Some might say that Rutgers’ first season as a member of the Big Ten went as exactly as expected. The Scarlet Knights played a vanilla out of conference schedule that included the likes of Howard, Tulane, Washington State and Navy. While head coach Kyle Flood’s team easily dispatched inferior competition, his team had a much tougher go of it against a strong Big Ten slate that included road games against Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State along with home tilts against Wisconsin and Penn State. Despite not beating many quality opponents, this team still finished with a 7-5 record against the nation’s No. 47 strength of schedule, according to USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin, including the season finale over new conference foe Maryland. Rutgers lost four of its final six games, including lopsided losses to Wisconsin (37-0) and Michigan State (45-3).
Offensively, Rutgers is far from what you would consider a juggernaut. The backfield lost top rusher Paul James in the fourth game of the season and has since struggled to find a sustainable replacement. Freshman tailback Robert Martin (6-0, 200 pounds) emerged as the primary option over the final month of the regular season, rushing for 271 of his 334 yards in Rutgers’ last four games. Quarterback Gary Nova (178-of-307 passing, 2,667 yards, 20 TD, 12 INT) provides a steady hand under center, ranking third in the Big Ten in passer rating (144.63). Other than productive wide out Leonte Carroo (53 catches, 1,043 yards, 10 touchdowns), the passing game lacks playmakers, although that hasn’t been a requirement in exploiting UNC’s secondary this season.
It seems like a running theme, but UNC will once again have the opportunity to take advantage of a bad run defense. Almost all of the teams in the Big Ten rely heavily on the ground game, and this season, nearly every team had success running the ball against this Rutgers defense. Carolina fans might find this hard to believe, but this is a unit that gave up nearly as many rushing yards per game (211.8) as the Tar Heels. Rutgers’ pass defense wasn’t much better as this secondary had a pass defense efficiency rating of 134.1, which was good for second worst in the Big Ten. The one area where Rutgers did prove to be effective was getting to the quarterback. The Knights’ defense recorded 32 sacks on the season (4th Big Ten), so UNC’s front five will once again be facing the challenge of trying to keep quarterback Marquise Williams upright.
"I think what happens is you have a lot of time and you've got really good, smart, creative coaches and when you give those coaches that kind of time they usually come up with something a little bit different. I think that's why when you get to bowl season you see a lot of exotic plays. I would expect we will see some from North Carolina.'' – Flood
"I like the idea of playing another Power 5 opponent; I like the idea of playing another Power 5 school. I love the opportunity to play at a great stadium and to play at Ford Field in a controlled environment. It's a great stadium. I think all those things enhance the Bowl experience." – Flood
UNC Secondary vs. Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo
Another week, another one-man receiving corps that the Tar Heels secondary must vanquish. Rutgers’ wide out Leonte Carroo may play in the Big Ten, but he has SEC speed. Carroo’s stats are listed above, but it is also worth mentioning that the Edison, N.J. native is averaging an astounding 19.7 yards per catch and has caught half of starting quarterback Gary Nova’s touchdown throws (10). The question for North Carolina is which secondary shows up in Detroit? Will it be the unit that allowed Pitt’s Tyler Boyd to run wild, or will it be the group that contained Duke’s Jamison Crowder? Rutgers next leading receiver had just 23 catches, so if the Heels can keep Carroo in check, then they could make the Scarlet Knights’ offense one-dimensional.
UNC Rushing Attack vs. Rutgers Run Defense
Rutgers run defense is bad (211 ypg), but the thinking here is that this is more about how well the UNC offense can execute. Marquise Williams took a physical beating throughout the regular season, especially in a brutal finale against N.C. State. UNC’s offensive line will receive a much-needed boost if Lucas Crowley is indeed back at full strength after leaving the loss to the Wolfpack early. Perhaps the most anticipated return from injury would be freshman running back Elijah Hood. Hood’s hard-nosed physical running style would seem to be an ideal fit an offense needing to establish a physical presence against a Big Ten opponent. If Hood can make a strong return, and T.J. Logan can return to the form he showed against Georgia Tech and Duke, then UNC’s backfield could be in for a big day.
Heels Prep for Rutgers in Big Ten Country
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