Most Rutgers football games this season have come down right to the wire, and last week's loss to South Florida was no exception. The Scarlet Knights led most of the game, but fell behind 28-27 early in the fourth quarter, and in the end were not able to eke out a road victory against the rebuilding Bulls. That game saw Rutgers adopt more of a short-passing approach on offense, which eased the pressure on what has been a horrific pass protection unit, but limited opportunities for big plays. A critical end zone safety provided what turned out to be USF's margin of victory. The Rutgers offense actually was not the goat for once though, as the team's once-stout defensive unit has succumbed to a spate of injuries.
Now the Scarlet Knights return to Piscataway for their first home game since Eric LeGrand's devastating spinal cord injury and paralysis at the Meadowlands. No public details have been released about LeGrand's medical progress, but after a few complications he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in West Orange, N.J. This Saturday will be an opportunity for the Rutgers athletic community to come together in support of Eric, but the season must go on. 2010 has been an extremely disappointing year, with Rutgers mired at 4-4 and struggling to earn bowl eligibility.
This week's opponent is also looking to go bowling this year, and their current record represents a surprising role reversal for the two teams from the past few seasons. Syracuse has defied expectations under second-year coach Doug Marrone. Behind an attacking defense, an effective rushing attack, and good special teams play, the Orange stand only one game away from their first winning season in nearly a decade. They are coming off a disappointing home loss to the Louisville Cardinals. Oddly enough, while the Carrier Dome has a reputation for being a tough home venue, Syracuse has done most of its damage this year in a trio of conference road upsets.
Offensively, Rutgers established a formula against USF of short passes and running out of the Wildcat formation. With the team's offensive line still in tatters, look for freshman Chas Dodd once again to get the call under center. Also seeing time will be receivers Mohamed Sanu and Jeremy Deering taking direct snaps. With Sanu battling a lingering injury, Deering saw the majority of the snaps last week, demonstrating impressive burst and acceleration in the process. Rutgers is going to have to strike the right mix of protecting Dodd while keeping their play calls from being too predictable, which will be no easy task against a top Syracuse pass rush.
Rutgers has been a sieve on defense without the services of LeGrand or linebacker Manny Abreu. The latter is questionable to return this weekend, but may still be limited if he does play. That portends well for the Orange, where Marrone has done a great job rebuilding an offensive line that excels in creating holes for senior back Delone Carter. While not as futile offensively as Rutgers, Syracuse has struggled on that side of the ball as well. If this one turns out to be a low-scoring field position battle, then seemingly Syracuse would have the edge based on their running game and special teams play. Rutgers will need to keep its home crowd invested, and recapture its propensity to force turnovers from earlier in the season.
Both programs' efforts at appealing to the New York City market make for another interesting game subplot. Rutgers is the only major conference football program located in the metropolitan area, but many of Syracuse's alumni come from Long Island and New Jersey, as anyone who has ever attended the Big East basketball tournament can attest to. Marrone has made a concerted effort at wooing NYC in contrast to previous Syracuse coach Greg Robinson.
Rutgers has largely brushed aside any shots up to this point, but last year's drumming in the Carrier Dome proves that Syracuse can no longer be taken for granted as they were under Robinson. Heck, they are actually favored in this one by a field goal, which would have been incomprehensible not too long ago. With Rutgers in flux and looking internally for answers, this is as prime an opportunity as any for Syracuse to gain ground both locally, and in the Big East conference race. All the pressure is on a Rutgers team backed up against the wall, and it is difficult to be that optimistic with how this year's Knights have looked.
Rutgers hosts Syracuse this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Piscataway, NJ. The game will be televised live on ESPNU.