Rutgers begins a three-week stretch that could make or break its season Saturday when the Scarlet Knights welcome West Virginia to New Jersey.
Rutgers improved to 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the Big East last week with a 37-29 victory over Pittsburgh. But the Scarlet Knights, who follow West Virginia (4-1) with two more Big East games at Syracuse and at Connecticut, know their toughest challenges lie ahead.
"It's been a long time since this program has been in a position like this," senior offensive lineman Sameeh McDonald said. "This is going to be a big game for us. Every game from here on in is going to be a big game, but this is one that can really start a trend for this school."
Despite the victory over Pittsburgh that extended Rutgers' winning streak to three games, plenty of questions remain about the Scarlet Knights defense. Rutgers gave up 29 points in the second half and allowed the Panthers to run 84 plays to Rutgers 71.
Worse, the Scarlet Knights appeared to run out of gas in the fourth quarter, the same thing that happened in Week 1 when they gave up a big lead late and eventually lost 33-30 in overtime to Illinois.
"I think there's no question in the second half that we got tired," coach Greg Schiano said. "They made it more difficult on us. They ran a hurry-up no huddle even when they had an incomplete pass. I think they thought of trying to get us to wear down."
West Virginia's rushing attack, which is averaging 217.8 yards per game, will be a big challenge for the banged up Rutgers defense. Starting linebacker Terry Bynes and backup safety Jason Nugent are out for the year with knee injuries, while starting strong safety Ron Girault is battling a hamstring problem.
Notes and Quotes
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Quarterback Ryan Hart, who became Rutgers' all-time leading passer last week when he threw for 207 yards and three touchdowns against Pittsburgh, leads one of the Big East's most balanced offenses. The Scarlet Knights are averaging 254.5 yards passing and 153 yards rushing per game.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Scarlet Knights can't get off the field. Pittsburgh was the fourth straight opponent to run 84 or more plays against Rutgers. Opponents have now run 72 more plays than Rutgers, roughly an entire game's worth.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Sole possession of first place in the Big East for the winner? That sounds pretty good to me." -- OL Sameeh McDonald on what's at stake for Rutgers this week against West Virginia.
Strategy and Personnel
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Ryan Hart -- He threw his first interceptions of the season last week against Pittsburgh, but that won't slow down a QB who's off to the best start of his career. Through four games, Hart has thrown for 926 yards and eight touchdowns.
FB Brian Leonard -- The Big East's best fullback is also one of the team's top receivers. Leonard is tied for second on the team with 14 catches for 175 yards. He leads the team with three TD receptions.
RB Raymell Rice -- The true freshman is starting to make a name for himself. Rice averaged 7.6 yards per carry against Pittsburgh and gashed the Panthers for 114 yards.
WR Willie Foster -- The junior was named the Big East Special Teams Player of the Week after returning a punt 71 yards for a TD against Pittsburgh.
DB Courtney Greene -- The freshman, who leads the team with 34.5 tackles, made the Big East weekly honor roll after recording a sack and 8.5 tackles against Pittsburgh.
ROSTER REPORT: Starting SS Ron Girault (hamstring) is questionable for Saturday's game against West Virginia, while backup FS Jason Nugent (knee) and starting LB Terry Bynes (knee) are expected to miss the remainder of the season.