Pitt football-Rutgers preview

The University of Pittsburgh (6-1) is set to meet the mighty 19th ranked Rutgers Scarlet Knights (6-0) at Heinz field on Saturday. Many are calling this game the most important game of the Dave Wannstedt era. PantherDigest.com Senior Writer Dale Grdnic provides PantherDigest.com fans with a preview of the match up. Read on for details.

PITTSBURGH -- Even though it's the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers has been more well-known for alum James Gandolfini -- aka Tony Soprano -- than its football program in recent years.

But sixth-year coach Greg Schiano has done his best to change that this season, as the Scarlet Knights have advanced to a 6-0 record and No. 19 national ranking this fall. It's a 180-degree turnaround.

Rutgers, which meets the University of Pittsburgh (6-1) on Saturday at 5:45 p.m. at Heinz Field, was 19-39 the previous five seasons under Schiano. The game will be broadcast nationwide on ESPN 2.

"It's been amazing,'' Schiano said, "and it's been great for the school.''

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt is more concerned about what Rutgers has done to improve on the football field than how its reputation has changed.

"Their special teams have blocked four punts,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They've blocked more kicks as one team than the entire seven teams that we have played up to this point.

... They lead the country in scoring defense, and they're second in the nation in total defense.''

Rutgers has allowed just 8.3 points per game with two shutouts against less than stellar competition. Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko and the nation's most efficient passing game will make for an interesting matchup.

"Fast, confident, physical, and every time I turn the tape on I see somebody else making a big play,'' Palko said. "The speed of their defense is going to be tough to match up against, and the complexity of it is going to be hard to get a handle on. So, anytime you face a team like that, it's going to be tough. And they know they're really good.''

Palko also noted that the Scarlet Knights usually stick with their starters on defense, shuffling in just another player or two during a game, and several are outstanding. Free safety Courtney Green leads Rutgers with 34 tackles, including 22 solo, one sack, three interceptions and one pass breakup. Tackle Ramel Meekins and end Will Beckford have three sacks each.

The Scarlet Knights have 19 sacks this season with 49 total stops behind the line and nine interceptions.

"They're a great defense, so it's not like we're going to stop them,'' Palko said. "It's not like we're going to come out and put 70 up on them.

"That's not the kind of defense they are. We'll be lucky to get the ball in the end zone. So, we just need to play hard, execute and try to score on them as much as possible. That's all we can do.''

Rutgers sacked Palko five times last season and held the Panthers to minus-11 rushing yards primarily because their quarterback tallied minus-34 on 10 carries. Ray Kirkley and Tim Murphy had 23 total yards rushing. The Scarlet Knights give up just 80.3 yards per game (10th in the nation).

"This will be, by far, our toughest test running the ball,'' Wannstedt said. "They're playing against the run as well as anyone we've played. Last year, we didn't do a good job of blocking, and we didn't give ourselves a chance because we fell behind (27-0 at halftime).''

Rutgers isn't one-dimensional, either, and averages more than 30 points per game. Sophomore tailback Ray Rice is fourth in the nation with 899 rushing yards (5.5 average) and 11 touchdowns. Senior fullback Brian Leonard is a bruiser expected to be a first-round pick next spring. He has just 164 yards this year, but a 4.4-yard average and two scores.

Sophomore quarterback Mike Teel has completed 56.6 percent of her passes for 821 yards and five touchdowns with seven interceptions. Leonard is the leading receiver with 21 catches for just 187 yards. Senior tight end Clark Harris (6-6, 260) has 14 catches for 199 yards and two scores, but the Scarlet Knights really don't have a home run threat.

"(Teel) is a real talented kid,'' Wannstedt said. "If you remember last year, he actually alternated as a freshman. Last week was his best week throwing the ball. He threw for (215) yards. I think he had two touchdowns.

"He's capable. They're smart. When you're running for about 250 yards a game and you get the big lead, there hasn't been the need to throw it. (And) they've done a very good job of protecting him.''

Both teams have done an excellent job in that area. Pitt has allowed just five quarterback sacks through seven games, while Rutgers has given up six in six games. And something will have to give for one of these two programs on the rise.

Notes: DE Chris McKillop (shoulder) has practiced and should start, but DT Mike Williams (shoulder) is out after having a setback this week. Redshirt frosh Craig Bokor has been moved back to DT from OG on a temporary basis until more players get healthy. ... Pitt MLB H.B. Blades has been named one of 10 semifinalists for the Butkus Award. Through seven games, Blades is sixth nationally and first in the Big East with 11.14 tackles per game and 12th nationally (first in the Big East) with 6.14 solo stops.

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