Preview: Rutgers vs. Louisville

Rutgers, headed to a bowl for the third straight year, ends its regular season with a Big East tilt against struggling Louisville on national TV. SOR gives you the lowdown on this Thursday primetime showdown.

Rutgers (7-5, 3-3 Big East) gutted out an ugly 20-16 win on Senior Day against Pittsburgh (4-6, 2-3) on Nov. 17. With the win, the Scarlet Knights guaranteed a trip to a Big East-tied bowl game. The Scarlet Knights take a trip this week to Louisville (5-6, 2-4), which has lost three out of four.


SCOUTING LOUISVILLE

Louisville was manhandled by South Florida on Nov. 17, dropping an embarrassing 55-17 decision to the Bulls. USF (8-3, 3-3) forced seven turnovers and intercepted standout quarterback Brian Brohm three times. The Bulls, who jumped out to a 20-3 lead in the first quarter, held a 41-10 halftime advantage and extended that lead to 55-10 before the Cardinals answered late in the game.

That contest was a microcosm of a disappointing season for Louisville. UL has the best offense in the Big East combined with the second-worst, leading to an up-and-down campaign. The Cardinals entered the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 and were ranked as high as No. 8 before the wheels fell off in back-to-back losses to Kentucky and Syracuse on Sept. 15 and 22. UL has allowed an average of nearly 40 points per game in six losses.


OFFENSE

Moving the ball has not been an issue for Louisville this year. The Cardinals, led by senior quarterback Brian Brohm, average 489 yards per game of total offense, more than 350 yards per game coming through the passing game. Brohm is the top passer in the Big East and averages 344.3 yards per game passing. He has a host of targets in the passing game, including receivers Harry Douglas, Gary Bainbridge and Mario Urrutia. The trio has combined for 17 receiving touchdowns, and Douglas averages 123.7 yards receiving per game with seven scores.

Nov. 17 against USF, the Cardinals eclipsed 400 yards of total offense for the first time since the middle of October. UL has averaged 365.5 yards of total offense over the last four games (1-3 record) versus 559.6 through the first seven (4-3 record).


DEFENSE

Red flags started going up when the Cardinals surrendered 555 yards and 42 points against Middle Tennessee in Week 2 (a 58-42 Louisville win). Panic started to set in when Syracuse never trailed during a 38-35 victory for the visiting Orange at Louisville on Sept. 22. The Cardinals allow 416.3 yards of total offense per game this year and are ranked just ahead of Syracuse among Big East teams in that category. Their pass efficiency defense is 112th nationally and their run defense 166.5 yards per game is 74th in college football.


SPECIAL TEAMS

Louisville's special teams are average this season, though return man Trent Guy is a danger who averages more than 22 yards per return. He took one to the house against Kentucky on Sept. 15. The Cardinals average fewer than 40 yards per punt, but place-kicker Art Carmody is reliable in field goals with a mark of 11-for-15 this season. Carmody is 8-for-9 from 20-39 yards this year and has made four of his last five attempts.


KEY MATCHUPS


1. Louisville QB Brian Brohm vs. RU's pass defense
Rutgers has the second-rated pass defense in the nation, and the Scarlet Knights have allowed just one team to pass for more than 200 yards in the last six contests. No team has reached 300 yards against RU this year. Brohm knows how to pick apart defenses, and Rutgers will be in trouble if it falls into a zone package. Brohm averages nearly 350 yards passing per game while Rutgers allows only 153.6 yards per game against.

2. Ray Rice vs. Louisville's run defense
The Cardinals have the second-worst run defense in the Big East that allows 166.5 yards rushing per game. Rice is the top rusher in the conference, averaging 146.6 yards per game and running for 17 touchdowns. He has put together six consecutive 100-yard games and has averaged 140.2 yards per game against Big East teams. Rice ran for 131 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries against the Cardinals last season. Louisville will most likely stack the box against the run this week.

3.RU's pass rush vs. Louisville's pass protection
Rutgers has been able to create pressure on traditional drop-back passers this season. The Scarlet Knights knocked Maryland's Chris Turner out of the game, they demoralized Army starter Carson Williams, and they rendered Pitt's Pat Bostick ineffective. The Scarlet Knights, who sacked Brohm five times in a 28-25 victory at Rutgers Stadium last year, have recorded 30 sacks this season (25th nationally) while UL has allowed 19 (48th in Division I-A).

PLAYERS TO WATCH (RUTGERS)

RB Ray Rice
After being held under 100 yards in three straight games earlier this year, Rice has put together six straight 100-yard games, including a school-record 243-yard performance against Army on Nov. 9. The Doak Walker Award finalist for the best running back in college football is the leading rusher among all Bowl Championship Series players, averaging 146.6 yards per game, and he's tied for the most rushing touchdowns in the Big East with 17.

QBs Mike Teel and Jabu Lovelace
Teel, a redshirt junior, is hampered by an injury on his throwing thumb. He threw two interceptions against Pitt on Nov. 17 and has completed just four of 13 passes in the last two games. He's still head-and-shoulders above Lovelace as a team leader, and he came in late in the game last week to lead RU on what turned out to be the game-winning drive. Lovelace fumbled the ball twice against Pitt as he dropped back to pass, and the redshirt sophomore has completed just four of 16 pass attempts in the last two contests. Opposing teams are also keying on Lovelace as a rusher, and he was limited to 32 yards on 13 carries against Pitt (2.46 yards per carrier average).

Safeties Courtney Greene, Ron Girault and Joe Lefeged
RU cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Jason McCourty are going to need help slowing Louisville's vaunted passing attack. The Scarlet Knights' linebackers will also need help on crossing routes. That's where RU's safeties come in. Greene and Girault have combined for 123 total tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and two interceptions. Lefeged, still unseasoned as a freshman, has been used effectively as a pass rusher on blitzes and has 3 1/2 sacks to his credit.


PLAYERS TO WATCH (LOUISVILLE)

QB Brian Brohm
The senior is by far the best throwing quarterback Rutgers has faced this season. He is tops in the Big East in total offense and is seventh nationally in passing with 344.3 yards per game. He has tossed 29 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions, including five games where he has registered at least three TDs. However, Brohm has thrown six TDs to eight interceptions in his last four games, including the Nov. 17 debacle when USF picked him off him three times.

WR Harry Douglas
Douglas is a smart receiver who can exploit coverage and can make yardage after catches. The senior -- who received his undergraduate degree in May -- averages 15.9 yards per catch and is first in the Big East with 123.7 yards receiving per game. He has hauled in seven touchdown receptions this season and has two games with more than 200 yards receiving. Douglas gained 98 yards receiving versus RU last season, but he was held off the scoreboard.

CB Rod Council
He doesn't make many tackles, but the junior has a nose for the ball. Council has two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He will be able to get a jump on the ball. If Rutgers quarterbacks float a pass or two, Council is a threat for a pick 6.


THREE AREAS OF CONCERN (RUTGERS)

1. Turnovers
Rutgers coughed the ball up four times against Pittsburgh and now owns a minus 7 turnover margin. That's last in the Big East and 100th nationally. The Scarlet Knights have been unable to create many turnovers, gaining just 17. They've been plenty generous to the opposition, turning the ball over 24 times.

2. Red zone offense
RU had two trips inside Pitt's 20-yard line and came away with two field goals. Both of the Scarlet Knights' TDs against Pitt came on long plays: one on a 53-yard pass and the other on a 28-yard run. RU has scored TDs on just 51 percent of its trips inside the opponents' red zone.

3. Pass defense
Yes, Rutgers has the second-ranked pass defense in the nation. But those numbers are bolstered by playing Army and Navy, two teams that do not put the ball in the air much. Rutgers has looked solid against traditional pass-style offenses, but the Scarlet Knights have also looked confused against teams that make adjustments during the game. Brohm is the best passer Rutgers faces all year, and he will test the Scarlet Knights' secondary.


THREE AREAS OF CONCERN (LOUISVILLE)

1. Defense
UL has allowed at least 38 points in six games this year (five of those were losses), and last week's 55-point total allowed to South Florida was the team's worst defensive scoring effort since losing 59-52 in overtime at Army in 1999. The Cardinals are ranked 80th or worse in all defensive categories except rushing, where they're ranked 74th in the nation.

2. Running
There's no question UL can move the ball, as evidenced by a league-best 489 yards of total offense per game. But Anthony Davis is the Cards' leading rusher with 61.3 yards per game. Louisville has made it over 100 yards rushing just twice in the last six games, including a 37-yard net against West Virginia. The Cardinals lack a bruising Michael Bush-type back this season.

3. Motivation
The Cardinals appeared to quit on head coach Steve Kragthorpe in the demoralizing loss on Nov. 17, and rumors started swirling that Kragthorpe was interested in skipping town to take the open position at Southern Methodist. UL can still gain bowl eligibility with a victory against the visiting Scarlet Knights, and players like Brohm are saying the right things. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Brohm said the Cardinals are playing this game for themselves. If things start to go poorly for the Cardinals, we'll see if they fold up the tent.


HEAD TO HEAD

Rutgers is 4-1 all-time against Louisville, 1-1 since the Cardinals joined the Big East for the 2005 season.

The first Big East meeting between the schools was one to forget for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were whacked in Louisville 56-5 on a Friday night in 2005. Brohm threw for three touchdowns and ran for another. Rutgers scored the first three points but was outmatched.

RU got its revenge last year in the biggest win in school history, as the Scarlet Knights upended the visiting Cardinals 28-25 on a 28-yard field goal by place-kicker Jeremy Ito late in the fourth quarter.


TRENDS/NOTES

RU is 4-0 on Thursday since 2005, including the 37-10 Texas Bowl victory against Kansas State last season. . . . Rutgers is heading to its third straight bowl game, the first time in school history. RU is 1-1 in bowls over the last two years and 1-2 overall. . . . RU is 3-2 in games coming off a bye week since 2005 and 0-1 this year, dropping a 34-24 decision to Maryland off a bye week on Sept. 29. . . . Rutgers' offense set a record for season yardage in the Pitt game, passing the 2005 squad. RU has amassed 4,828 yards this season, an average of 438.9 yards per game. . . . Rice needs two touchdowns to tie the school season scoring mark of 120 points that he set last year.

Louisville is 2-1 on Thursday nights this season, winning its first two games of the season on Thursday before dropping a 38-31 score at West Virginia on Nov. 8. The Cardinals have outscored opponents 169-92 on Thursday this season. . . . UL is looking to become bowl eligible for the fifth straight season. The school last missed a postseason game following the 2002 campaign. . . . Louisville has not suffered a losing season since a 1-10 record in 1997.


PERSONNEL

It appears Teel's injured thumb on his throwing hand will not get better until the offseason. According to the Star-Ledger, Teel came back to practice last week but indicated that his thumb wasn't going to heal by extra rest in the bye week. Safety Zaire Kitchen is lost for the season after a knee surgery.


WEATHER

It should be cold Thursday night, according to the National Weather Service forecast.


TIME/TV

This game will be broadcast on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time. Chris Fowler, Craig James, Doug Flutie and Erin Andrews should handle broadcast duties for ESPN.


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