Preview: #13 Rutgers vs. Norfolk State

Homecoming is a magical time to get back to campus and reconnect with old friends and acquaintances. It should also be an opportunity for a football team to beat up on another squad in front of its longtime faithful.

Rutgers gets its shot to put up big numbers against Norfolk State, the sacrificial lamb from the Division I-AA Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) coming to the Banks for Saturday's homecoming game.

This is the first time Norfolk State has ever played a team from Division I-A (now called the Football Bowl Subdivision by the NCAA), resulting in a $275,000 payday for the program. The game boils down to a glorified scrimmage for the Scarlet Knights as they head into the bye week before meeting Maryland on Sept. 29 at Rutgers Stadium. The 13th-ranked Knights are 2-0 for the third time since 2000 after beating Navy 41-24 last Friday.

Norfolk State has been off since toppling Virginia State, a Division II school, 33-7 on Sept. 1. The Spartans turned the ball over four times but still managed to rack up a 493-154 yardage advantage -- 241 of that coming on the ground -- en route to their second consecutive victory against Virginia State. Running back Daryl Jones compiled 125 yards and two touchdowns on 24 attempts while quarterback Casey Hansen was 22-of-42 for 245 yards. He threw one interception and no touchdowns versus Virginia State.

Center Brandon Nance was named MEAC offensive lineman of the week following Week 1, and sophomore kicker Justin Castellat -- a perfect 4-for-4 on field goal attempts -- earned MEAC special teams player of the week honors.

The Spartans, picked to finish seventh out of nine teams in their conference this season, are not exactly MEAC powerhouses, with a 10-33 mark over the past four seasons, all against Division I-AA (now called the Football Championship Subdivision by the NCAA) and Division II opponents. Add to the mix the fact that NSU lost 27 starters off last year's team and you have a recipe for a blowout.

Norfolk State spreads the ball around in the passing game. Five players had multiple catches in the Spartans' first outing this year, and eight players overall caught passes. The Spartans, however, have a tough time holding onto the football. They fumbled the ball four times against Virginia State, losing it three times. An interception that was returned for a VSU touchdown brought the tally to four Spartan turnovers in Week 1.

NSU employs a 4-3 defensive scheme that relies on leadership in the front seven to make plays. All started along the defensive line and in the linebacking corps are either juniors or seniors. The Spartans returned their entire defensive backfield intact this season.

Norfolk State lost a four-year letter winner when punter and place-kicker Antonio Gomez graduated last year. Sophomore Justin Castellat, Gomez's replacement in place kicking, saw action in just one contest last season. He performed admirably in his first start this season, banging home all four field goal attempts, including a 41-yarder, as well as all three extra point tries.

Norfolk State had breakdowns in the kick return game versus Virginia State, and new punter Brian Jackson had a long punt of only 37 against the Trojans. Is this the week Rutgers gets its first blocked punt of the season? Will the Scarlet Knights break a return for a touchdown? I think there's a good chance of at least one of those scenarios coming true.

True senior Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito got back on track versus Navy last week, converting on both his field goal attempts and five extra points. For the year he is 3-for-5 on field goals (including a 56-yard attempt) and 10-for-10 on PATs. Ito also pinned his only punt against Navy inside the 5-yard line.

However, kick coverage continues to be spotty, as RU has allowed an average kick return of nearly 25 yards.


1. Rutgers' pass rush vs. QB Casey Hansen
The Scarlet Knights look to really get after Hansen this week and force him into errors early and often. Rutgers tallied three sacks in Week 1 versus Buffalo and another against Navy last week. Virginia State's lone score against NSU was an interception return for a touchdown, which has to give Rutgers confidence that it can repeat the feat this week.

2. RB Ray Rice and RU's offensive line vs. NSU's run defense
Rutgers' line dominated the opposition in the first two games, contributing to 445 yards rushing on 84 attempts (a 5.3 yards-per-rush average). NSU allowed an average of 187 yards on the ground last year but held Virginia State to 92 yards in the season opener two weeks ago.

In his last two games versus Division I-AA opponents, Rice has rushed for 171 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries (a 4.75 yards-per-carry average). He rumbled into the end zone three times against Howard last year.

3. RU's defense vs. NSU's fumble-prone offense
Norfolk State put the ball on the ground four times against Virginia State, losing three fumbles. That lack of ability to hold on to the rock will spell quick trouble for the Spartans and should help Rutgers – plus 1 in turnovers after picking off three Navy passes last week -- get even healthier in the turnover margin department.

4. Rutgers' passing attack vs. NSU's pass defense
RU QB Mike Teel has an astounding 224.75 passer efficiency rating through two games and has thrown five touchdowns to just one interception while completing 30 of 42 attempts this season. Four different receivers have touchdowns, including RB Ray Rice. In 11 games last season, Norfolk State allowed less than 165 yards passing on average. NSU limited Virginia State to just 62 yards through the air and nabbed a pair of interceptions in this season's opener.

Casey Hansen
The junior returned for his second season as the Norfolk State signal caller after leading the MEAC in total passing yards in 2006 (2,166). However, he threw 16 interceptions to just 10 touchdowns last season and has one pick in as many games this year. Hansen, who completes just over 50 percent of his attempts for his career, had a 96.6 passer rating against Virginia State in Week 1. RU's safeties are going to be ball hacking all game.

WRs Dario Walker and Rashad Howard
The pair combined to catch 11 passes in NSU's first game, though neither reached the end zone. Walker averaged nearly 12 yards per catch versus VSU and led the team with 70 receiving yards. Eight players hauled in receptions for NSU in its opener.

PK Justin Castellat
Getting his first career start in the season opener, Castellat was true on all four field goal attempts versus Virginia State, including a long of 41. For his career, Castellat is 5-for-5 on field goals.

Ray Rice
This year continues to be his show, and it will be more interesting seeing how long he stays in the game this week than how many yards he will gain. The true junior toted the rock 37 times against Navy and has a nation-leading 359 yards on 62 attempts (5.8 ypr average). Rice has crossed the goal line six times this year (five times running the ball) and averages 179.5 yards per game on the ground. He has reached 100 yards in five straight games, two short of his personal-best seven consecutive 100-yard performances in 2006.

WR Tim Brown
The true sophomore returned to the lineup against Navy and nearly hauled in a touchdown pass early. The play was flagged for defensive pass interference and Rutgers eventually scored on the drive. Brown is still wearing a soft cast that may affect his catching ability, but look for him to get behind the NSU defense often in this one.

OLB Kevin Malast
The true junior is making a name for himself early in his first season as a starter. He tied with senior Eric Foster for the most tackles in the Navy game with13 and leads the Big East with 11.5 tackles per game (23 total tackles). Malast also had half a sack that he shared with fellow linebacker Damaso Munoz versus Buffalo.

This is the first meeting between the teams. Last year the schools had one common opponent in Howard. Rutgers thrashed the Bison 56-7. Norfolk State lost to Howard 13-10.

Rutgers has started a season 3-0 just once in the previous 25 seasons (last year). The Scarlet Knights are looking to go 3-0 in back-to-back campaigns for the first time since they accomplished the feat in the 1980-81 seasons.

Rutgers has won its last three homecoming games and has won nine straight at Rutgers Stadium, a school record in the post-renovation years.

DT Peter Tverdov will likely miss the Norfolk State game with a leg injury. He has not seen action this year. LB Ryan D'Imperio also continues to be sidelined with a leg injury. LB Brandon Renkhart will be a game-time decision.

The weather report is calling for a 30 percent chance of showers with a 13 mph wind from the northwest. Temperatures should be in the low to mid 60s, so bring a sweater and don't forget your rain gear just in case. This ends the guest commentary from your grandmother.

The game is scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. EDT kickoff and will be broadcast in the New Jersey area on MSG Network. It is also available out of market on ESPN GamePlan. John Rooke and John Gregory form the scheduled play-by-play team.

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