Preview: Pitt vs. Rutgers

The Big East race became more intriguing when Cincinnati lost quarterback Tony Pike to an injury Thursday, but for Rutgers to have any shot at its first conference title a win Friday against Pittsburgh is mandatory. ScarletReport.com breaks down the keys to the game, offers a few things to watch for as the night unfolds and gives its prediction.

With Cincinnati potentially losing quarterback Tony Pike for an extended portion of the season with a left forearm injury, the Big East title race is much more intriguing.

But a season-opening loss to the Bearcats put Rutgers in a precarious position, and makes tonight's game against Pittsburgh a must-win if the Scarlet Knights are going to challenge for their first conference title.

But don't buy into the hype this is Rutgers' first test since the loss to Cincinnati. Rutgers went on the road and beat Maryland (2-4), an up-and-down team that rebounded the following week by defeating Clemson.

And right now the Panthers belong in the Maryland category.

What has Pittsburgh (5-1) proven, other than it can get off to another fast start against suspect competition?

The Panthers' best win? Take either a 27-14 defeat of Navy, or last week's 24-21 win against Connecticut in which Pittsburgh trailed 21-6 at home with less than a minute left in the third quarter.

The same day Rutgers found a way to win at Maryland on a nasty, rainy day, the Panthers lost to mediocre North Carolina State (3-3).

The weather will be unpleasant, with rain forecast throughout the night, but that will not be the biggest weather issue. Wind, coupled with the cold, will have a much bigger impact.

Pundits claim Rutgers has plenty to prove, which is true, but on the other side so does Pittsburgh. The only difference is Pittsburgh is trying to prove itself with a lot more experience, especially at the most crucial position on the field.

Pittsburgh offense vs. Rutgers defense

A year ago Panthers quarterback Bill Stull was hospitalized with a concussion, the result of whacking the back of head on a teammate's leg as he was going down.

Stull, a senior, talked about taking it "personal'' this week since the Panthers lost four straight to Rutgers, but talk is just that. That same motivation is yet to work for Rutgers against West Virginia.

So the more important thing is whether Stull can continue to limit his mistakes, and let the running game be effective. Stull is completing 66.7 percent (98 of 147) of his passes for 1,256 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has thrown three interceptions, which is crucial since Rutgers' defense has four scores in its last three games, and the Scarlet Knights offense could use all the field position help it could get.

Much is being made of Pittsburgh's two-headed freshmen running back unit, but Dion Lewis is the one to watch. Lewis is fifth in nation in rushing yards per game (123.0 average) while Graham has run only 32 times. The Panthers offensive line has experience, especially in the middle. Guards Joe Thomas and John Malecki and center Robb Houser are all seniors.

It should make for an interesting contrast in styles as Pittsburgh tries to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage and Rutgers pushes players into the box to force the Panthers into throwing the football. This is where the health and depth of the Scarlet Knights has to show for them to be successful. Rutgers will rotate its eight guys along the defensive front, which should bode well as the game moves along.

While Pittsburgh's plan is to run the ball, the most intriguing matchups will be in the passing game.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano already called Panthers sophomore Jonathan Baldwin the best receiver in the Big East, and he will be matched up, at times, against one of the conference's best cornerbacks in Devin McCourty. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Baldwin is being called a Kenny Britt clone by the folks in Piscataway, and he is off to a strong start with 27 catches.

It would be fun to see McCourty shadow Baldwin all over the field, but in the past that has not been the way Rutgers has done things. So Baldwin could go against sophomore cornerback David Rowe, who will need safety help.

The other intriguing matchup is how Rutgers counters Pittsburgh tight end Dorin Dickson. The Scarlet Knights have had trouble covering the tight end, and the 6-2, 230-pound Dickson may be too quick for a linebacker. He also is a favorite target near the end zone, already catching seven touchdown passes.

Rutgers offense vs. Pittsburgh defense

It comes down to one thing, really, for the Scarlet Knights – can they run the football and take the pressure off freshman quarterback Tom Savage?

Savage has all the makings of a special quarterback, but asking him to throw the ball more than 20 times in poor weather conditions is asking him to do too much. He is completing 56.5 percent of his passes, and most importantly, not turning it over. He is yet to throw an interception, but he is not ready to win a game by himself.

The only way that is avoided is if Rutgers can run the ball, and that is a dicey proposition. The offensive line, at best, has been inconsistent. They blocked well against Maryland, but that was offset by the running backs missing a few reads early in the game. And the line didn't control Florida International, and was less than overpowering against Texas Southern.

Now, the Panthers will bring their traditionally vanilla 4-3 defense with limited blitzing, but it should have plenty of twists to try and confuse Savage. If not, Pittsburgh wasted a week of practice.

Pittsburgh has strength on its front seven, led by defensive end Greg Romeus (7 sacks) and linebacker Adam Gunn (5 sacks), but tackling issues have plagued the Panthers at times.

Also, there are plenty of questions in the secondary, beginning with the health of starting cornerback Aaron Berry, who is questionable after injuring his shoulder last week. Berry has a tendency to make a great play, only to follow it up by giving up a big play. If he cannot play, Ricky Gary is expected to slide in.

There are also concerns about free safety Elijah Field's ankle. Although he is expected to play, he could be limited.

Given Pittsburgh's strength up front and questions in the secondary, Rutgers may take a few shots down the field, especially along the sidelines, since that is a safe place to have a young quarterback throw the ball.

Scarlet Knights senior Tim Brown 21 catches has the speed and big-play ability to stretch a defense, and 6-2, 215-poound freshman Mohamed Sanu has the size to challenge the defensive backs for balls in the air.

But keep an eye on how many third-and-2s Rutgers can convert on the ground.

Conclusion

Special teams are always key, and Rutgers has come close to blocking a few punts this season. Much is being made about Sanu fair-catching too often, but at least he is catching the ball and not turning every return into an adventure.

Pittsburgh kicker Dan Hutchins is 7 for 7 on field goal attempts, but only one has been beyond 35 yards.

It will be close because neither team has the ability to blow the other one out, so it could come down to coaching. And Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt loses too many games in which his team is the more talented one on the field.

Rutgers 20, Pittsburgh 18


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