Next Chop: Pittsburgh

The half-way point is upon the Rutgers football team and the 2006 season is certain to go down in Rutgers lore as a noteworthy experience. The team is off to a 6-0 start, is bowl eligible for the second year in a row, features a defense that is number one in scoring (8.3 points per game), ranked #19 in both the Coaches' and AP Polls, #16 in the BCS standings and has awoken a fan base ...

... that has slumbered for far too long.

With all of the hoopla comes expectations and each week brings a sense of gravitas to the upcoming opponent as the Knights look to remain undefeated. This week that target is the Pittsburgh Panthers, owners of a 6-1 record that has allowed only 27 points in its past 4 games (all wins) since losing to Michigan State. Rutgers faithful are collectively holding their breath this week as the Scarlet Knights try to win for only the second time at Pittsburgh. The game has sparked national interest in the Cinderella team as ESPN2 will nationally broadcast the match-up Saturday at 5:35 p.m.

Head Coach Greg Schiano has his team focused and set to prepare for this week's Big East Showdown as he spurs on his players with the catch phrase, "just keep choppin'".

The Scarlet Knights go from taking on the nation's leading rushing attack to playing against the nation's passing efficiency leader with a run game to boot. The Rutgers defense now has to set to prepare for this balanced style of offense. Having played a special defense to stop the triple-option of Navy was a challenge: "Now to get back into, not only your nickle and dime stuff, but also your normal base defenses and base coverages. It's definitely a challenge and it's going to be close if we can get it prepared and ready to go by game-time" stated Schiano.

The Problem With Palko

Last season when Pittsburgh visited Rutgers Tyler Palko was not having a great year. He didn't have responsive receivers like Larry Fitzgerald and the offensive line was getting beat consistently by Ryan Neil and Val Barnaby. He was a very emotional player and became frustrated with the situation and didn't perform with the same bravado he had during his sophomore year. But after undertaking a year in Dave Wannstedt's system, Tyler Palko looks to be reaching his potential. With his emotions in check and his play improved, he currently leads the Big East and the nation in passer efficiency and the team is 8th nationally in scoring offense.

"He looks awfully comfortable and is very sure of himself. [He] knows exactly where he wants to go with the football," said Schiano as he analyzed the Pittsburgh passer, "He has taken the smart throws, over and over again, showing great patience. Then he creates."

His play has drawn comparisons to Brett Favre during his hey-day in Lambeau Field. With the ability to scramble and have receivers who know how to respond, Palko has re-established himself as a threat in the Big East.

To stop Pittsburgh the Knights are going to have to pressure Palko. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh boasts an offensive line that has given up less than 1 sack per game. The OL has been giving Palko the time to find his receiver which was not the case last year when these two teams met. The Pittsburgh quarterback's size is also a problem for Coach Schiano. "If you get there he is so big and strong…. We can probably get some of the smaller guys to him, but I don't know if we can get him on the ground" lamented Schiano.

"When I saw him up at Media Day up in Rhode Island, it wasn't a good thing to see. He is put together."

So not only will they have to stop his arm, but to get him on the ground while being surrounded by a quality offensive line is a true test for this Rutgers Defense.

The Rutgers defense doesn't play the typical east coast style of smash-mouth defense. They operate on a different level. Despite being undersized, their speed and agility makes it tough on opposing offenses to pick them apart. Coach Schiano has them playing "One-Eleventh and Smart Swarm" defense: "they are going to hit us for some plays, but can we get right back on it and stay focused and do you job, and keep doing your one-eleventh and not try to compensate for someone else? If we can, we'll have a chance."

It also relies on angles the players take: "you don't want to run and be chasing right behind a guy, and then one guy can block two of us," said Schiano as he explained his defensive style. That speed and preparation turns a would be 70 yard run into a 15 yard run due to the smart play of each defender. If one guy isn't doing his job exactly how he should then the defense starts giving up more big plays. Schiano's sure fire way of preventing those miscues and such is with intense preparation on the practice field and in the film room.

Wait, who did you say is in the BSC Rankings?

Having risen again in the polls it would seem easy for a team that has been climbing out from the bottom of the barrel to look around and breathe in some fresh air as it has made the Top 20 for the first time in 30 years. But you won't get any of that behavior out of Coach Schiano. This morning he informed his team that they were #19 in both polls and #16 in the BCS standings.

"Hey guys, you go out to Pittsburgh and lose, it all goes away."

Schiano has been there and he has been able to convey to his team that if they let up for a single instant it's over. His words were clearly understood that the wins and losses are not the coach's concern, what he wants is that one-eleventh out of every player, every down. The players were mostly silent when the news was received as each soaked in the power of the words: classwork has to be done so you have time for lifting and film study. But this still didn't mean the players couldn't let loose for five minutes. "Probably when I walked out of the room there were high fives," joked Schiano, as a big grin came over his face.

Sea of Red

The spell has been broken and the Rutgers fans have awoken from the sleeping spell that had plagued them for years. Averaging 39,000 plus per home game and showing up with a large contingent on the road has brought the Scarlet Nation back. "The fan support just continues to grow, which is excellent. I think Rutgers Stadium has become a home-field advantage for us. It is awfully nice when you come out of the tunnel on the road and see all those scarlet people, not only fill up our sections which there were a lot of, but also the hill at Navy. Our players appreciate it, I appreciate it" said Schiano. Certainly the fans appreciate the players coming over to the Rutgers section after the game to sing the Alma Mater with players tossing up wrist bands into the stands. It has that feel of the "Rutgers Family" that Schiano has been using in the recruiting process - good natured and hard working kids that want to win.

Sitting in the Brower Commons following the Press Conference I couldn't help but over hear a group of students discussing how they are going to get to Pittsburgh for the game Saturday. Apparently the decision was to load up in a car for the six hour road trip, and as one student put it: "this is what college football is all about."

Side Notes

Chenry Lewis, who did not play in the Navy game is doing better and looks ready to practice.

An article in the Princetonian, Princeton University's student newspaper, delved into a Rutgers secret society that has pulled pranks on the Princeton campus this year, hoping to incite action to renew the football rivalry between the two schools.


Daily Princetonian

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