Rutgers vs West Virginia Preview

Associated Press No. 25 Rutgers (5-2, 2-1 Big East) got back on track in the Big East race with a victory over BCS No. 2 South Florida (6-1, 1-1) last Thursday. Now another top 10 team comes calling as No. 6/6/7 West Virginia (6-1, 1-1) pays a visit to the Banks for another key conference tilt. SOR gives you the lowdown.

West Virginia has traditionally owned Rutgers over the years and currently holds a 12-game winning streak against the Scarlet Knights. However, RU has closed the gap considerably from days like the 80-7 beating it took in Morgantown in 2001. Two of the last three games have been decided by five points or less, including last season's thrilling 41-39 triple overtime game in Morgantown that ended in favor of the home Mountaineers.


SCOUTING WEST VIRGINIA

West Virginia began the season in the top 10 and hit a bump only once this year as it suffered a 21-13 loss at USF on Sept. 28. The Bulls were one of three teams to score in the 20s against West Virginia this season, but the other two (Western Michigan and Marshall) scored late in WVU blowouts.

Since losing to USF, West Virginia rattled off a 55-14 win at Syracuse (2-6, 1-2) on Oct. 6 and a 38-13 victory at home against Mississippi State last week. The Mountaineers have scored at least 48 points in four games this season and have reached the 30-point plateau in each of their six victories.


OFFENSE

The dreaded West Virginia spread offense comes to town this week, a system that has given Rutgers plenty of trouble in recent years. The spread offense is to Rutgers what the triple option was for years: a royal pain to solve. Quarterback Patrick White looks healthy healthier after suffering chest and shoulder injuries earlier this season and should suit up for this game. Even if he is not ready to go, backup quarterback Jarrett Brown can run the offense, as he showed in beating Rutgers last year.

White and Steve Slaton form a two-headed monster that only one team has been able to solve this season. The two early-season Heisman Trophy candidates have combined for 1,252 yards and 18 touchdowns rushing. White is the all-time leader in rushing for Big East quarterbacks. Receiver Darius Reynaud (eight receiving touchdowns this year) is an X factor that will cause Rutgers fits if the Scarlet Knights don't put a man close to him in coverage. Freshman running back Noel Devine also appears legit, though he has been limited to only 32 carries this year (three touchdowns and 9.9 yard per rush average).

WVU averages 304.1 yards per game on the ground and is averaging 42.1 points per game (both best in the Big East). The Mountaineers have failed to score 30 points only once this year (in the loss to USF).

While Rutgers has become familiar with the spread offense, this is the first time the Scarlet Knights will see White as a starter. He was sidelined during last year's 41-39 triple overtime WVU win in Morgantown last year.


DEFENSE

WVU's stop unit is overshadowed by its offense. But make no mistake about it; this is a talented bunch that runs the 3-3-5 defense effectively. Keilen Dykes, who is moving from nose tackle to defensive tackle, anchors a defensive unit that is fourth in the nation in total defense (254.7 yards per game), 10th in scoring defense (16.6 points per game) and 12th in rushing defense (89.4 yards per game).

What makes the 3-3-5 unique is not only the way it's geared to stop the run. The Mountaineers have been known to drop the nose tackle into coverage to disrupt short patterns and occasionally force turnovers.

Linebackers Mortty Ivy and Reed Williams lead the second tier of the defense. The backers have combined for 96 tackles (8 1/2 tackles for loss), two interceptions and four forced fumbles.


SPECIAL TEAMS

Junior Pat McAfee is as reliable as they come in the place-kicking department. The three-year starter has missed only once this year on field goal attempts and is 36-for-37 on PATs. Despite the inability to boom the ball on kickoffs, McAfee has pinned opponents to four touchbacks.

Before Jeremy Ito was pulling double duty on kicking and punting duties for Rutgers, McAfee was the punter and place-kicker for West Virginia and continues to do so this year (although WVU fullback Owen Schmitt has pulled off a couple of quick kicks this year). Like Ito, McAfee employs a rugby-style punt and is next to last in Big East punting average this season (37.8 yards per punt).

The Mountaineers have one of the best punt return units in the Big East. Vaughn Rivers averages more than 11 yards per return.


KEY MATCHUPS

1. RU's running game vs. West Virginia's run defense
This is the key to the game. If Rutgers can get push on the line of scrimmage and running back Ray Rice can rack up the yardage, Rutgers stands a good chance of winning this contest. The Scarlet Knights will need to move the ball to keep up on the scoreboard and to keep Pat White and company off the field. If Rutgers struggles in the running game, it will be a long day.

2. RU's defense vs. WVU's spread attack
West Virginia quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton are a deadly 1-2 punch who are sure to get their yards. But Rutgers will need to contain these two unless it's ready to get into a track meet with West Virginia. RU was ill-prepared to stop the spread offense when Cincinnati came to Rutgers Stadium on Oct. 6, as UC gained 407 yards in a 28-23 victory for the visiting Bearcats. Rutgers is allowing 135.7 yards per game rushing this year but has limited its last two opponents to a total of 227 yards on the ground.

3. Rutgers' receiving corps vs. West Virginia's secondary
Last week RU faced the best cornerbacks it will see all year in USF's Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins. Receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood, on pace to become the first duo in Rutgers history with 1,000 yards receiving each (68 catches for 1,456 yards and 10 touchdowns total), combined for seven catches and 141 yards versus the Bulls. Underwood accounted for 114 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-changing 69-yard catch and run in the third quarter. WVU has the fifth-best pass defense in the nation, allowing 170 yards per game and holding opponents to seven touchdowns through the air.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (West Virginia)

QB Pat White
Everything flows from WVU's versatile signal caller who can exploit team's weaknesses in the running game, but who is one of the most accurate passers in college football this year (sixth in passing efficiency). He has been dealing with shoulder and chest injuries this season, but White appeared to be better during a 38-13 victory against Mississippi State last week in which he accounted for three touchdowns and averaged nearly 18 yards per rushing attempt. For the season White has completed 71 percent of his passes (81-for 114) and has tossed nine touchdowns (eight to Reynaud) to just two interceptions. White also has eight rushing TDs this season. Even if White gets knocked out of this game, Brown is not much of a downgrade and brings an extra passing element to WVU's attack.

RB Steve Slaton
Slaton has 251 yards rushing and three touchdowns in the last two seasons against Rutgers. The versatile junior has amassed 967 all-purpose yards this season and has reached the end zone 11 times (10 rushing TDs). He averages 107.4 yards per game on the ground and 5.6 yards per carry.

FB Owen Schmitt
He can run over opposing defenders. He can catch passes in the flat. He can punt. Schmitt is a dangerous back who makes the most of his touches and will likely see significant time with the football if WVU finds an opening between the tackles to exploit. He averages 5.2 yards per carry and 9.1 yards per catch and has scored three times this year.


PLAYERS TO WATCH (RUTGERS)

QB Mike Teel
Will he or won't he? The consensus seems to be that Teel, nursing a thumb injury he originally suffered in the Cincinnati game, will make the start for Rutgers. He reportedly aggravated the thumb injury last week and was largely ineffective, completing only 11 of his 29 attempts. He was bailed out by Underwood, who caught a short pass in the end zone for a touchdown and turned another medium gain into a 69-yard touchdown. The USF game stopped a streak of three-straight 300-yard games for Teel. If the thumb is a factor, expect more of backup Jabu Lovelace, who has shown he can run but is an unproven passer.

RB Ray Rice
Rutgers saddled up and rode the true junior running back to 181 yards on 39 carries in a victory against South Florida last week, running his totals to 377 yards and three touchdowns over the past two weeks. The true junior needs just one yard to reach the 1,000-yard mark this season, making him the first player in Rutgers history to have three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Rice had 129 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries against WVU last season, his first significant action versus the Mountaineers.

LB Brendan Renkart
The senior co-captain is going to be called upon to make plays in space in this game and will be a key to stopping White and company. Renkart has 44 total tackles this year, including six for loss, and has registered 2 1/2 sacks as well as five quarterback hurries. In the Cincinnati game, Renkart had six tackles, one QB hurry and one tackle for loss.


HEAD TO HEAD

Rutgers has not beat West Virginia since Alcides Catanho had an interception that sparked RU to a 17-12 victory in Piscataway in 1994. The Mountaineers have generally owned Rutgers during the intervening years, outscoring the Scarlet Knights 540-199 (average score of 45-16). Two of those victories have been shutouts, there was one 80-7 rout, and two of those contests went to multiple overtimes.

West Virginia leads the all-time series 28-4-2 and is 6-0 versus Rutgers under head coach Rich Rodriguez.


TRENDS/NOTES

Rutgers has won its last two contests against top 10 opponents, defeating No. 2 USF last week and beating No. 3 Louisville 28-25 last season. The Scarlet Knights are 2-2 versus ranked teams since the beginning of last season.

West Virginia is 3-1 away from home this year and is 6-3 in away games since the start of last season. This is WVU's first road game against a ranked opponent since losing 44-34 at Louisville last season. The Mountaineers last beat a ranked opponent in 2002, when they upended No. 17 Pitt 24-17.


PERSONNEL

Rutgers: Rutgers true senior strong safety Ron Girault is likely a scratch for this game due to a nagging leg injury suffered in the Maryland game. Teel should be ready to go for this game despite dealing with a thumb injury the past four weeks.

West Virginia: White is still banged up but should be ready to go for the Mountaineers this week. According to the West Virginia Scout site (BlueGoldNews.com), Safety Quinton Andrews and athlete Will Johnson are questionable with knee injuries while defensive end James Ingram is still out with a bad back.


WEATHER

Showers are likely for this game, with a high temperature around 71 degrees. The National Weather Service is predicting a 70 percent chance of rain with rainfall up to one inch during the day.


TIME/TV

The game is scheduled for noon EDT and will be broadcast throughout much of the country on ABC. It is available out of the market on ESPN GamePlan. Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, Paul Maguire and Bonnie Bernstein form the broadcast team. Kickoff is 12:10 p.m. ET.


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