Keys to the Cincinnati Game

Cincinnati features a lineup comprised of over 50% freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep in his second year. Not surprisingly, the Bearcats have endured their share of growing pains. Rutgers has faded from the national spotlight after two consecutive losses. Rutgers won't get a chance to demonstrate its legitimacy until bowl season but can further tarnish its "progress" by stumbling against Cincinnati. Here are my five keys to taking care of business against Cincinnati.


Rutgers and Cincinnati met eight times as eastern independents between 1980 and 1989.  The Scarlet Knights and Bearcats played twice more in the early 1990s after Rutgers joined the Big East.  Rutgers generally was the better program during this period and sports a 3-6-1 record against Bearcats as proof.  Although the two programs have not played after Cincinnati joined Conference USA in 1996, Cincinnati has since had the better program.  The last contest occurred in 1994 at Rutgers Stadium.  The Scarlet Knights beat Cincinnati 14-9 in a game that the Scarlet Knights firmly controlled on their way to a 5-5-1 season. 

Cincinnati opened the scoring with a 29-yard FG by PK Tom Dallen midway though the 1st Quarter.  The Scarlet Knights awoke as QB Ray Lucas threw a 7-yard TD pass to TE Marco Battaglia midway through the 2nd Quarter.   Lucas connected with WR Reggie Funderburk for on a 27-yard TD pass late in the half, giving Rutgers a 14-3 halftime lead.  After a scoreless 3rd Quarter, the 4th Quarter was similarly scoreless until Bearcat QB Eric Vibberts threw a 46-yard TD pass to WR James Scott with one minute remaining.  Vibberts threw incomplete on the 2XPA, Rutgers recovered the onsides kickoff, and the Scarlet Knights ran out the clock.  The Bearcats penetrated the Rutgers red zone three times in the game but came away with only three points.  Meanwhile, Rutgers gained 254 rushing yards as TBs Bruce Pressley (115 yards) and Terrell Willis (119 yards) each ran for over 100 yards.  Rutgers held a 72-62 edge in plays from scrimmage and a ten-minute edge in time of possession. 

After inheriting a heavily senior-laden team, Cincinnati Head Coach Mark Dantonio faced an uncharacteristic rebuilding season in his second year.  Former Head Coach Rick Minter apparently loaded his 2003 recruiting class with JUCOs, which produced a hollow senior class in 2005.  As a result, Dantonio is playing a lineup comprised of over 50% freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep.  Not surprisingly, the Bearcats have endured their share of growing pains.  Nonetheless, the young Bearkits have won more games than expected this year.   Cincinnati (4-6, 2-4 Big East) split its non-conference games and beat rebuilding Connecticut at home, as expected.  But the Bearcats also sprung an upset at Syracuse, emphasizing the dire straits of the suddenly downtrodden Orange program.  The young and inexperienced Bearcats are overmatched against Rutgers but won't simply lay down. 

Rutgers (6-4, 3-3) has faded from the national spotlight after two consecutive losses, including an embarrassing 56-5 loss at Louisville on national television.  It has become increasingly obvious that Rutgers is a beneficiary of an unexpectedly easy and favorable schedule.  Head Coach Greg Schiano has not demonstrated noticeable improvement in his fifth season.  Five years into the Schiano era, Rutgers still has not won a game it was supposed to lose.  And still struggles to win games rated as toss-ups.  Rutgers won't get a chance to demonstrate its legitimacy until bowl season.  Rutgers is virtually guaranteed a bowl berth because only four Big East teams are likely to be bowl eligible.  An Insight Bowl berth awaits a victorious Rutgers Saturday evening.  The Meineke Bowl waits at the back door should Rutgers lose its third straight.  Rutgers can further tarnish its "progress" by stumbling against Cincinnati.  Here are my five keys to taking care of business against Cincinnati. 


1.  Minimize Turnovers.  Schiano's teams have been characterized by a propensity to commit turnovers.  Though Schiano has improved the talent level at Rutgers, he has not been able to coach his teams to their potential.  The penchant for turnovers has exasperated the underachievement.  Turnovers buried Rutgers in an insurmountable deficit against West Virginia.  Turnovers jeopardized a win against a depleted Connecticut team.  Turnovers ignited an early outburst by South Florida that Rutgers was unable to overcome.  A costly turnover ruptured the dam at Louisville.  After committing only three turnovers in its first four games, the Scarlet Knights have committed 17 turnovers in their last six games.  Rutgers is not talented enough, efficient enough, or well enough coached to win in spite of turnovers.  If Rutgers plays giveaway against Cincinnati, the Bearcats could stun Rutgers much as they did in 1992, the last time Rutgers was bowl eligible.  Rutgers must not commit more than two turnovers against the overmatched Bearcats.

2.  Fast Start.  Cincinnati's defeat at South Florida last week mathematically eliminated the Bearcats from bowl eligibility.  The Bearcats are playing for their seniors, their future, and their pride.  Cincinnati must be physically and mentally fatigued after a long season for which many of its younger players were not conditioned.  And, despite lip service to playing out the season, must be ready to begin preparing for next season.  Rutgers has shown a disturbing tendency to carry lesser teams in games.  It started at Illinois when Rutgers left 15 points on the field in the 1st Half.  And continued through games against Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Connecticut.  Games that should have been over at halftime lingered in doubt until the final minutes.  Under Schiano, Rutgers has shown an incomprehensible tendency to overlook opponents.  A program that has seen so little success has an uncanny ability to let any success go to its head.  If Rutgers is to realize the dreams of its future, it must first put to rest this ghost of its past.  Rutgers must jump Cincinnati early and put the game away by halftime.  No more versteeging in red zone.  Cross the 20-yard and punch the ball into the end zone.  March relentlessly down the field on the first possession and score a TD.  And keep scoring.  Rutgers must score at least 14 points in the 1st Quarter and at least 27 points by halftime. 

3.  Ground Attack.  Erstwhile starting QB Sr Ryan Hart injured his shoulder late in the South Florida game three weeks ago when drilled while scrambling.  He was unable to play against Louisville.  Aspiring starting QB RS Fr Mike Teel injured his shoulder in the 1st Half against Connecticut five weeks ago.  Teel missed most of the next two games, briefly replacing the injured Hart against South Florida.  The less-injured Teel drew the start against Louisville.  And curiously was put in a position by Offensive Coordinator Curious Ver Steeg to carry the offense with his passing.  Hart and Teel have had two weeks to treat and rest their shoulders with a bye last weekend.  Schiano has been vague with his QB plans.  Hart should start, if he is healthy enough to throw reasonably effectively.  Regardless of who starts, Ver Steeg must lean heavily upon his running game.  Cincinnati's defense allows 165 rushing yards per games, which ranks #82 nationally (of 117 Division IA teams).  The Scarlet Knight rushing attack, such a great cause of concern entering the season, has far exceeded expectation.  It has nonetheless been underused.  While the passing attack has struggled all season, two RBs have emerged to tote the mail.  Yet Ver Steeg has used them sparingly.  Ver Steeg has been curiously reluctant to rely upon his rushing attack.  Against Louisville, the running game worked early but Ver Steeg repeatedly chose to throw the ball when he could have run.  2nd-n-4?  Pass.  3rd-n-2?  Pass.  Enough.  Put the ball most reliably in the hands of your two best offensive players – Fr TB Ray Rice and RS Jr FB Brian Leonard.  Rutgers must execute at least 40 designed runs.  And must gain at least 225 rushing yards, excluding sacks and scrambles. 

4.  Contain the Edge.  Rutgers has yielded 147 rushing yards per game against nine Division IA opponents averaging 181 yards per game.  The rushing statistics partially benefit from a league leading 37 sacks for cumulative losses of 261 yards, or minus 26 rushing yards per game.  While Rutgers has generally been solid against the run, the Scarlet Knights have struggled against outside runs.  West Virginia gouged Rutgers repeatedly on off-tackle runs.  So did South Florida.  Cincinnati has two big RBs.  Dantonio's staff will likely note Rutgers' weakness on the edge and attempt to exploit that vulnerability.  Schiano must shore up his defense on the outside.  Too often, his OLBs are missing in action as the opponent runs off-tackle.  Rutgers must not allow Cincinnati to run wild outside.  The Scarlet Knights must not allow more than 75 rushing yards on the outside and must limit Cincinnati to no more than 4.5 yards per carry on outside runs. 

5.  Pressure Bearcat RS Fr QB Dustin Grutza.  Grutza has completed 55% of his passes for 1,630 yards, 10 TDs, and 11 INTs.  His pass efficiency rating is comparable to that of South Florida QB Pat Julmiste.  Grutza is not a highly accurate QB.  And his TD-to-INT ratio bespeaks decision-making problems.  Rutgers allowed Julmiste to sit back pick apart soft cushions in the secondary.  Schiano must not give Grutza a similar comfort zone whereby he can play pitch-n-catch with his receivers.  Rutgers must apply pressure to Grutza early and often.  The Rutgers DLine must create pressure with a four-man pass rush.  Schiano also must blitz Grutza from a variety of angles – MLB, OLB, safeties, nickel CBs, and boundary CBs.  He must mix in a liberal dose of zone blitzes so as not to consistently leave the middle undefended.  He must disguise his blitzes so that Grutza and his receivers cannot make simple adjustments into vacated zones.  Schiano must force Grutza to make quick reads and good decisions.  Rutgers must sack Grutza at least five times. And must hurry him twice as often.  And must repeatedly knock him down.  Without getting flagged for roughing. 


1.  Fr TB Ray Rice.  Ver Steeg curiously tried to beat Louisville with an injured QB rather than a hot TB.  Rice gained 23 yards on his first five carries against Louisville.  Yet Ver Steeg curiously chose to throw on 2nd-n-4 and 3rd-n-2 rather than giving the ball to Rice.  With Ver Steeg doing Louisville a favor and containing Rice, the Rutgers offense sputtered badly, unable to convert on third down.  With two injured QBs providing a questionable passing threat to Cincinnati, Ver Steeg must stop being cute and simply give the ball to Rice.  Force the opponent to stop Rice before countering defensive adjustments the opponent hasn't yet made.  Don't be cute.  Be smart.  Go with what works.  Until it stops working.  And what has worked best this season has been "handoff to Rice".  Rice must get at least 25 carries and must gain at least 125 rushing yards. 

2.  RS Jr FB Brian Leonard.  Leonard showed flashes of his old self against Louisville.  He gained 42 yards on 9 carries and another 21 yards on 5 receptions.  Brian is likely as healthy as has he has been all year.  He has gained over 100 all-purpose yards only twice in the past six games.  The emergence of Rice at TB has eased Leonard's considerable burden.  However, opponents have also adjusted well to Rutgers predictable tendencies with regards to Leonard.  Opponents have been covering the play action drag route, often leaving the QB with no viable receiving options.  Opponents also key on Brian as the single RB or the TB.  Ver Steeg needs to be more creative in getting Leonard the ball.  Brian has yet to carry the ball from the FB position.  Ver Steeg needs to call his number on FB traps or FB counters.  Ver Steeg also needs to run different routes for Brian.  How about a seam off iso play-action?  The Scarlet Knight QB also must connect with Leonard on a wheel route, which will create a bigger cushion for the play-action drag route.  Brian must gain at least 125 all-purpose yards and must score at least two TDs. 

3.  Jr WLB Quintero Frierson.  Frierson replaced Sr WLB Will Gilkison in the starting lineup after Gilkison aggravated an injured groin against West Virginia.  Frierson recorded nine tackles against Syracuse in his first start.  He followed up with five tackles against Connecticut and seven against Navy.  However, Frierson has been noticeably quiet in each of Rutgers past two losses against South Florida and Louisville.  More importantly, Frierson was missing in action at the point of attack as both the Bulls and Cardinals ran effectively outside against the Scarlet Knights.  Frierson has not quickly read off-tackle runs and sealed the outside edge.  The result has been opposing TBs ripping big runs to the outside.  Cincinnati is likely to test Rutgers off-tackle.  Frierson must have a strong game at WLB.  He must register at least 7 tackles and 2 TFLs.  He must not allow Cincinnati to run effectively outside to the weak side of the field. 

4.  RS Fr SLB Chenry Lewis.  Lewis replaced Sr William Beckford as the starting SLB in place of injured starter Sr Terry Bynes.  Lewis played well against Syracuse, Connecticut, and Navy, registering 19 tackles and 3.5 TFLs in his first three starters.  However, like Frierson, Chenry has also struggled in each of the past games.  Lewis has registered only six tackles in the past two games.  Similarly to Quintero, Lewis was victimized on outside runs by South Florida and Louisville.  As a first year player, he is a more obvious target than Frierson.  Cincinnati will definitely run at Lewis, mixing misdirection with less subtle off-tackle runs.  The Bearcats feature TBs are big – 225 pounds each.  Each averages over 4.5 yards per carry.  Lewis must not be a doormat.  He must be gate, swinging shut whenever the opponent tries running outside.  Chenry must register at least seven tackles and 2 TFLs.  

5.  RS Jr TE Clark Harris.  Rutgers likely will need to run the ball down Cincinnati's throat to take the pressure off QBs with questionable arms.  As a result, the Bearcats likely will crowd the line of scrimmage with eight man fronts (and CBs in press coverage on the WRs) to stuff the Scarlet Knight rushing attack.  If Cincinnati crowds the line of scrimmage, Harris must be used in a counter-punching role.  Ver Steeg must call quick play action routes to Harris – seam, post, and corner.  If the Bearcats bite on play-action, Harris doesn't need to get deep to get open.  He just needs to get behind the LBs who are pulled forward on the run fake.  Harris has had an underwhelming season and has not really recovered from a disappointing game at Illinois in the opener, when he dropped several passes.  Harris has an opportunity to end the season on a much brighter note.  Clark must catch at least five passes for at least 80 yards. 

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