The Scarlet Knights return 15 starters (7 offense, 8 defense) from the 2007 squad that posted an 8-5 (3-4 Big East) record and won its second-straight bowl game with a 52-30 victory over Ball State in the International Bowl. Head coach Greg Schiano has lifted Rutgers out a century-plus funk in his eight seasons at the helm, removing the program's cellar dweller tag and becoming a perennial contender in the Big East Conference. The Scarlet Knights return a 3,000-yard passer in Mike Teel and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt, as well as two-time All-Big East safety Courtney Greene (101 tackles). Thursday nights have been events to behold in New Jersey, as Rutgers defeated No. 3 Louisville, 28-25, in 2006, and then knocked off No. 2 South Florida, 30-27, last season.
"Honestly, I don't feel like it's a must-win situation and I don't think the team feels that way. We don't look at things that way. It's more like we take every game as just that game. We don't look too far ahead or too far behind. You have to focus on what you have to do to the best of your ability." – Rutgers running back Kordell Young told the New Jersey Star-Ledger
"Where they've really made a lot of progress in their program is on the offensive line. They've got a lot of big guys – 6-foot-6, 310-pound guys – that have allowed Ray Rice and those running backs to have success. They've got Kenny Britt, who is a big-time receiver, along with [Tiquan] Underwood. Pro scouts think that they've got as many as 10 NFL potential type of guys that can go somewhere in the draft. It's the byproduct of seven good years of recruiting and building that program." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"Ray [Rice] has moved on to the National Football League and he's doing a great job and we're proud of him, but we have to kind of redefine who we are and what we are on offense. Last week, I think Kordell Young did a very good job rushing the football. I think we have some other guys that can play the position, and we probably need to get them some more touches and spread it around a little bit." – Schiano
"They're a well-coached football team. They have a lot of guys that can make plays, and they have a pretty good offensive line. I played against Anthony Davis in high school, so I know he's good offensive lineman. They got good receivers all over the place, and I know they'll have a good running back, so we've got our work cut out for us." – UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin
Scarlet Knight Spotlight
Red-shirt senior Mike Teel enters Thursday night's contest with a 22-8 record as a starter under center for Rutgers, following a breakout 2007 season in which the Oakland, N.J. product completed 203-of-349 passes for 3,147 yards with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He threw for 300 yards in three consecutive games last fall, and eventually finished the season ranked 17th nationally in passing efficiency.
But despite those statistics, Teel's ability had been questioned during the offseason, as skeptics painted the quarterback's success as the product of Ray Rice (2,012 yards, 24 touchdowns) and a stellar offensive line (allowed just 18 sacks combined in '06 & ‘07). But with Rice and three starting offensive linemen, including All-Big East tackles Jeremy Zuttah and Pedro Sosa, missing from the 2008 roster, this was expected to Teel's season to shine – or implode.
With two 1,000-yard receivers back in Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt, it's not as though the cupboard is bare for the quarterback that battled thumb and hand injuries for most of 2007. But in the season-opening 24-7 loss to Fresno State, Rutgers' offense failed to score until the 11:20 mark of the fourth quarter.
Teel completed 20 of his 39 passes for 263 yards and two interceptions and never found the end zone for a score.
"I need to be sharper," Teel told the Star-Ledger earlier this week. "I'm a fifth-year senior. I've been playing for three years. I can't go out and throw the way I did."
For Teel to finish his career at Rutgers as the all-time passing leader without an asterisk by his name, he will have to prove that he can win big games without the strong supporting cast that he's been accustomed to during his career. The next test in that process begins on Thursday night.
Matchups to Watch
Rutgers' offense vs. UNC's defense
The Scarlet Knights averaged 32.8 points and 449.3 yards per game in 2007, ranking 33rd and 18th in the nation, respectively. The Tar Heels only allowed 24.5 points and 349.8 yards per game last fall, ranking 43rd and 35th in the nation, respectively.
After one game in 2008, those successes from last season seem like a distant memory. Rutgers used a balanced attack in racking up 369 total yards of offense, but five of its six possessions crossed the 50-yard line with no points to show for the effort. "The words I would use are out of sync," Schiano said about his offense following the Fresno State loss. "I thought we did some good things, but we couldn't get into a good flow. It just didn't seem to flow freely."
North Carolina's defensive numbers were a little closer to its 2007 averages, giving up 27 points and 391 yards to McNeese State, but allowing those statistics to a FCS opponent doesn't provide for a glowing review.
"Earlier in the week I talked about the playmakers that they had, and they came out there and made big plays," defensive tackle Marvin Austin said following the victory. "We tried our best to put out the fire. We've just got to work on getting better as a team, trying to work on us and not worry about anyone else."
The reasons for the opening game struggles? The Scarlet Knights are still adjusting to the loss of 2,000-yard rusher Ray Rice and his 24 touchdowns, while the Tar Heels are having to replace not just one standout, but three – Kentwan Balmer, Hilee Taylor and Durell Mapp - and their combined 240 tackles, 32.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks in 2007.
Both teams have had at least 10 days to prepare for Thursday night's showdown, and these respective units have had plenty of time to reflect on their performances and lick their wounds. Now it's time to see if the opening weekend difficulties were either a matter of simply knocking the dust off or signs of season-long problems to come.
UNC's Rushing Attack vs. Rutgers' Run Defense
Rutgers lost first-team All-Big East selection Eric Foster, four-year starter Ron Girualt and Draddy Trophy finalist Brandon Renkart from a defensive line that helped the Scarlet Knights' run defense hold opponents to 156.92 yards (60th nationally). So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Fresno State's Ryan Matthews gained 163 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries (6.3 yards per carry average). In all, the Bulldogs gained 206 yards on 39 rushing attempts (5.3 ypc).
For a North Carolina ground game that stumbled over its own feet during its season-opening victory against McNeese State, a rebuilding run defense sounds rather appetizing.
"[McNeese State] was playing a lot of eight-man fronts, trying to give you bad plays in the running game and they succeeded," Davis said following the victory. "We kept trying to be hardheaded in establishing the run and trying to get some momentum in the beginning of the season. Certainly it's a coach's responsibility, it's my responsibility as a head coach to make sure we execute and we play better."
That inflexible approach showed its lack of success in the box score – running backs Greg Little, Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston combined for 75 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries (3.41 ypc). With an experienced offensive line that returned four starters, the Tar Heels had much higher expectations for a young tailback corps against a FCS opponent.
For North Carolina to shine on national television on Thursday night, a true balanced attack will be required for the Tar Heels to continue Rutgers' difficulties in defending the run.
*Schiano served as Davis' defensive coordinator when Davis was the head coach at the University of Miami in 1999 and 2000.
* North Carolina has played at Rutgers twice in the program's history, failing to score in both occurrences. The Scarlet Knights defeated the Tar Heels 5-0 in the first-ever matchup between the two schools on Nov. 1, 1894, and then shutout UNC, 19-0, on Oct. 4, 1919. In the only other matchup between the two teams, Rutgers edged the Tar Heels, 21-16, at Kenan Stadium on Sept. 2, 2006.
* Rutgers Stadium is currently undergoing a $102 million renovation project, which will increase the stadium's seating capacity to 56,000 and will be funded entirely by the revenue generated from ticket sales for the 14,000 new seats and from private donations.
* Rutgers defeated Princeton, 6-4, in the first-ever game of intercollegiate football on Nov. 6, 1869.