After last week's bye, and two warm-up games against Norfolk State and Florida International, Rutgers is finally set to square off against its first relatively tough opponent on Saturday when the North Carolina Tar Heels come to Piscataway. Actually, that description deserves one big qualifier. The Rutgers offense looked uninspired for the first half against Norfolk, and was downright anemic in all aspects in Miami. The Scarlet Knights narrowly edged FIU 19-14 through superior defense and special teams, which only looks slightly better in retrospect considering that the Golden Panthers almost scored another near-upset the following week against Texas A&M.
Perhaps Rutgers took FIU lightly, but the Scarlet Knights should not have, and there will be no such excuses available against UNC. The Tar Heels, a preseason darling to finish near or atop the ACC standings, have seen their vaunted defense eviscerated by a series of off-field incidents. They are likely to play without their entire starting secondary, along with top NFL defensive line prospects Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin. Their offense however has looked far better than expected up to this point, keeping North Carolina close in losses to LSU and Georgia Tech.
Speaking of the Yellow Jackets, they are one of the few bowl subdivision teams that run the Triple Option offense, which has a reputation for negatively affecting defenses in subsequent games. There are not going to be many better opportunities for Rutgers to get its offense on track and up to expectations. The end result for this game rests with the performance on that side of the ball. RU did not have a great offense either during their landmark 2006 season (coincidentally, sparked by a close win over UNC), but they at least had a top running game to fall back on then, which is no longer the case.
The Scarlet Knights will regain wide receivers Quron Pratt and J.T. Tartacoff off the injured list after missing the team's first two games, but with the trade off of making due with an injured backfield. Senior blocking fullback Edmond Laryea is out for the year with a knee injury, and starting tailback Joe Martinek may not play. If Martinek is out, then freshman Jordan Thomas will likely split carries with De'Antwan Williams, who could finally see his first major game action.
Rutgers could not effectively run or pass against FIU, and the offense will need to get going in this one, if only to give the defense more of a breather. That group was gassed in week two by having to play so many snaps, but came up with enough stops and turnovers when it counted. Senior safety Joe Lefeged made history by forcing five turnovers. RU's vaunted front seven will always generate most of the headlines though, and they match up well with UNC's pro-style attack if Rutgers can somehow jump out to an early lead and control the clock.
Facing an 0-2 start, North Carolina is now playing in desperation mode, with the season hanging in the balance. Rutgers does not quite have that level of imperative to win this contest, but they arguably need it just as badly. It would be fair to write off the offense as a lost cause if they cannot steady the ship soon, and the Rutgers faithful will surely start grumbling if the Scarlet Knights cannot get it done in this one. The Big East looked weaker than usual in September, so they would be remiss to squander what could be a golden opportunity to finally win the conference and secure a top bowl bid.
Rutgers host North Carolina this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, N.J. The game will be televised on ESPNU.