The Huskies, whose only loss came on a last-second field goal at Virginia (7-2) in a 17-16 decision, have benefited from a tough defense, some favorable calls and tenacity. Over the past two weeks UConn has slain Louisville (5-4, 2-2) and South Florida (6-2, 1-2) and is coming off the program's first victory over a ranked squad.
For all the talk of a phantom fair catch that resulted in a UConn touchdown against Louisville two weeks ago, the Huskies still rallied later in the game from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Cardinals 21-17. Last week the Huskies got off to a 16-0 lead before USF got its offense started and put together a late goal line stand to secure a 22-15 victory.
No team has scored more than 17 points on UConn this year, but the Huskies have managed to put up at least 30 points in four different contests. This is a team that relies on defense to force errors and shut down the opposition.
UConn runs first and rarely airs the ball out on deep routes. The Huskies, formed as a pro style offense, operate out of a lot of one-back sets and rush the ball more than 60 percent of the time. UConn averages 164.6 yards per game rushing, led by tailback Andre Dixon's 101.7 yards per game. Quarterback Tyler Lorenzen has not been setting the world on fire, as he completes fewer than 60 percent of his passes and has thrown for more than 200 yards in only three of eight games this year. However, he has only thrown four interceptions while tossing nine touchdown passes.
UConn's offensive line has been porous in pass protection, allowing 20 sacks this season. The Huskies have been unable to score TDs in the red zone, converting 18 TDs out of 33 trips inside opponents' 20-yard line (54.5 percent). However, UConn has only failed to come away with points on four trips inside the Red Zone this season, kicking 11 field goals on drives inside the red zone.
The Huskies run a 4-3 offense that relies on forcing opponent errors to win
the field position battle. UConn boasts the second-best turnover margin in the
country, grabbing 22 takeways while turning the ball over just 10 times.
UConn limited Louisville's vaunted passing attack to just 228 yards and one touchdown two weeks ago.
UConn's run defense is inconsistent, though. Matt Grothe accounted for 146 of USF's 251 yards rushing last week, the most UConn has given up this year. USF's 440 yards were also the most by any team against the Huskies this year. Overall, UConn limits teams to just 117.3 yards per game, third in the conference behind West Virginia and Cincinnati.
Place-kicker Tony Ciaravino is good on field goals but shaky on extra points this year. The junior is 16-for-20 on field goals, but three of his misses have come from at least 50 years. He went through a stretch earlier this season where he made nine straight attempts, and Ciaravino has not missed an attempt inside 50 yards since the first week of the season. He has missed two PATs this year, including one against USF last week.
Sophomore punter Desi Cullen is averaging 39.4 yards per attempt this year and has placed opponents inside their own 20-yard line 13 times. Cullen also handles kickoffs for UConn and is the holder on field goals and extra points.
Larry Taylor (punts) and Tyvon Branch (kicks) are dangerous special teams returners for the Huskies. You may remember Taylor as the guy who faked a fair catch and brought a punt back for a touchdown against Louisville. Branch's returns are more genuine. He leads the Big East in kick return yardage and brought a kick back 97 yards for a touchdown against Akron Sept. 29.
1. UConn's running game vs. Rutgers' run defense
Only one team, Virginia, has been able to limit UConn to fewer than 100 yards on the ground. The Huskies average 164.6 yards per game rushing and have scored 13 rushing touchdowns. Running back Andre Dixon averages more than 100 yards per game and has a 5.6 yards per carry average. Donald Brown, the Red Bank Catholic product who torched Rutgers for 199 yards rushing last season, has scored five times in a reserve role this year. Rutgers has been suspect against the run this year, allowing 150.5 yards per game. Expect plenty of UConn running plays.
2. RU's pass rush vs. UConn's offensive line
UConn has yielded 20 sacks this year while Rutgers has reached the quarterback 24 times this season. The Huskies have given up six sacks in Big East play; three each to Pittsburgh and USF. RU has registered 15 sacks in Big East play, including 12 total in victories over USF and Syracuse. The Scarlet Knights' success may depend on sacking UConn quarterback Tyler Lorenzen.
3. Mike Teel and RU's O-line vs. UConn's pass defense
Rutgers has the best pass protection in the Big East this season while UConn has a good pass rush. RU has allowed only five sacks, and the Huskies have registered 20 sacks this season. Teel, battling through his thumb injury, has thrown six interceptions to just four touchdowns in Big East play. UConn defensive end Julius Williams leads the rush with 6 1/2 sacks this year, and defensive back Robert Vaughn and linebacker Scott Lutrus have combined for nine interceptions. Lutrus has taken two of those picks to the house, including a 23-yard TD return against USF last week that made the score 16-0 in favor of UConn.
PLAYERS TO WATCH (UCONN)
RB Andre Dixon
The New Brunswick High School graduate averages 5.6 yards per carry and 101.7 yards per game this year. While he has only reached the end zone twice this year, Dixon has brought a power game to UConn's offense that has been missing in the past. He victimized South Florida for 167 yards on 32 carries (career highs). Against Louisville, he carried the ball on five of UConn's last seven plays, including a 5-yard touchdown run, as the Huskies drove to beat the Cardinals 21-17.
QB Tyler Lorenzen
Lorenzen has not been a flashy passer this year, and he's not going to win any offensive awards. He averages 197.9 yards per game, has thrown just nine TD strikes this year and completes less than 60 percent of his passes. But he has poise as a quarterback and has led his team to a 7-1 start to the season. Lorenzen, a junior college transfer, makes plays when he needs to, is mobile and is smart with the ball, throwing just four interceptions this year.
LB Scott Lutrus
The redshirt freshman has a nose for the ball and has grabbed four interceptions this year, two of which he has taken back for touchdowns. He has registered 53 total tackles this year, including six for loss. He has 26 total tackles (18 against Louisville) and two interceptions over the last two games.
PLAYERS TO WATCH (RUTGERS)
S Ron Girault
The Scarlet Knights have missed the true senior co-captain's presence in the secondary the last few weeks. Now he's back from an ankle sprain and brings an intimidating presence to the run defense as well as better pass coverage. In four games this year, Girault has 22 total tackles and one interception.
RB Ray Rice
The true junior is Rutgers' MVP this year. Though he hasn't crossed the goal line in two straight games, Rice leads the Big East with 1,141 yards and is tied for the conference lead with 13 rushing touchdown. Against USF and West Virginia, Rice amassed a total of 313 yards but no TDs. He has gone over the century mark in three straight games after being held under 100 yards rushing in three straight contests. In two games against UConn, Rice has scored just once. He ran for 217 yards on the Huskies his freshman year in 2005, but UConn limited him to 79 yards and one touchdown on the ground last season.
WR Tiquan Underwood
The usually reliable Underwood dropped a few passes in soggy conditions against West Virginia last week. He has been the go-to guy on third down conversions this year and has racked up 848 yards on 46 receptions. Underwood has eight touchdowns this year and is second in the Big East with 106 yards receiving per game.
THREE AREAS OF CONCERN (UCONN)
1. Pass protection
The Huskies have allowed 20 sacks. In three games (Maine, Akron and Louisville), Tyler Lorenzen has survived without being sacked. However, in the five other games opponents have put the junior signal caller on his back at least three times.
After averaging 36.6 points per game through its first five games, UConn has managed a shade below 20 points per game in its last three outings. The Huskies have been bailed out by their defense and special teams and have won two of those three games. UConn has scored four offensive touchdowns in the last three weeks compared to one defensive and one special teams score.
3. Finishing drives
This could be listed as 2a. The Huskies have had to settle for field goals on 11 trips inside the red zone this year and have only scored touchdowns 54.5 percent of the time on drives inside the 20-yard line. Place-kicker Tony Ciaravino has banged home at least three field goals in four games this year and has outscored the offense twice.
THREE AREAS OF CONCERN (Rutgers)
1. Special teams
This especially relates to punt returns. Rutgers has turned the ball over four times on punt returns this year, three times in the past two weeks. The Scarlet Knights have been unable to field the ball cleanly and last week were victimized by a freak (or was it wise) kick that hit a blocker in the back. RU's punting is also anemic, as the Scarlet Knights are next to last in college football in net punting with a 34.97 yards per attempt average.
The Scarlet Knights are their own worst enemies at times this year, turning the ball over 17 times and holding a minus 7 turnover ratio. That's tied with Pittsburgh for the league's worst. The timing of the turnovers is of particular concern. A Dennis Campbell fumbled punt against Maryland turned the tide in a 34-24 Terrapins win. A Mike Teel interception deep in Cincinnati territory sealed a 28-23 Bearcats victory. A West Virginia punt that bounced off blocking back Ramy Nubani opened the floodgates for the Mountaineers to run to a 31-3 win. UConn is second in the nation with a plus 12 turnover ratio.
3. Run defense
RU has allowed 150.5 yards per game on the ground this year, including three games where the opponent has gained more than 200 yards rushing. The Scarlet Knights have not held a team below 100 yards rushing since limiting Norfolk State to 10 yards on Sept. 15.
HEAD TO HEAD
Rutgers owns an 18-8 advantage in the all-time series, but UConn is 3-2 against the Scarlet Knights since 2001. Last year's 24-13 Rutgers victory was the only double-digit victory by either team since the rivalry was renewed in '01. UConn won 20-19 in 2001; 38-31 in '03; and 41-34 on Thanksgiving Day in '05. Rutgers retaliated with a 26-24 win in 2005 and last year's victory.
The teams are 1-1 at Rentschler Field.
Rutgers is on the road for just the second time this year. The Scarlet Knights are 8-4 in road games since 2005. . . . RU has won four road games against ranked opponents, the last one coming in a 21-16 victory at Penn State in 1988. . . . This is Rutgers' first game on natural grass this season. The Scarlet Knights are 5-1 on grass since 2005. . . . RU is 10-5 in night games since 2005.
Seven UConn players hail from New Jersey (versus one Rutgers player from Connecticut, Kyle Kummer). . . . UConn is 6-3 in night games at Rentschler Field. . . . UConn has never started a season 8-1. . . . The Huskies were ranked in the Associated Press and Coaches' Polls for the first time in school history when the polls were released this week. UConn made its BCS ranking debut last week at No. 23.
Rutgers: Senior wideout/kick returner James Townsend is finished for the season after undergoing knee surgery this week. Townsend is the second Rutgers kick returner lost for the year. . . . Senior safety Ron Girault is expected to see his first game action since the Sept. 29 Maryland game. . . . Freshman linebacker Manny Abreu may be redshirted this year after suffering an injury in practice this week.
The National Weather Service is calling for mostly clear skies with a low around 35 degrees in East Hartford Saturday night. Bring your mittens or some liquid heat.
The game is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. EDT and will be broadcast on ESPNU (Dish
Network channel 148; DirecTV channel 609). However, the beginning of the broadcast
may be cut off if the Maryland at North Carolina game, scheduled to begin at
3:45 p.m. ET, goes long. Dave Armstrong, Mike Gottfried and Melissa Knowles
make up the television broadcast team.