A tradition seems to be brewing. This is the second straight year Rutgers (0-0) is opening the season on Labor Day (the third straight year the Scarlet Knights open on a day other than Saturday). Let's hope it turns out differently this year than last. It's also the fourth time RU opens the season against a Big East opponent and the first time since 1997 that the Scarlet Knights are squaring off versus the Big East on opening weekend. RU is 1-2 in those situations, including a 20-13 victory versus Boston College in the first-ever Big East Football tilt. RU is 70-60-9 all-time in season openers.
ESPN will carry the broadcast on Sept. 7 at 4 p.m. Eastern time. Bob Wichusen and Brian Griese are scheduled to call the game. The game can be heard on the Rutgers Radio Network (WOR 710-AM, WCTC 1450-AM and WPEN 950-AM in New Jersey), with Chris Carlin handling play-by-play, Ray Lucas replacing Tim Pernetti as the color analyst, Anthony Fucilli returning as the sideline reporter and Marc Malusis handling pregame and postgame duties. The game can also be heard on WRSU 88.7 FM, Sirius Satellite channel 211 and XM Satellite channel 234.
Let's get a look at this matchup.
Who Has the Edge in the Cincinnati-Rutgers game?
UC'S OFFENSE VS. RU'S DEFENSE
This is a strength against strength matchup, though RU traditionally has trouble with the spread offense.
Senior UC wideout Mardy Gilyard is the most explosive player in the Big East and is coming off a season during which he racked up 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns on 81 receptions. His matchup against senior Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty should be the most interesting one-on-one battle of the day. Gilyard leads a corps of talented UC receivers, and the Bearcats return their top runners from last year in John Goebel and Jacob Ramsey (combined 1,333 yards and nine TDs in 2008).
UC head coach Brian Kelly is high on senior quarterback Tony Pike, who was injured much of last season, including the Rutgers game. Still, Pike completed more than 61 percent of his passes and had a 136.39 QB rating in 2008 despite starting the season riding the pines low on the depth chart.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn will be next to Kelly on the sideline calling the plays for the Bearcats on Monday.
RU's veteran defense is led by middle linebacker Ryan D'Imperio. The senior co-captain, a first-team All-Big East preseason selection, tallied 93 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks. The linebacker corps is the most talented and deep (junior Antonio Lowery is the player to watch in this game), but the secondary boasts three starters with significant playing experience, including hard hitting junior strong safety Joe Lefeged. The defensive line is also pretty deep, but senior defensive end George Johnson and senior defensive tackle Blair Bines have been dinged up during camp.
Defense usually has the jump on offense early in the season, but the Pike-Gilyard combo is too powerful to ignore.
(Slight) Edge: Cincinnati
RU'S OFFENSE vs. UC'S DEFENSE
Rutgers boasts perhaps the most talented offensive line in the Big East this season and returns all five big uglies. However, the offense also features a new quarterback, a bevy of inexperienced receivers and a new team of offensive coordinators represented by co-coordinators Kyle Flood and Kirk Ciarrocca.
Senior Dom Natale probably will get the start at quarterback, with true freshman Tom Savage backing him up and senior Jabu Lovelace providing some chance-of-pace options. Joe Martinek and Jourdan Brooks, who both played at least 11 games last year and combined for 963 yards and 10 touchdowns, should handle the rushing duties. Senior Tim Brown, coming of a six-TD year in 2008, is the most experienced receiver. However, keep an eye on true freshman Mohamed Sanu starting opposite Brown. He has the physical gifts to make an immediate impact.
RU certainly has the firepower to get it done, but we don't know how this team is going to jell with a new signal caller.
UC lost 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball, with senior free safety Aaron Webster the only returnee. The entire front seven is brand new, which bodes well for RU's offensive line as it tries to get to the second level on Monday. However, seven seniors will start for the Bearcats against Rutgers on Monday. Kelly switched the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 set, but expect UC to run multiple defensive looks as the game progresses.
Even though there are question marks galore on both sides of the ball, you have to give the edge to the team with experience in the trenches.
Big East fans should count their blessings that all-Big East Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber has taken his services elsewhere (namely, the Cincinnati Bengals). He was a game-changer, as RU witnessed on more than one occasion. Junior Jake Rogers takes over as UC's punter and returns for his third year as place kicker. Rogers has hit 27 of 42 field goals and 85 of 90 extra points in his career.
Gilyard returns as the kickoff and will double dip as the punt return specialist. Always an electric player, Gilyard averaged 27.6 yards per kick return last year with two touchdowns.
Rutgers is more stable with its specialists, returning sophomore San San Te as placekicker and junior Teddy Dellaganna as the punter. Te was 12-for-17 on field goals (6-for-8 in the regular season finale and bowl game) and 45-for-48 on extra points last year while Dellaganna averaged 41.2 yards per punt with 18 inside the 20-yard line. Dellaganna is handling kickoffs again this year.
RU has a new long snapper in junior Andrew DePaola (long snapper is one of the most important but underrated positions in football), and Dellaganna is Te's holder. McCourty will start as the kick returner, but it will be interesting to see what Sanu can do returning punts for the Scarlet Knights. Lefeged backs up in both return roles.
Brian Kelly simply knows how to win. He captured two national championships with Division II Grand Valley State, a conference title at Central Michigan and the Big East championship with the Bearcats last season. He started 7-0 as the UC coach and now owns a 22-6 record with the Bearcats. He was named Big East coach of the year the last two seasons, really showing his skills last year when he had to patch together an offense with five different quarterbacks. In short, Kelly is a proven winner.
Greg Schiano's contribution to Rutgers football cannot be underestimated. He took a program that was the worst of the worst and turned it into something respectable. Schiano, 45-51 overall, is 34-17 over the past four seasons. But he still has not been able to capture a Big East crown and the Bowl Championship Series bid that comes with it.
You're not going to like this, but you have to give the advantage to the guy who has won championships.
This game is big for each side, as it puts the winner in the driver's seat for the Big East Conference race. Rutgers unveils a new seating plan that will accommodate more than 50,000 fans. Indications are that this game will be a sellout, which should make for a raucous and well-lubricated crowd at the 4 p.m. start. However, UC was not rattled two years ago by a Saturday evening showdown against the Knights and escaped with a 28-23 victory.
Crowd noise can have a huge advantage, but UC tries to offset that with the no-huddle approach. This is a tough call with so many unknowns, but you have to give the lean to the home side in the opener.
(Slight) Edge: Rutgers
SERIES HEAD TO HEAD
Rutgers has a slight edge in a series that has its share of runs by one team over another. The Scarlet Knights are 7-6-1 all-time against UC and had a stretch from 1984-94 where they owned the Bearcats, 5-1-1. RU beat Cincinnati 44-9 in the first Big East meeting between the teams in 2005, but UC has captured the last three contests, including a 13-10 victory at Nippert Stadium last year. Rutgers is 6-1 against UC at Rutgers Stadium.
(Slight) Edge: Rutgers
Rutgers has won respectability after being a doormat for years. The Scarlet Knights are coming off their third consecutive bowl victory - a 29-23 win against North Carolina State in the PapaJohns.com Bowl. RU is looking to qualify for its fifth consecutive postseason game.
Cincinnati is coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history and captured its first Big East championship last year. The Bearcats set a school-record for wins in 2008 with 11 and have been to bowl games in each of the last three seasons (2-1 record).
(Slight) Edge: Cincinnati