This year we get to watch the Rutgers football in action on the very first day of the season. If that wasn't enough to get you pumped about the upcoming year, consider that RU is ranked No. 16 in both major polls and has a legitimate shot at a BCS game after narrowly missing out last season. The expectations are higher than they ever have been on the Banks, for good reason. Sold-out Rutgers Stadium should be raucous Thursday night (at least until the rout is on).
First up is Buffalo, stuck at the bottom of the college football heap since it made the leap from Division I-AA to I-A in 1999. The Bulls are just 12-69 (.148) since joining I-A. Turner Gill, who won three Big Eight titles as quarterback at Nebraska, is trying to turn around a program that has a culture of losing in an area that cares more about its pro sports than college football. Sound familiar?
Rutgers senior defensive tackle Eric Foster versus the Buffalo offensive line. Foster is a Sports Illustrated preseason All-American who led the team with six sacks last season. He is arguably the most talented player among the RU front seven and will be targeted by a Buffalo line that returns four starters.
1. RU's LBs vs. Buffalo's rushing attack.
UB's running attack was poor last season (averaged just over 90 yards per game), but Rutgers trots out inexperienced linebackers this year after losing stalwarts Devraun Thompson, Quintero Frierson and hybrid William "Papa" Beckford. Senior co-captain Brandon Renkart is the only linebacker with significant experience. It will be key to get this unit time before the real test comes from Navy on Sept. 7.
2. Rutgers' OL vs. Buffalo's defensive line.
A big reason the Scarlet Knights had so much success running the ball last year was the fact that the offensive line was able to get off the snap quickly and push the defense off the line of scrimmage. This unit returns three starters (senior left guard Mike Fladell and senior tackles Jeremy Zuttah and Pedro Sosa) and adds a stud in true freshman Anthony Davis at right guard. Though Davis is not expected to start, he should see significant time should the game no longer be in doubt by the time the second half rolls around. RU's offensive line is stout, quick, and mean and should be able to run over a Buffalo defensive front that allowed 185 rushing yards per game in '06.
Players to watch (Buffalo):
The most exciting player on Buffalo's roster will have a chance to display his talent from the opening whistle. Naaman Roosevelt, a speedy wide receiver and kick returner, should benefit from the NCAA rule that moved kickoffs back from the 35 to the 30-yard line. Roosevelt averaged 25.86 yards per kickoff return last year (19th best in the country) and took one to the house at Bowling Green. He also is a threat to score each punt return, though he only had 11 chances last season. Besides being dangerous on special teams, Roosevelt also averaged 13.8 yds/catch while amassing 429 receiving yards last year.
Rutgers was spotty in kickoff coverage last year and ranked 94th in the nation, yielding 22.06 yards each time and one touchdown on the year. RU was even worse in punt defense, allowing 13.54 yards against and one touchdown in 2006 for a national rank of 110. Ito has the leg to kick it into the end zone, but the Scarlet Knights may try to angle kickoffs and try to box Roosevelt in.
Also keep an eye on sophomore safety Mike Newton, a ball hawk who nabbed five picks last season and contributed 60 tackles. Newton leads a defensive backfield that returns all its starters.
Junior quarterback Drew Willy, a co-captain this season and Garden State native, completed nearly 60 percent of his passes last season and garnered a 113.70 QB rating (compared to Teel's 120.59). That's a bit deceptive, though, as he threw six interceptions to six touchdowns in an injury-shortened 2006, his second year under center. Willy should benefit from the addition of Danny Barrett to the coaching staff. Barrett, who played quarterback at Cincinnati and was a standout in the Canadian Football League as a player, led the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders to the Grey Cup final last year. He joined the UB coaching staff in the offseason as the assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach.
Players to watch (Rutgers):
How do you replace all-everything Brian Leonard? It all starts with No. 27, a Heisman Trophy candidate and a team leader in his junior season. Ray Rice needs just 201 to supplant Terrell Willis as Rutgers' all-time leading rusher. Don't expect him to get it in this game, unless he runs for 200 yards in the first half.
Rice was hampered by soreness in preseason camp, and head coach Greg Schiano held him out of several contact practices as a precautionary measure. It will be interesting to see how much Rice is utilized in this contest, especially if it gets out of hand.
Mike Teel is another key to Rutgers' success this season. He has built a nice rapport with sophomore receiver Kenny Britt, who really came along in the second half of the 2006 season. If Teel can shake off the cobwebs and hit his targets early, it's going to be a long night for UB. Fans should also get a look at sophomore signal caller Jabu Lovelace in this game.
What about senior wide receiver James Townsend? Has he recovered from the dropped touchdown pass against West Virginia in the finale last year? He didn't register a catch in the Texas Bowl versus Kansas State, so there's no telling his mental frame of mind until he gets some game action this year.
Like Foster on the line, junior safety Courtney Greene brings the heat in the secondary. Keep an eye on Greene and senior safety Ron Girault (who combined with Greene for 151 tackles and seven picks in 2006) as they hawk the ball in an attempt to be the first to record a Rutgers interception this year.
Offensive and defensive schemes:
The teams run similar schemes, with Buffalo throwing in offensive variations. The difference is the players who fill the spots.
Buffalo uses a multiple set offense that will try to exploit Rutgers' relative inexperience in the linebacking corps with both pro style looks and the option, similar to what the Scarlet Knights faced against Ohio last year. While Buffalo's attack resembles nothing that Navy runs in the triple option, RU linebackers should get a taste of assignment football when the Bulls run the option. In addition to Roosevelt, UB has a talented receiver in junior Ernest Jackson. The Bulls will look to stretch the field against RU's defensive backfield, allowing opportunities for the safeties to take advantage of errant passes but challenging a talented yet thin secondary.
Rutgers' pro style offense was more reliant on the run than the pass last year, so look for Rice to get his share of touches against a UB defensive front that was 109th against the run last season. However, Teel is in his second year running the offense, so there's no reason to think the Scarlet Knights won't try to exploit UB's linebackers with mid-range passes and post patterns to the likes of Britt and senior Tiquan Underwood.
Two words: Jeremy Ito. The senior place kicker is handling kickoff and punting duties this year in addition to field goals and extra points. He shouldn't be too busy with punts this week, but his leg should get a workout on kickoffs.
The aforementioned Roosevelt presents a problem for Rutgers' special teams. The Scarlet Knights will have to hem in the exciting return man and could end up yielding field position in the process.
Rutgers is 4-1 versus Buffalo, but that one loss was a stinger. Remember that 34-11 defeat at the hands of Buffalo in 2002, where Andre Forde caught three touchdowns? That was UB's first and only victory against a BCS conference team. Things have changed at Rutgers since the Buffanova fiasco, but Rutgers has been fairly uninspired in the four meetings with the Bulls since whipping them 59-0 in 2000 (85-62 combined score).
This is the first time Rutgers has opened a season on a Thursday night since winning 31-15 at Buffalo in 2001. It is also the first time RU is opening the season at home since a 191-14 win over Michiagan State in 2004. The Scarlet Knights are 4-2 in season openers since 2001 and are 4-2 on weekdays during that same time span, including 2-2 on Thursdays.
The Bulls have not won an opening game since 1997, and they are 1-5 on Thursdays since 2001. The last time the Bulls opened on a Thursday night, they were trounced 38-0 at Connecticut in 2005
This is the third time the teams have met in the season opener, with Rutgers winning in 2001 and 2003. Buffalo is 1-9 versus Big East teams overall, 1-7 since 2001. Buffalo's only against a Big East squad came at Rutgers Stadium in 2002.
Weather: Expect a steady diet of Rice and a slick field, as the weather report is calling for scattered thunderstorms and a game-time temperature in the mid 60s. The field at Rutgers Stadium gets slick when it rains, especially painted areas like hash marks, yard-line numbers and the midfield logo.
For the gamers:
RU opened as a 31-point favorite in Las Vegas, and the line is generally RU minus 32 at most outfits. The Scarlet Knights are 1-2 against the spread in games against Buffalo since 2002. The last two meetings have gone ‘over.'
Buffalo was 6-5-1 ATS last season, including 2-1 against BCS opponents. Rutgers was 8-3-1 ATS last year but was just 1-2 when laying double digits. The last four Scarlet Knights contests with an ‘over/under' went ‘over' in 2006.
Sophomore wideout Tim Brown is out at least through next week. "The Ghost" suffered a broken left hand during preseason camp. Sophomore linebacker Ryan D'Imperio, who was expected to challenge for a starting spot this year, is sidelined until at least mid-September with a knee injury.
The bottom line is this game may be a tuneup for Navy in Week 2 and should be over by halftime. Enjoy the game, Rutgers fans. See you next week!