It's hard to find much to criticize head coach Greg Schiano for during his 10-year tenure at Rutgers, especially when considering that the Scarlet Knights have posted four straight eight-win seasons while winning 18 of their last 22 contests. But there are still some hard feelings in Piscataway about Schiano's efforts to push through the $102 million expansion of Rutgers Stadium during the economic downturn that ultimately was completed prior to last season. Add to that former NFL commissioner and current Big East adviser Paul Tagliabue mocking the value of a Rutgers football game this spring in terms of its benefit with regard to the New York market, and the road blocks in Schiano's path become a little clearer. But the Wyckoff, N.J. native has maintained his focus on the task at hand and has Rutgers just one win away from its third 3-0 start in the last 28 seasons.
The Scarlet Knights haven't been overly impressive in collecting their first two wins of the 2010 campaign, throttling FCS opponent Norfolk State, 31-0, before defeating Florida International, 19-14, on Sept. 11. Schiano, who served as UNC head coach Butch Davis's defensive coordinator at Miami for three seasons ('98-00), appears to once again have a strong defense anchoring his program, ranking 14th in total defense (259 yards per game) and third in scoring defense (7.0 ppg). The offense has struggled to this point – 102nd nationally in total offense (297.00 ypg) – but Rutgers benefited from an open date last weekend to turn things around on that side of the field. The Scarlet Knights finished the '09 season with a 9-4 record, thanks in large part to the second-best turnover margin in the country (plus-1.54), and the '10 edition has provided a solid imitation of those efforts by boasting a plus-1.5 turnover margin (13th nationally).
"I don't believe in that stuff. Our measuring stick is us; not the other team. Our measuring stick is how well do we do compared to how good we can be… You play 12 games a year. Every game is a statement game in my opinion.'' – Schiano when asked if Saturday's game was a measuring stick for his program
"How do I deal with it? Just prepare and if guys come back you just have to make sure your players are aware of the different styles they may have as individual players. They're pretty darned good without the personnel. Schematically they're not going to change. They may have pulled back a little offensively but defensively I think they still ran their stuff… They're a good football team." – Schiano on not knowing if more UNC players will be cleared to play against Rutgers
Matchups to Watch
Rutgers Offense vs. North Carolina Defense
The Tar Heels enter Saturday's contest not knowing exactly who will suit up on defense for the third game in a row, while the Scarlet Knights are desperately working to correct a handful of issues that have plagued the offense in the opening weeks of the season.
The Rutgers faithful were anticipating a breakout season for quarterback Tom Savage after the sophomore shined in his rookie season (2,211 yards, 14 TD, 7 INT), but the Springfield, Pa. native has completed just 17 of 34 passes for 220 yards, including a touchdown and an interception, against mediocre opposition. Savage's 108.2 passing efficiency rating stands 93rd nationally and dead last in the Big East, helping to explain the offense's meager 125 yards per game average (113th nationally).
"I just have to go out there and make the throws and stay on the field as much as I can," Savage said. "Quarterback is all about getting into the groove so I just have to make that first pass and keep going."
Sophomore wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (seven catches for 90 yards, TD) serves a dual role as a wildcat formation quarterback, which may be called upon against the Tar Heels's defense due to concerns up front. The Scarlet Knights's offensive line lost three starters from the '09 squad, including second-team All-America Anthony Davis, and the result has been a green unit that is allowing two sacks per contest (T-65th).
Complicating issues even further and placing more pressure on Savage is the news that starting running back Joe Martinek (137 yards, TD) is questionable for Saturday after injuring his left ankle against FIU and sitting out of practice last week.
"I'm hoping Joe will be able to come back, but it's going to be nip-and-tuck," Schiano said.
For the Tar Heels, missing six starters and a handful of backups on defense has stretched a unit that was thought to be one of the best in the country only two months ago. While the statistics aren't impressive (81st in total defense, 91st in scoring defense), the players on hand have played well enough to give UNC a chance to win both ball games this season in the final minutes.
There's no doubt, however, that the personnel losses have been debilitating.
"It's everything," Davis said. "You take six, seven, eight or nine guys out of a lineup that have got over 30 games of starting experience, so you lose not only the talent, you lose the depth, you lose playing experience, you lose leadership, you lose the I've-been-in-big-games-before [mentality]…
"Some of these guys who have played these first two weeks, it's been baptism under fire. Some of these guys literally have minutes of experience, not games and seasons."
North Carolina's T.J. Yates vs. Rutgers Pass Defense
All you need to do is watch Schiano on the sideline for 10 minutes to get an idea of how his defense plays on the football field. His aggressive personality carries over to his strategy defensively, which pressures the quarterback through a variety of stunts and blitzes. The Scarlet Knights lost five of their top-six tacklers from last season, but they've been solid thus far, ranking in the top-25 in the four key statistical categories (rush, scoring, total and pass efficiency).
Fifth-year senior quarterback T.J. Yates blistered the Rutgers defense two years ago in Piscataway, however, to the tune of 221 yards and three touchdowns on 14-of-22 passing. The Marietta, Ga. native's career has taken a roller coaster ride since that outing, but he's started his final season in Chapel Hill with a flurry, completing 46 of his 70 passes for 621 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
Yates currently ranks 13th nationally in total offense, tallying 296.5 yards per game.
"He was pretty darn good the night we played him," Schiano said. "But he has improved against other people. I don't know if he can be that much better than he was against us that night… He's a proven veteran quarterback who has made a lot of big plays in the passing game."
Helping Yates along this season is his reliance on a multitude of receivers – eight different Tar Heels have caught at least two passes this season, led by tight end Zack Pianalto's 15 receptions for 136 yards.