Saturday is Senior Day at Rutgers, where the Scarlet Knights (6-4, 2-3 Big East) will honor a class of 20 players that has been part of 28 wins and two bowl wins to date, with a chance to increase that number to 30 and 3. Pittsburgh (4-5, 2-2) is coming off a close win at Syracuse and comes in looking to keep its bowl hopes alive. It will be a showdown of the top two running backs in the Big East as Rutgers junior Ray Rice goes head to head with Pittsburgh freshman LeSean McCoy.
Pitt has garnered highly rated recruiting classes under third-year head coach Dave Wannstedt but has yet to live up to the expectations those classes bring. The Panthers got off to a slow start but have been playing better football the last month, winning two of their last three (including a victory against Cincinnati) after losing four straight. Pitt could be 6-3 if not for a late fumble on the 1-yard line in a 24-17 loss at Louisville Oct. 27 and a 48-45 double-overtime loss to Navy on Oct. 10.
The Panthers had trouble putting away a bad Syracuse team on Nov. 3, eventually outlasting the Orange and outscoring them 10-7 in the fourth quarter to salt away a 20-17 victory. Running back LeSean McCoy had 140 yards on 31 carries and became the third freshman in Pitt history to have 1,000 yards rushing.
It's a one-man band in Pitt this year, and McCoy is THE man. He leads all freshmen nationally in rushing with 1,065 yards and 11 touchdowns and is second in the Big East among all runners behind Rutgers tailback Ray Rice. He is two touchdowns shy of tying Tony Dorsett's freshman scoring record at Pitt. McCoy displaced junior LaRod Stephens-Howling as the starter in the third game this season and has not looked back.
Not surprisingly, Pitt is a run-oriented team that operates out of a pro-style offense. The Panthers manage 152.2 yards rushing per game, led by McCoy's 118.3 average yards per contest. However, the one-dimensional nature of Pitt's offense has caused multiple problems. The Panthers have managed to score more than two offensive touchdowns on just three occasions this season and have done it just once over their last seven contests (2-5 record in those games).
Additionally, Pitt is 101st nationally in passing offense (179.3 yards per game) and 100th in total offense (331.6 ypg). Freshman quarterback Pat Bostick, who started the last five Pitt games under center, is rated eighth in the Big East in passing efficiency and has thrown seven interceptions to five touchdowns.
Wannstedt is a defensive coach, and its shows by the way Pitt runs his 4-3 scheme. The Panthers have a strong pass rush, led by senior defensive end Joe Clermond, who has registered 7 1/2 sacks and 9 1/2 tackles for loss. Clermond is a disruptive force, and Pitt is first in the Big East with 2.8 sacks per game (25 total through nine games).
Junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop is the top tackler in the Big East and is second in college football with an average of 7.6 tackles per game. He has registered double digits in tackles on five occasions this season, including 17 against Michigan State Sept. 15.
Pitt is able to key the run and holds opponents to just 128.6 yards rushing per game. The Panthers have allowed 14 rushing touchdowns this season, including four games where they have yielded multiple rushing TDs (similar to Rutgers, which has allowed 14 rushing TDs and four multiple games).
Kickoff return man Lowell Robinson presents a matchup problem for Rutgers. Pitt's speedy senior averages more than 25 yards per kickoff return this year, though he hasn't taken one for a touchdown yet. At the least, he should be able to set up Pitt with field position near midfield on kickoffs.
Pitt's punting unit is average, but place-kicker Conor Lee is solid, making 13 of 15 field goal attempts this season and all 23 PATs. A 42-yard attempt that he pushed wide versus Syracuse was his first miss since opening week. Lee, who is perfect in the all-important 30-39 range, had made 12 straight since missing his first attempt of the year versus Eastern Michigan Sept. 1.
1. LeSean McCoy vs. Rutgers' run defense
The Scarlet Knights have yielded an average of 155.7 yards per game, including an average of 177.4 yards per game against Big East team. West Virginia and Connecticut piled up a total of 510 yards rushing on the Knights. McCoy is the second-leading rusher in the Big East behind Rutgers' Ray Rice and is averaging 118.3 yards per game with 11 rushing TDs. He has put up an average of 136 yards with two touchdowns in his last three games.
2. Ray Rice vs. Pitt's run defense
Rice has put together banner days in two games against Pitt, averaging 176 yards per game versus the Panthers. He is the leading rusher in the Big East and is third nationally with 150 yards per game. His 16 rushing TDs are tops in the conference. Rice faces a rushing defense that has allowed 128.6 yards per game and has allowed just one team besides Navy to run for at least 150 yards. This is a case of a stingy defense against a determined runner.
3. RU's passing game vs. Pitt's pass defense
Rutgers attempted only 12 passes against Army last week, and the passing attack has been less than stellar over the second half of the season. You might blame it on quarterback Mike Teel's injured thumb, or you could say the receivers forgot how to catch passes. While RU's passing game has mustered 269.6 yards per game in Big East play, the team has scored passing touchdowns in only two Big East contests this season. If the Scarlet Knights can't pass the ball, you're going to hear "three yards and a cloud of dust" frequently this week.
PLAYERS TO WATCH (PITT)
RB LeSean McCoy
This kid is the real deal and should win Big East Freshman of the Year honors hands down. Two weeks ago he joined Tony Dorsett and Curvin Richards as the only Pitt players to gain 1,000 yards in their freshman season. He needs two rushing touchdowns to tie Dorsett's freshman record and is within 196 yards of tying the Big East freshman running record set by Rutgers' Terrell Willis in 1993. He's the best pure tailback Rutgers will face all year.
DE Joe Clermond
While he does not have the sack numbers put up by South Florida defensive end George Selvie, Clermond is arguably a stronger overall player. He has speed and vision and can wreak havoc on opponents' passing and running games. Clermond has 7 1/2 sacks, 9 1/2 tackles for loss and one forced fumble this season.
QB Pat Bostick
Bostick came into the season as a highly regarded freshman. He has endured growing pains this season and is averaging only 176.3 yards passing per game. He is below water in his touchdown to interception ratio (5-7), and he has not thrown a TD pass since Pitt beat Cincinnati on Oct. 20. He has not responded well to pressure and may fold if the Scarlet Knights bring the blitz early.
PLAYERS TO WATCH (RUTGERS)
RB Ray Rice
Yeah, I know. Ray Rice again. Well, wouldn't you say he warrants mention, especially coming of a record week that earned him Big East Offensive Player of the Week honors? In two games against Pitt, Rice has rushed for 342 yards and one touchdown on 54 carries. Last year's Pitt game was one of his best performances, as he tallied 228 yards and one score on 39 carries. With Rutgers clinging to a 13-10 lead and deep in its own end early in the fourth quarter, Rice turned the game with a 63-yard run and eventually scored on the same drive to put the Panthers away.
QB Mike Teel
The redshirt junior sat most of the game against Army last week, presumably to rest his injured thumb on his throwing hand. It remains to be seen whether he has healed, and he is seeing limited reps in practice. If Teel -- who is throwing for 248.1 yards per game with 14 TDs to 10 interceptions -- can't get the passing game going, Pittsburgh will probably load the box against the run.
QB Jabu Lovelace
Lovelace, a redshirt sophomore, has become an added weapon for Rutgers and took the majority of snaps against Army last week. While he still hasn't been able to unload on passes (a beauty of a TD pass was called back for a penalty last week), he has impressive numbers in the running game. Lovelace is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and is the second leading RU rusher with 317 yards. He is the only player besides Rice to score a rushing TD this year. However, he has completed only five of 15 pass attempts this year. We'll see if Pitt is thrown off by his change-of-pace offensive sets.
THREE AREAS OF CONCERN (PITT)
Pittsburgh is last in the Big East in turnover margin (minus 7), and fumbles have cost the Panthers at key moments. Pitt lost the game at Louisville when McCoy fumbled on the 1-yard line. The Panthers have fumbled the ball 12 times but have recovered it on six of those occasions.
2. Getting the pass attack in gear
The Panthers are one-dimensional and have been unable to find any semblance of consistency in the passing game. Pitt is next to last in the Big East in passing yards per game and is at the bottom in passing touchdowns and interceptions thrown. While McCoy has been able to get his yards, opponents are shutting the Panthers down in key moments by loading the box.
3. Putting points on the board
Pitt has managed to put up more than two touchdowns on just three teams this year: Eastern Michigan, Grambling and Navy. That's the same Navy team that has the third-worst scoring defense in the nation, combined with a bottom rung Mid-American Conference team and a Division I-AA (a.k.a. Football Championship Subdivision) squad. The Panthers have been unable to find paydirt and will need to put up more than two TDs per game if they want to make a bowl this year.
THREE AREAS OF CONCERN (RUTGERS)
1. Playing a complete game
Rutgers really has not put together a 60-minute effort this year. The Scarlet Knights let Maryland take it to them in a loss, they never really showed up against West Virginia, and they failed to capitalize on gaudy offensive numbers against UConn. They can't sleep on a Pittsburgh team playing with as much confidence as any time in the season, and Rutgers cannot afford turnovers.
2. Special teams
Special teams looked better against Army, but there are still plenty of question marks for the Scarlet Knights in this area. Tiquan Underwood fumbled the opening kickoff against Army, and Dennis Campbell turned the ball over on a punt return. RU also has the worst punting average in the nation.
3. Run defense
The Scarlet Knights have struggled against pro style running attacks this season. Maryland, behind Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball, put up 239 yards and three rushing TDs on Rutgers Sept. 29. Two weeks ago, Connecticut victimized Rutgers to the tune of 256 yards thanks to Donald Brown & Company. McCoy is better than all of those backs, so Rutgers has its hands full this week.
HEAD TO HEAD
The schools first met in 1981 and have played every year since 1985. Pitt leads the series 19-5, with a 7-3 advantage at Rutgers Stadium. However, the Panthers have not beat Rutgers in two tries under Wannstedt. Rutgers won 20-10 in Pittsburgh last year and notched a 37-29 victory in Piscataway in 2005.
RU's two-game winning streak versus the Panthers comes after Rutgers lost six straight from 1999-2004 by an average score of 35-14. Pitt also won the first nine meetings between the schools.
Pitt is 0-3 on the road this season. Two of those losses were by seven points or less while the third was a 30-point blowout. . . . . The Panthers have not won a Big East road game in November since a 30-16 win at Temple Nov. 22, 2003. . . Pitt can still become bowl eligible even with a loss at Rutgers. The Panthers have a home game against South Florida followed by the season finale at West Virginia. Pitt was bowl eligible last year at 6-6 but did not receive an invitation to a postseason game after losing its final five games. . . . Pitt has scored in 134 consecutive games. The last time the Panthers were shut out was a 45-0 loss at Miami in 1996.
Rutgers has not lost four home games since 2002, when it finished the season 1-11 and 1-5 at home. The Scarlet Knights are 4-3 at home this season, the first time they have lost three games at Rutgers Stadium since 2004. . . . Rutgers has set single-game and season attendance marks for the season straight season. The South Florida game eclipsed last year's Louisville tilt as the largest crowd in Rutgers history, and this season is the second straight year RU has averaged more than 40,000 attendees at home games.
The National Weather Service forecast is calling for mostly cloudy skies, a slight chance of rain and a high around 45.
This game will be broadcast on ESPN Regional (locally on MSG) as part of the
Big East Game of the Week. Dave Sims handles play-by-play, John Congemi (Pittsburgh
quarterback from 1982-86) does color analysis, and Sarah Kustok will provide
sideline reporting. Game time is Noon EST.