A Midsummer's Knights Prediction - Part II
My first installment of a Midsummer's Knights Prediction picked Rutgers to go 5-1 to open the season. The loss was was squeaker to Michigan State. The big win was a squeaker over Syracuse. The clutch win was an on the road victory over an experienced Vanderbilt team.
What about the last five games. Does Rutgers pull off the bowl bid/
Let's take a look.
Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh (Swing Game)
The Pittsburgh program has been rocked with bad news extending back into last season.
First, All World Wide Receiver Larry Fitzgerald is gone. Last season Fitzgerald pulled in 92 catches 1672 yards despite being double and triple covered most of the year. Larry got tired of being a man among boys and said "Bye-bye, Pittsburgh and "Hello, NFL."
The bad news got worse. The Panthers QB Rob Rutherford (3679 yards as a senior and a Big East record 37 touchdowns) used up his eligibility. Last year's backups combined for 5 completed passes for 45 yards.
But the bad news didn't stop there for the Panthers. After yet another lackluster bowl effort, Pitt's prize recruits from this years recruiting class bailed out on the Panthers at the last minute before signing day. Badly needed five star talent settled on destinations other than the steel city. Ouch, that one really hurt. Then, when Panther fans were wondering what else could go wrong, disaster hit.
Pittsburgh Head Coach Walt Harris returned to the head coaching position at Pittsburgh.
"Oh, the humanities ... "
But all is not lost in Pittsburgh. Let's take a look at what the Panthers will bring this season.
Rutherford may be gone but Pitt fans have long been anticipating the emergence of Tyler Palko. Palko is the son of a coach. Both father and son are Western Pennsylvania legends and Pitt fans have long been awaiting the day when Palko took the reins. However, Palko's ascendency to Rutherford's throne is getting a stiff challenge from another Pennsylvania star, Luke Getsby, who impressed the staff in the spring. Whoever emerges from the pack they won't find receiver pickings slim in the post Fitzgerald era. The Panthers have a solid receiver in Princell Brokenbrough (35 catches for 616 yards) and an up and coming star in sophomore Greg Lee (10 catches for 210 yards).
Pitt's main problem on offense this year will be at running back. Last year Pitt ranked 95th in the nation in rushing and they lost their top running back to graduation. Junior Jawan Walker and senior Raymond Kirkley are the main players in the mix but neither has been especially impressive. Both have talent and one of those two could emerge but that might be difficult with the line problems Pitt is expected to have. The Panthers return only two offensive line starters. One, Rob Petitti is an All America prospect but Petitti can't be expected to handle the job alone and the inexperience at offensive line will hurt both the running game and the passing game, at least early on in the season.
On defense, there are plusses and minuses. Last year the defensive line of the Panthers was 87th in the nation at stopping the run and averaged only 1.6 sacks per game. All the starters are back and those starters have talent. The Pitt staff is hoping that experience will translate into production. It better.
The situation at linebacker is much brighter. Brian Bennett (6-3, 235) had an outstanding year in 2003 with 118 tackles including 79 solos, he also had 3 sacks, a forced fumble and 4 passes broken up. He'll share time at strong side LB with H.B. Blades, the son of former Miami Hurricane Bennie Blades. H.B is.5-11, 245, and had 57 tackles last season. The middle linebacker position will go to Clint Sessions 5-11, 230 who had an strong season with 39 tackles including 7.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Malcolm Postell out of Keyport, NJ or JJ Horne will fill out the weakside.
The secondary loses its corners but return its safeties. Returning players have 3 interceptions between them. Josh Lay has starting experience at the corner and he'll help to fill the losses. He broke up 14 passes in 2003 but was plagued by inconsistent play.
Since the Harris era began Pittsburgh has been the most inconsistent team in the league. Sometimes they rise to the occasion, other times they stumble against inferior opponents. If you read the recruiting bios of their players it is clear that Pittsburgh has recruited outstanding talent and they possess that talent in depth. But Pitt has yet to develop a team indicative of that level of athleticism and yet to take advantage of its depth. Accordingly, picking a Pitt game three months in advance is like playing Russian roulette.
This is an away game and by the time that RU meets the Panthers, Pitt should have solved some of their positional problem by dipping into that huge talent base. Furthermore, Tyler Palko should be finding his receivers with some regularity, something that could spell real trouble for the Knights' young, thin secondary.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh is coming into this season with as many question marks as any team in the league. This one will be very close but Rutgers traditionally has not matched up well with Pitt and my guess is that by mid season injuries have hurt the Knights more than they have hurt a much deeper Pitt squad.
West Virginia at Rutgers Stadium
The Mountaineers shared the Big East Championship last year. They bring 17 starters back from that team and many people think that that forebodes a special year for WVU. The Mountaineers have earned preseason Top 20 rankings from two publications and a Top 5 ranking from Athlon.
The key to the offense will be senior Rasheed Marshall who hit for 1727 yards and 15 touchdowns. Rasheed also ran for another 300 yards and four touchdowns. He will have some excellent targets to throw the ball to. Chris Henry beat out Brian Leonard for Big East Rookie of the Year with a sensational freshman performance that included 41 catches for 1006 yards. Put another way, Henry averaged 24.5 yards a catch. Miquelle Henderson (6-3, 220) a senior provides both a big target and good hands but the Mountaineers are expecting the real addition of juice to come from Washington transfer Eddie Jackson. Jackson is 6-4, 225 and along with Henderson and Henry (6-4) provides serious matchup problems for opponents.
WVU loses Quincy Wilson's 1400 plus rushing yards on offense but the Mounties expect big things from Kay Jay Harris who averaged 5.8 yards per carry (580 total yards) as a back up to Wilson. He'll be helped out by four returning starters on the offensive line. The fifth starter will be 6-5, 305 Tim Brown. Brown is arguably the Mountaineer's best lineman who is ready to play again after sitting out last season with a medical redshirt.
On defense WVU has a huge loss in linebacker, Grant Wiley, but the returning LB's are no slouches. Adam Lehnortt (6-4, 235) and Scott Gyorko (6-0, 225) totaled 258 tackles between them. Lehnortt had 74 solos and Gyorko had 67. Kevin McLee had a solid 39 tackles. McLee in fact is looked at as an up and coming player. Even with his 6-1, 245 frame he is known for motoring to the ball.
Even with Wiley's loss the linebacking crew will continue to be outstanding.
The defensive line returns almost intact but one area they will have to work on is sacks, where WVU was dead last in the Big East. Ben Lynch (6-4, 280) and Ernest Hunter (6-4, 275) , both solid performers will anchor that crew.
In the secondary WVU should be okay despite some big losses to graduation. WVU loses 11 interceptions with the graduation of Brian King and Lance Frasier but the Mounties played a lot of people at that position last year and can expect Adam "Pacman" Jones to anchor the corners (98 tackles, 4 interceptions) and Mike Lorello to anchor the safeties (106 tackles,1 interception).
I have watched Rasheed Marshall throughout his career waiting for him to live up to his potential. It hasn't happened and I don't think it happens this year. Without that, WVU's BCS aspirations seem a bit much. Still this is a good, solid and perhaps a Top 20 team. We get the Mounties at home but this is will be a peak year for them and that will just be too much to overcome.
Boston College at Chestnut Hill (Swing game)
Boston College loses a lot this year. They lose their all time leading rusher as well as their entire offensive line.
How will they do?
At running back the Eagle's leading returning rusher is their quarterback, Quinton Porter. Porter had crazy feet for about 200 net yards. The main contenders for the running back position are two highly regarded redshirt freshmen: Andre Callender out of Seton Hall Prep and Maryland's L.V. Whitworth. Greg Toal also graduated and left the fullback slot open. His spot is likely to be filled by Utah transfer, Mark Palmer (6-3, 240).
Whoever the new running back tandem is, they won't be running behind an experienced line. Augie Hoffman and Chris Snee (two First Team All Big East players) have graduated along with 13 game starter Keith Leavitt. Big Jeremy Trueblood (6-8, 315) along with center Pat Ross (6-300) both return but the rest of the line will have to be rebuilt. On most teams such a loss would be a major concern, but Tom O'Brien recruits first and foremost for linemen and he has no less than 10 highly recruited big uglies to step in.
Quarterback will be Quinton Porter who will probably get the nod over Paul Peterson. Both had considerable playing experience last year. Both are good QB's, neither are great but they can get the job done, especially in BC's "pass-as-an-afterthought" offense.
Grant Adams and Joel Hazard return with a combined 78 receptions mostly of the 10 to 15 yard variety. Jersey native Larry Lester provides the deep threat, he only caught 17 passes last year after being converted to corner but his 31 yard per catch average caught people's attention. The Eagles like to throw to their tight end and they have a good one in 6-4, 260 David Kashetta who pulled in 18 receptions for 260 yards. He'll get more this year with the graduation of last year's starter Sean Ryan.
The defensive line should be strong despite the graduation of stalwart defensive tackles Doug Goodwin and Tom Martin. BC will shift the emphasis to defensive end. Phil Mettling and Mathias Kiwanuka both return at that position. Mettling is a capable DE, Kiwanuka is getting preseason All America attention after a 83 tackle, 11 sack performance in 2003. His 6-8 height made him into a pass break up threat as well as a sack threat. Kiwanuka broke up five passes as a rush end! He be a serious threat to any opponent the Eagles play. The Eagles have a ton of well regarded defensive linemen to fill up the rest of the defensive front and overall there should be little difference in the play of this unit from last year when it lead BC to a ranking of 44th in the nation in total defense.
Last year BC's three leading tacklers were linebackers Josh Ott, Brian Flores and Ray Henderson. Ott and Flores graduated and took` 234 tackles with them. Ricky Brown (30 tackles, 17 solo) and Jon Misiewitz (24 tackles, 11 solo) will have to learn the position fast.
Finally, don't go to BC if you want to play defensive back. Three starters returning and no less than 11 players are in contention for the remaining spot. The Big East's top two interception leaders T.J. Stancil and Will Blackmon are among the players who return. This unit will be good.
Last year Rutgers outplayed BC in a game that Rutgers could have, should have but didn't win. This year should produce another interesting game. Although Tom O'Brien always recruits well and his roster is loaded with talent, BC will have its hands full early on in the season.. Boston College is a running team with no established running back returning and an offensive line in serious need of rebuilding. Early on in the season this will give BC trouble but the Eagles have a perfect schedule to bring their young players along - not too soft, not too tough. By the time that BC meets Rutgers, the Eagles' younger players will have almost a season of experience under their belts and that will make a big difference. Even worse for Rutgers, by the time Rutgers meets BC you can bet that the Knights lack of depth will be hurting them on the field.
Still, this game will be close. O'Brien's "Big 10" running attack is getting old fast. Most coaches now load the box and force the Eagles to win with the pass. That is something that BC has serious trouble doing.
This game could be anyone's but up at Chestnut Hill, I think that the Eagles pull out the win.
Navy at Annapolis (Swing game)
Navy's Paul Johnson was named one of the hottest coaches in the nation after taking the Middies to a 8-5 record and a Houston Bowl appearance. More on that later.
Navy returns both wideouts, but nobody cares. This is, first and last, a running team. Navy brings back the same triple option offense that got them ranked number one in the nation with 323 yards rushing yards a game. They were ranked 116th in the nation in passing with a little over 100 yards passing a game. Receivers? Who needs 'em. They could go AWOL and no one would notice.
The key to the Navy attack will be running backs. Both fullback Kyle Eckel (1249 yards) and slot back Eric Roberts (630 yards and 9.1 yards per carry) return. The third slotback position is up in the air at the time this article was penned.
At Navy the QB is a large part of the offensive running game. Craig Candeto (1270 yards rushing) was sensational last year, but Navy shouldn't miss a beat with Aaron Polanco who is expected to be as good as Candeto or better.
On defense Navy loses only four starters off a team that ranked 42 in the nation in total "D".
Jeremy Chase returns. He is only 250 but he proved himself to be a tough cookie with 66 tackles and 4 sacks. Nose guard Babatunde Akingbemi also returns. He is 6-0, 285 and a favorite of the Navy staff. Despite spending most of his time plugging up the middle in Navy's three man front he found time for 3.5 sacks and 28 stops. Jeff Vanak is another solid 6-1, 250 guy who corralled 40 tackles last season.
Navy loses its top linebacker, Eddie Carthan. The middies will make up for that by returning a lot of experience. Senior Lance Jackson will be the leader. He had 95 tackles last year. The rest of this year LB corps will all have significant field experience. There'll be a drop off at this position from last year but not a great one.
Navy brings back talent in the secondary. Free safety Josh Smith had 4 interceptions last season and led the team in tackles. Vaughn Kelly is a two year starter at corner. Two sophomores are expected to move in to the other two spots in the defensive backfield.
Last year Navy went 8-5, they gave Notre Dame fits and won themselves a bowl bid.
However, their 8 wins came at the expense of teams like Army, Eastern Michigan, Vanderbilt and Rice; Notre Dame stunk and they got blown out against Texas Tech in the Houston Bowl. Navy is not a bad team, they are a decent but not great team. Last season they lost to Rutgers 48-27 last season. This year at Annapolis it will be closer but in the end it will be basically the same story.
Rutgers has now qualified for a bowl but they aren't going to a bowl with six wins. That's just my gut feel. No one takes the Knights with six wins.
RU has to win "eight" to be assured of a bowl but by this late in the season only "seven wins" is possible. "Seven" just might be enough to do it. So let's take a look at the last game on the schedule and see if the Knights go bowling or stay home.
Connecticut at Rutgers Stadium (Swing game)
Connecticut was ranked 8th in the nation in total offense last season and a lot of that had to do with the exploits of 6-5, 230 pound Dan Orlovsky. Orlovsky was one of UConn's first major recruits. He has paid the expected dividends. Last year Orlovsky hit 58 per cent of his passes for almost 3500 yards. He connected for 33 touchdowns. He'll get NFL attention.
Orlofsky will need people to throw to. Keron Henry comes back. He had 39 receptions last season. He is a big target at 6-2, 220 and will get a lot of attention. Senior Matt Cutaia will take over the other wideout spot. He has been plagued by injuries during his career. UConn has a deep bench and Brandon Young, Jason Williams and Seth Fogarty will all see substantial playing time.
Outstanding running back Terry Cauley is still recovering from a season ending knee injury from last season. If he is ready, he'll start. If he is not totally healthy the Huskies will probably redshirt him and go with either Cornell Brockington or Chris Bellamy. Both are in the six foot, two hundred range. Both are solid Big East caliber backs.
UConn's weakness, if it has one, has mainly been defense. They have a
decent but not outstanding defense with most of their vulnerability in big
ugly land. That just may get uglier as three of UConn's front four graduate.
Only Tyler King returns, but he is a good one. King is a DE with 6-6 height
who can stop the run, sack the QB (14.5 career sacks) and bat down passes when
he has to. Other than King, though, there is not much other experience and
UConn may have to go to true freshmen in order to plug up the defensive front.
They brought in two outstanding linemen in Dan Davis (a Jersey player heavily recruited
by Rutgers and Nebraska) and Afa Anoai (a former Pitt recruit who had been
coveted by the Panthers). Both of these guys are prize picks and one or both
of them may end up playing early. They may have to.
The Huskies bring back everyone at linebacker. Maurice Lloyd is outstanding. Last year he led the team with over 120 tackles including and incredible 35 for loss. He is also effective in pass coverage despite his 235 weight. Al Fincher has two years experience, James Hargrave had 74 tackles and 3 sacks last season. It is a solid group.
Finally the secondary is anchored by Senior, Justin Perkins, who had 6 interceptions last season. Allen Barnes is a young player who started the last three games of 2003 and is expected to bloom this year at the other corner spot.
At the safety spot, M.J. Estep is untested at free safety but 5'9" John Fletcher will provide senior experience at the other safety spot.
I was pleasantly surprised last season by the Knights' performance against a strong, and up and coming, Husky team. I had feared a lop sided loss but instead it was a game actually dominated by the Knights. UConn is indeed an up and coming team but a lot of the glory they have garnered so far has been against less than stellar opposition. Rutgers exposed that fact last season. UConn is still a team to be feared. Orlovsky is a threat to riddle the Knights' secondary. But he couldn't do that last season and (despite the final score) Rutgers was clearly the better team on the field. RU also helped themselves more in the off season than UConn did and they get the Huskies at home. So my prediction is ...
"Seven and four" probably takes Rutgers to a minor bowl but other scenarios are possible. Of the swing games Pitt is a notoriously quirky team and a Knight upset is quite possible. On the other hand Navy could upset RU at home or, more likely, Orlovsky could indeed riddle the Knights secondary during the matchup in Piscataway. Who knows?
There's really no way of telling for sure except going to the games.
See you there.
Mike and the Big Dog's LLC