Game Preview: Houston at Rutgers

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Rutgers returns to High Point Solutions Stadium tomorrow after a four-week absence. Eager to redeem itself from a 24-10 loss to Louisville, the Scarlet Knights face Houston on Homecoming with renewed hope for the American's BCS berth.

Houston (5-1, 2-0) at Rutgers (4-2, 1-1)

Time:Noon, High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
TV/Radio: ESPNews, 710-WOR, 1450-AM, 97.5 FM
Series: First Meeting
Last meeting: First Meeting
Coaches: Rutgers – Kyle Flood (2nd season, 13-6); Houston – Tony Levine (2nd season 11-8)

Storyline Central

  • Youth Gone Wild -- Rutgers is as young as it gets in the defensive secondary, and it could not come at a worse time with the spread offense coming to Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights lost Ian Thomas (mid-season departure) and Lew Toler (broken arm) for the rest of the year, making returning junior Gareef Glashen the most experienced cornerback on the roster. Rutgers will start true freshmen Nadir Barnwell and Anthony Cioffi. Converted safety Delon Stephenson will have a role and red-shirt freshman Jevon Tyree is not far off from action. The Scarlet Knights gave up 104 points in its first two games against the spread in 2013.

  • Turning Point -- After a gift from UCF during the bye week, Rutgers has renewed hopes for a push to the BCS with Houston representing a defining moment. The push to 10-2 becomes more realistic if Rutgers continues to win games in which it is a favorite. At UCF and home against Cincinnati loom large on the schedule, but the Cougars are a realistic speed bump Saturday with the struggles of the pass defense. If Rutgers gets upset, things could spiral downward quickly like it did at the end of 2012.

  • Which Nova arrives? -- Quarterback Gary Nova admitted to straining himself for big plays in the second half of 2012. After Nova's six turnovers against Kent State in 2012, he tried to put too much on his shoulders, and it led to late-season struggles. Nova's four turnovers against Louisville, and eight sacks, can be a turning point for a strong six-game finish or the downturn in what began as a promising individual season. Nova remained focused during the bye week, and will be tested early against the Houston pass rush.

Matchup to Watch
Rutgers cornerback Anthony Cioffi against Houston receiver Deontay Greenberry

Cioffi faces his trial by fire against Greenberry, who was a five-star recruit out of high school almost destined for Notre Dame. Greenberry's strength and size combination will make for a tremendous challenge for Cioffi and Barnwell. Greenberry is a red zone weapon similar to what Cioffi faced late in the Louisville game, and he already has 674 yards and five touchdowns to his name. Cioffi made impact plays against Louisville, sacking and stripping Teddy Bridgewater, but a full game's body of work is the next step off the bye week.

Scarlet Knights Win If…
The run game thrives -- Rutgers has a size and talent edge in the trenches, and needs strong ground games from Savon Huggins and Justin Goodwin on the ground. The last thing the Scarlet Knights need is a 45-throw game for Nova coming off his struggles against Louisville. The quickest path to success is on the ground this week, which allows Nova to manage the offense and limit turnovers. It also gives Rutgers the ability to manage the clock, and keep its defense on the sidelines.

QB Gary Nova
Cougars Win If …
The pass rush gets to Nova -- Nova took eight sacks against Louisville in one of the bigger beatings for a Rutgers quarterback in recent history. Facing a team that blitzed heavily last week, Rutgers has to protect Nova in order to keep Houston at bay. If Houston disrupts the Rutgers offensive flow with a series of successful blitzes, it could be a long day for the Scarlet Knights. Houston has play-making ability offensively, and can be a significant threat if its defense matches that tempo.


Impact Player
RB Justin Goodwin — Goodwin showed the risks and rewards of being an impact true freshman during games against SMU and Louisville. Paul James remains out with a lower leg injury, keeping Goodwin in the spotlight. Sixteen days between games gave him time to spend in the film room, and an improved understanding of his assignments and pass protection goals could be the trick to elevating his game to an impact status. Rutgers needs a strong game from its tailbacks, and Goodwin brings the burst to the outside that has already been a difference-maker this season.

RB Justin Goodwin
Something to Prove
LG Kaleb Johnson — This applies to the majority of the Rutgers offensive line, but Johnson comes to the forefront because of his experience and struggles with penalties. Eight sacks, however much the quarterback and running back were to blame, is never part of the winning formula. Johnson called his performance against Louisville "an embarrassment," in practice this week, and is eager to make improvements.

Looking to Build
OLB Jamal Merrell — Merrell's first game back had some big moments along with vulnerabilities in coverage. He got back to his special teams excellence with a blocked field goal against the Cardinals, but needs to build on his first game back from kidney injury with a better performance in coverage. Merrell got stuck in mismatches against Louisville, which becomes a bigger concern against a spread team like Louisville. Putting Merrell in the right place to make plays, and not in a situation where he is clearly vulnerable, is key for the Rutgers defense to be successful against the Cougars.

Freshman to Watch
WR Andre Patton — Obviously the eyes fall on the young Rutgers defensive secondary, but with multiple receivers on the Thursday injury report, it could be time for younger players to step into the equation. Patton has already seen game action at the line of scrimmage, and was as high as the second team during parts of training camp. Leonte Carroo and Quron Pratt are both on the injury report, and could create opportunities for Patton or a red-shirt freshman like Carlton Agudosi.

Scarlet Report Top Stories