Rutgers (4-5, 3-2 Big East) is officially on a winning streak after notching its third straight win in a 35-17 decision over Syracuse last week. South Florida (6-3, 1-3), which is coming off a 16-day rest, is out of the national rankings for the first time this season. Rutgers-USF games have come down to the wire the last two seasons, and we may see more of the same this year at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa (Noon ET, Big East Network).
Who Has the Edge in the Rutgers-South Florida game?
RUTGERS' OFFENSE VS. USF'S DEFENSE
RU's offense has awakened the past couple of weeks. After just 117 total points through the first eight contests (16.7 average), RU has scored a combined 89 points in the last two outings (44.5 average). Fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Teel has heated up, throwing for a combined 637 yards and nine touchdowns to three interceptions the last two weeks after registering 1,362 yards and three TDs to eight picks the previous seven weeks. He has begun to spread the ball around and has hit five different receivers with touchdown passes the last two weeks.
USF, with the best total defense in the conference, will probably key on junior receiver Kenny Britt in the passing game. Britt has turned in five 100-yard games this year and has caught four touchdowns the last two games. However, senior receiver Tiquan Underwood, who has had a lackluster 2008, is coming off his best game of the season in which he grabbed two TD passes. Also, running back Kordell Young had his first 100-yard rushing game of the year in the win against Syracuse, and receiver Tim Brown has turned into a legitimate third option in the passing game.
RU will have to contend with standout defensive end George Selvie, who remains one of the most fearsome players in the Big East. The Scarlet Knights also have to worry about linebacker Tryone McKenzie, who leads USF in tackles, and a talented defensive backfield that has helped the Bulls nab eight interceptions this season.
USF'S OFFENSE VS. RUTGERS' DEFENSE
South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe has been able to put up plenty of yardage on RU's defense the last two meetings, averaging 303.5 yards of total offense and scoring five total touchdowns. He seems to be able to move the ball at will on the Scarlet Knights, but he has been picked off three times in two games against RU.
The biggest threat for the Knights from Grothe this year is his ability to spread the ball around to a multitude of receivers. Five USF players have caught touchdown passes this season, let by a combined seven TD catches from Taurus Johnson and Jessie Hester. The Bulls have many talented targets, and there always seems to be at least one player open in a pattern.
Rutgers's defense gave up just one score against Syracuse last week: an 82-yard touchdown run by Doug Hogue. The Scarlet Knights, who allow 179.9 yards per game through the air, have the top pass defense in the conference this season. However, they are also allowing a sixth-best 327.3 yards per game of total offense. While RU handled Pittburgh by a 54-34 count three weeks ago, the Panthers were able to
RU is 0-2 against spread offenses this year.
Both teams are relying on freshmen place-kickers this season, though each came into the job under different circumstances. RU's San San Te was the heir apparent to Jeremy Ito, and he has connected on six of nine field goal attempts (zero tries since an Oct. 18 victory over Connecticut). USF's Maikon Bonani replaced an underperforming Delbert Alvarado and has made 11 of 15 tries this season.
Alvarado is still the punter for USF, and he averages 40.7 yards per punt this season. He has three kicks of at least 50 yards, and nearly 1/3 of his punts have landed inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Teddy Dellaganna, RU's punter, averages 42.4 yards per kick, including a 61-yarder. Sixteen of his 47 punts have pinned the opposition inside its own 20, though he also has had two kicks blocked this year.
RU head coach Greg Schiano took over at the graveyard of college football and transformed the program into one that achieved success on the field and in the classroom. He is the architect of the rebirth of Rutgers football, though he is in a tough stretch this season.
USF head coach Jim Leavitt literally built the USF football program out of nothing. The Bulls spent the first couple of years housed in trailers on campus, and they made a quick transition from Division I-AA to Conference USA and then the Big East, making an impact each step of the way. Leavitt deserves plenty of the credit.
Rutgers was down and out at the beginning of October, but the Scarlet Knights have rebounded with a three-game winning streak to give themselves a postseason chance entering November. The offense has stepped up its play in recent weeks, and the defense is playing solid ball.
USF was riding high a month ago, but players held a closed-door meeting last week: never a good sign for a struggling team. The Bulls are trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak since last year, which would clinch a losing conference record.
It's tough to judge how the crowd will react in this game. Generally, the Bulls play home games at night, and many Rutgers fans in Florida could make it out to neutralize the home field advantage.
HEAD TO HEAD
USF came into the first meeting against Rutgers in 2005 and dominated the first half, jumping out to a 21-0 lead before the Scarlet Knights knew what hit them en route to a 45-31 victory. Rutgers won the next two games by a combined five points: a 22-20 win in Tampa two years ago and a 30-27 victory at Rutgers last season. RU is 2-0 versus USF on weekdays, while USF is 1-0 against Rutgers on Saturday.
Rutgers has won two consecutive bowl games entering this year and has qualified for three straight postseason berths. The Scarlet Knights were in the Top 25 for nearly a year before getting knocked out last October, but they continue to play important games in November - something that would have been unheard of in Piscataway just a few years ago.
USF rose to a No. 2 ranking last season before Rutgers started the Bulls on a downward spiral with a 30-27 defeat in Piscataway on a Thursday night last season. The Bulls were as high as No. 10 this year before hitting the skids in Big East play. USF has flirted with greatness the past few years, and they are headed to a bowl game for the fourth straight season.