RU vs Cincy Preview

No. 21/21 Rutgers (3-1, 0-0 Big East) sustained its first loss of the year and was dealt a blow by the AP and coaches pollsters, who dropped the Scarlet Knights 11 spots in the rankings. Things don't get any easier, as the month of October features games against three highly-rated opponents.

This week, the Knights get their first taste of Big East action and face their first ranked opponent of the year as No. 20/24 Cincinnati (5-0, 0-0) comes to Rutgers Stadium. Let's take a look at this matchup.

SCOUTING CINCINNATI
Do you think Cincinnati fans are sending Mark Dantonio thank you cards and flowers for skipping out on the Bearcats to take the Michigan State job last year? First-year head coach Brian Kelly installed the spread offense this year and has UC playing its best football in decades.

The Bearcats are flying high and have not been challenged on the scoreboard by an opponent. They are outscoring the opposition 232-53 (average score of 46.4-10.6) and lead the nation in forced turnovers (21) and turnover margin (2.8 per game). Even if you take out the season opener against Division I-AA Southeast Missouri State, Cincinnati has tallied a 193-50 scoring advantage on four opponents. UC's 34-3 dismantling of Oregon State on Sept. 6 alerted many people around the country to the talent the Bearcats possessed.

Last Saturday Cincinnati toyed with San Diego State on the road and rolled up a 52-23 decision. The starters were out early in the third quarter, but not before quarterback Ben Mauk threw four touchdown passes to earn Big East Offensive Player of the Week accolades. UC's defense limited the Aztecs to a paltry 65 yards rushing.

Cincinnati was a team built on defense in previous years, but it finally has an offense to complement its stop unit. The Bearcats, ranked this season for the first time since1976, are playing with confidence and swagger and are looking to establish themselves as one of the teams to beat in the Big East.

OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE SCHEMES
Cincinnati is in its first year with the spread offense, but the team looks like it has been using the system for years. Mauk runs the offense under center and has thrown nine touchdowns to two interceptions. The spread offense has given Rutgers troubles over the years, especially when run by Big East rival West Virginia. The Scarlet Knights are built defensively on pressure and speed, which can sometimes be used in the spread attack against a defense that pursues too aggressively.

The Bearcats line up in a 4-3 defense that smothers the run and looks to get pressure on quarterbacks. Cincinnati has held opponents to just 10.6 points per game, best in the Big East and fourth nationally. The Bearcats are similar to Rutgers in the way they pursue the ball and their team speed. Where UC differs is its ability to force turnovers this season, with 21 takeaways (seven against Oregon State last month). The Bearcats have converted those miscues into 86 points.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Cincinnati place-kicker Jake Rogers has connected on five of his eight field goal attempts this season, including a 55-yarder against Oregon State. He has missed two extra point tries but has still accounted for 38 points this year. Punter Kevin Huber has been outstanding this year, averaging 49.8 yards per kick and landing nearly half his kicks inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

The return game has been inconsistent for Cincinnati, though that unit hasn't had much work. The punt return team averages just 7.4 yards per return while UC is averaging less than 20 yards per kickoff return.

KEY MATCHUPS
1. Rutgers' passing game versus Cincinnati's pass defense

The one statistic that immediately should come to mind with Cincinnati is the 13 interceptions by its defense. Six of those picks came against Oregon State during a 34-3 UC rout. Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel has thrown only two interceptions while completing 10 touchdown passes and ranks second nationally in pass efficiency (188.65). Last year's game against Cincinnati was perhaps his worst, as he threw four interceptions and completed 50 percent of his throws.

2. RU's rushing attack vs. UC's run defense

Cincinnati has one of the top run defenses in college football, allowing just 82.4 yards per game, by far the best stop unit Rutgers has faced this season. RU was held to just 82 yards on the ground against a Maryland team that had allowed a total of 531 yards rushing in its previous two games. Consider this: Cincinnati kept RU's run game in check last year, limiting Ray Rice and Brian Leonard to just 57 yards rushing.

3. Cincinnati's no-huddle offense against Rutgers' defense

RU's conditioning will be put to the test this week as Cincinnati rarely enters the huddle and operates a quick offense, often out of the shotgun formation. While it looks like a pass-heavy offense, UC has thrown only 106 attempts while running the ball 211 times. The Scarlet Knights came up with two big turnovers against Navy in Week 2 but were not able to force Maryland into miscues last week. Senior defensive tackle Eric Foster is banged up this week and senior safety Ron Girault is questionable, putting even more pressure on RU's younger players to perform.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (MARYLAND)

QB Ben Mauk
The transfer from Wake Forest has dealt with shoulder problems but appears to be healthy, as evidenced by his four TD performance in San Diego last week. He looks comfortable under center and spreads the ball out to different targets. His 183.71 passer efficiency rating is fourth in the NCAA and second in the Big East behind Teel. If Mauk goes down, his backup is Dustin Grutza, who started in the win against Miami and has thrown four TDs to zero picks this year.

CB Mike Mickens
The personification of a ball hawk, Mickens has four interceptions and a recovered fumble this year. The true junior took one of those picks 45 yards for a touchdown against Southeast Missouri State in the opener. Mickens has 20 tackles in addition to his five turnovers. Last season he intercepted two passes from Teel and broke up four others.

WR Marcus Barnett
The freshman receiver may not pile up gaudy numbers in the passing game, but he is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Barnett has 22 receptions for 278 yards and has reached the end zone five times. Against San Diego State last week, Barnett scored twice -- once when he took a pass from Mauk and scampered 80 yards for the score.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (RUTGERS)

QB Mike Teel

The redshirt junior was probably the best offensive player on the field in Rutgers' loss to Maryland last week, as he tallied 310 yards in the air and two touchdowns to one interception. Teel looked unstoppable on two scoring drives against Maryland, and he still rates second in the nation in passer efficiency (188.65). This is his team, and we'll see how he responds to real adversity.

RB Ray Rice

When he was given the ball against Maryland, he had an impact, rushing for 97 yards on 21 carries (4.6 yards per rush) and one touchdown. Rutgers also used Rice more in passing plays than in any other game, something the Scarlet Knights may have to continue against a stingy Cincinnati run defense. Rice has failed to reach 100 yards in two consecutive games. One result was a product of a blowout against Norfolk State and one was because RU was trailing a good deal against Maryland. But the fact is that the more touches Rice has, the better it bodes for Rutgers.

DT Eric Foster

There is no doubt who leads Rutgers defensively. While he's banged up heading into this contest, Foster is expected to start. The defense takes its emotional cues from him, so it will be interesting to see what kind of mood RU is in for this primetime tilt.

HEAD TO HEAD

Last year Rutgers went into Nippert Stadium on Nov. 18 ranked No. 7 in the country and limped away with a 30-11 defeat, RU's first loss of the season. Rutgers is 7-4-1 all-time against Cincinnati and 1-1 versus the Bearcats since UC joined the Big East. Rutgers thumped Cincinnati 44-9 when the Bearcats last visited Rutgers Stadium in 2005.

TRENDS/NOTES

Cincinnati boasts an eight-game winning streak that began with the victory against Rutgers at Nippert Stadium last November. The Bearcats have outscored opponents 315-111 during that run. Head coach Brian Kelly is now 6-0 to start his career at Cincinnati after leading the Bearcats to a 27-24 International Bowl victory over Western Michigan last season.

This is the third of at least six games on the ESPN/ABC networks and RU's third prime time game of the season. The loss to Maryland snapped Rutgers' 10-game home winning streak and handed the Scarlet Knights their first loss since last November. RU was 3-0 last season following a loss.

PERSONNEL

True senior safety Ron Girault is questionable for this game with a leg injury. WEATHER

The weather report is predicting a clean track with temperatures somewhere in the high 60s to low 70s at game time. TIME/TV

The game is scheduled for 8 p.m. EDT and will be broadcast on ESPN 2. Mark Jones, Bob Davie and Stacey Dales form the broadcast team. This marks the 28th consecutive televised games for Rutgers.< br>

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