KEYS TO THE SOUTH FLORIDA GAME
South Florida has only been playing football since 1997. And only joined Division I-A in 2001. And only joined Conference USA in 2003. Not surprisingly, the Bulls and Scarlet Knights have yet to play. Rutgers has played 51 games against the 2004 members of Conference USA. However, Rutgers has played only four teams - Army, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Tulane. Of these four, Rutgers has played Army the most; the Scarlet Knights sport a 15-18 record versus the Black Knights. Rutgers has a 6-3-1 record versus Cincinnati. Rutgers is undefeated in four games against Louisville. The Scarlet Knights own a 3-1 record against Tulane, losing most recently in 1998. In its most recent game versus a Conference USA foe, Rutgers defeated Army 36-21 in 2003. Rutgers and South Florida meet for the first time in a contest with surprisingly significant implications for two teams expected to inhabit the second division of the Big East.
South Florida navigated its non-conference schedule as expected - beating Florida A&M and Central Florida while losing at Penn State and at Miami. South Florida announced its intention to make an early impact in the Big East with an impressive beating of preseason favorite Louisville in the Bulls' Big East debut. South Florida could not maintain its momentum in losing at Pittsburgh. Another big opportunity against West Virginia was postponed due to Hurricane Wilma. South Florida is in third place in the Big East with a 1-1 record. However, the Bulls have played only one game in the past five weeks, with two bye weeks sandwiched around the postponement. Though well rested, the Bulls are likely to be very rusty after so little game action. A win over Rutgers would vault South Florida into bowl contention.
At 3-1 in the Big East, Rutgers currently sits in sole possession of second place. The Scarlet Knights have knocked off their competition for the Big East's automatic bowl bids. West Virginia and Louisville were locks for two of the league's four guaranteed bowl bids. Notre Dame is a candidate for a third Big East bowl bid. That leaves potentially one automatic bowl berth unaccounted. Rutgers has defeated Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Connecticut, rendering the bowl aspirations of each all but longshots. At best. While the victory over Navy last week clinched bowl eligibility, a win over South Florida would virtually entitle Rutgers to the Big East #3 bowl (#4 if Notre Dame does not get a BCS bowl bid) due to the Big East's "one win" rule. Big East bowls can select any bowl eligible team within one league win of the highest eligible team in the Big East standings. A win over South Florida would position Rutgers for a 5-2 Big East record, while the Bulls would be looking potentially at 3-5. Here are five keys to yet another elimination game for Rutgers.
1. Contain Sr TB Andre Hall. Hall was the leading returning rusher in the Big East after gaining 1,357 rushing yards in Conference USA last season. He currently ranks second in the Big East, averaging 100 rushing yards per game. With a passing attack ranked #110 (of 117 teams) nationally in passing at 135 yards per game. Hall is carrying the Bulls offense. Rutgers has faced several one-dimensional rushing offenses in West Virginia, Syracuse, and Connecticut. The undersized Scarlet Knight defense has generally fared well against run-oriented offenses. The emergence of Jr DT Rameel Meekins has plugged a yawning hole in the interior DLine. And the combination of Jr MLB DeVraun Thompson, Jr WLB Quintero Frierson, and RS Fr SLB Chenry Lewis has given Head Coach Greg Schiano his most productive grout at LB. Rutgers must contain Hall. He'll get his yards. But he must not be allowed to dominate the game. Rutgers must limit Hall to no more than 120 rushing yards and no more than 4.5 yards per carry.
2. Minimize Big Plays Allowed. Big plays were the nemesis of the Scarlet Knight defense in 2003 and 2004. Rutgers allowed an average of five big plays (at least 20 yards) in 2003 and six in 2004. Schiano has played more Cover 2 zone under (two deep safeties with zone coverage underneath) to reduce opponents big plays. While allowing yardage underneath, the Scarlet Knights are giving up fewer big plays. Much fewer. South Florida used big plays to ambush Louisville. The Bulls twice hit reverse passes for long TDs. South Florida has a rebuilt OLine, a very shaky QB, and inexperienced receivers. The Bulls struggle to drive the field. Rutgers must force South Florida to methodically sustain long drives. Rutgers must deny big plays that will give South Florida cheap scores. The Scarlet Knight safeties must not get sucked up in run support on play action. They must honor their deep coverage assignments before coming forward. Rutgers must not allow more than three gains of 20+ yards. And none for TDs.
3. Balanced Offense. South Florida ranks #21 nationally in total defense at 311 yards per game. The Bulls' scoring defense ranks #22 nationally at 19 points per game. The Bulls defend both the run and pass effectively. Rutgers ranks second in the Big East in both total offense (384 yards per game) and passing offense (235 yards per game). The Scarlet Knight passing attack has thrived in conjunction with an effective rushing game. Rutgers must force South Florida to defend both the pass and the run. Rutgers must run effectively inside and outside. Rutgers must pass efficiently short, intermediate, and long. Rutgers must force South Florida to defense the entire width of the field to a depth of at least 30 yards. And Rutgers must force South Florida to defend the threat of run or pass on every play. Offensive Coordinator must mix passes and run on first down to keep the Bulls' defense from crowding the line of scrimmage. Ver Steeg must mix draws and screen passes in long yardage situations to slow the Bulls' pass rush and blitzes. Ver Steeg must utilize all of his skill players, including FBs not named Leonard. Rutgers must rush for at least 150 yards and throw for at least 250 yards.
4. Set a Fast Scoring Pace. South Florida leads the Big East in time of possession at 32 minutes per game. The Bulls rely upon a ball control running attack and big pass plays. Rutgers must set a fast early scoring tempo and pressure South Florida to keep pace. A fast pace could force South Florida away from its methodical running attack and force the Bulls to throw often, something at which Jr QB Pat Julmiste is not proficient. South Florida is not built to play catchup. The Bulls offense is designed to draw the attention of the defense to Hall and then hit a big play over the top. A fast scoring pace will neutralize the threat of the Bulls' rushing attack and will reduce the opportunities for South Florida to surprise the Scarlet Knights defense with play action passes. Rutgers must score at least 10 points in the first quarter and at least 24 points by halftime. Rutgers must carry a 10-point lead into the locker room at halftime and maintain that lead throughout the 2nd Half. Rutgers cannot afford to leave points on the field. When Rutgers reaches the red zone, the Scarlet Knights must score touchdowns. Not attempt FGs.
5. Kick Coverage. Rutgers has vastly superior offensive talent compared to South Florida. Rutgers must position the Scarlet Knight offense to win the game. That means that Rutgers must simply draw on special teams. Rutgers does not need to win specials to win the game. But Rutgers cannot afford to let South Florida win the game with special teams play. South Florida put the Louisville game away by returning the 2nd Half kickoff for a TD. Rutgers kick coverage has been sloppy in recent weeks. Rutgers repeatedly gave Connecticut good field position with poor kickoff and punt coverage. Sloppy kick coverage also enabled Pittsburgh to nearly erase a 27-point halftime deficit. Rutgers also suffered a blocked punt for a TD that staked West Virginia to an early lead it did not relinquish. These deficiencies must be remedied. Rutgers must limit South Florida to an average starting field position of the RU25 on kickoffs. And must not allow the Bulls to average more than 10 yards per punt return. Lastly, the Scarlet Knights must not allow any blocked kicks.
1. Sr QB Ryan Hart. Hart has played well in three halves since relieving Fr QB Mike Teel at halftime at Connecticut. Ryan has completed 23 of 32 passes for 315 yards, 3 TDs, and no INTs. He has operated the Scarlet Knight offense efficiently, as Rutgers has scored 52 points in the past three halves. Against South Florida, Hart will be facing of the best defenses he has seen this season. Hart struggled to produce in sporadic appearances against West Virginia one month ago. He has since established himself as the clear starter. Teel has struggled to read defenses. Fr WR Tiquan Underwood has been ineffective in his gimmick direct snap QB appearances. Schiano must put the ball in Hart's hands and allow his three-year starter to win the game. In turn, Hart must answer the bell. He must direct the offense efficiently. He must distribute the ball to all of his receivers. He must read the Bull's defenses and make accurate throws. He must hit enough big plays against press coverage to push the Bulls' coverage back off the line of scrimmage. And he must not make big mistakes. Hart must complete at least 65% of his passes. He must throw for at least 250 yards. He must throw twice as many TDs as INTs.
2. RS Sr DE Ryan Neill. Ryan is having a marvelous senior season. He ranks second among Big East DL in tackles (49) and TFLs (18) plus third (tied) in sacks with seven. He is having another campaign worthy of First Team All Big East honors. In another potential bowl elimination game, Schiano's best defensive player must lead the way. He must get penetration into the Bulls' backfield and disrupt running plays. And he must harass Julmiste on pass plays. South Florida will attempt to hit big pass plays. Neill must deny Julmiste the time necessary to allow deep patterns to develop. Neill must record at least six tackles, two TFLs, a sack, and four QB hurries. He must be the supreme nuisance to South Florida.
3. Jr MLB DeVraun Thompson. DeVraun ranks third on the team with 57 tackles. He again leads the LB corps in starts, tackles, and TFLs. Thompson has returned to the form of his freshman year, when he showed so much promise. South Florida will try to establish its running game behind Hall. The Rutgers LB corps, led by Thompson, will be busy trying to contain Hall. Thompson must control the middle of the field behind Schiano's undersized interior DLine. Thompson must be a run-stuffer in the middle. And he must range from sideline to sideline to keep Hall contained. DeVraun must be constantly around the football. He must register at least 8 tackles and at least two TFLs.
4. Fr TB Ray Rice. Rice's emergency as Rutgers' leading rusher has allowed RS Jr FB Brian Leonard to spend more time at his natural FB position. The combination of Rice and Leonard in the backfield at the same time presents the defense with many unpleasant alternatives. Rice has proven to be an effective running inside as well as outside. Leonard is still the league's most dangerous receiving threat out of the backfield. It is imperative that Rice produce at TB. That will allow Ver Steeg to use the run and short pass to the FB to move the ball and the chains. And will reduce the effectiveness of any eight-man fronts designed to stuff the running game. Rice must get at least 20 carries. And must gain at least 100 rushing yards. And must score at least one TD.
5. RS Sr RT Sameeh McDonald. Last season, Sameeh was Rutgers' best OL before he suffered a knee injury at Syracuse. Sameeh missed spring camp while recovering from knee surgery. McDonald has started every game this season at RT. However, he is no longer the anchor of the OLine but, rather, the weak link. Opponents have successfully pressured the Scarlet Knight QBs from the left side, directly across from Sameeh. Last week, Navy DE Andrew Tattersall recorded three sacks against Rutgers' veteran three-year starter. McDonald is struggling this season. He may not be fully recovered from his knee injury. However, the backup OTs are not yet ready to play. McDonald is the only option at RT, ailing or not. Sameeh must perform more effectively at RT. He must not allow bull rushes past him to the inside, which will ruin the timing of the passing game. And Sameeh must not get beaten to the outside, which creates the opportunity for the DE to blindside the Scarlet Knight QB and force a fumble. McDonald must not allow more than one sack this week.
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