortunately, most of those X-factors should favor Pitt on Saturday. The one wrench in all of that is all of the past history between Wannstedt and his former assistant Schiano (they both coached with the Chicago Bears). Games in this series are usually close, and if that were to happen again then Schiano's more-aggressive approach could be the difference maker.
Rutgers meets Pittsburgh at noon this Saturday at Heinz Field. The game will be broadcast in New York on SNY.