Preview: Rutgers at UConn

Rutgers travels to Connecticut for a Big East contest Saturday that could determine the direction of each team's season. The beginning will be emotional as UConn pays tribute to slain cornerback Jasper Howard. Once the focus turns to the game, will Rutgers be able to break out of its running game drought? And which is more important to the Scarlet Knights defense; stopping the run or the pass?

Without being melodramatic, Rutgers faces a crossroads to its season Saturday when it meets Connecticut for a noon kickoff (SNY) at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.

A bowl berth will not hinge on the outcome, especially with South Florida, Syracuse and Louisville on the schedule, but the path of the season should gain clarity.

Is Rutgers' best hope a trip to Toronto or St. Petersburg, or can the Scarlet Knights rally like they did a year ago to finish strong and make a push for Charlotte, or even better?

The answer will be known by late Saturday afternoon.

The Scarlet Knights (5-2) will have to deal with the early emotion of being UConn's first home opponent since Huskies cornerback Jasper Howard was murdered. The Huskies (4-3) will have to deal with their emotions as well, being careful not burn out early in the game from a mentally, emotionally and physically draining two weeks.

Rutgers also brings a four-game road winning streak to East Hartford, and anything but a close game would be stunning. The Scarlet Knights won last year's meeting 12-10, thanks to a Blair Bines safety and a missed field goal by UConn with 1:09 remaining.

And five of the last seven meetings were settled by seven points or less.

Also, the Huskies are used to playing close games, although it usually doesn't end well. Their losses to North Carolina, Pittsburgh and West Virginia are by a combined nine points, but each time UConn blew a late lead.

Rutgers offense vs. UConn defense

Scarlet Knights true freshman quarterback Tom Savage showed he will not get rattled in high-profile home games after he performed admirably two weeks ago against Pittsburgh. And while Savage wasn't brilliant in his first road start last week at Army, he was adequate and seemed carefree about being a visitor for the first time in his career. Now, combine the two as he will face a much more hostile environment at UConn, and the stakes are huge.

There is little reason to believe Rutgers will be able to run the ball with any consistency since that has been a problem all season. Get the Scarlet Knights to the fourth quarter, and maybe they will wear an opponent down, but there is no reason to expect a strong running game throughout.

Left tackle Anthony Davis.
That means Rutgers' best chance offensively will be in the passing game, and a key component to will be whether Rutgers left tackle Anthony Davis can contain the Big East's sack leader, Lindsey Witten. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound senior Witten has 10.5 sacks this season, and while he will line up on both sides, coming from Savage's blind side is his preferred starting point.

Although Savage is yet to have spectacular game, he is taking care of the football. He completed 81 of 144 passes for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns, and most importantly, one interception. However, the needed emergence of a third receiver figures to gain in necessity now that the meat of the Big East schedule arrived.

Defenses are paying more attention to wide outs Tim Brown and Mohamed Sanu, so the opportunity for Mark Harrison or Julian Hayes or someone else is enhanced.

The Huskies secondary is also, and tragically, in a predicament because of the loss of Howard. UConn starts senior cornerback Robert McClain and senior safety Robert Vaughn, but red-shirt freshmen cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who is replacing Howard, and safety Jerome Junior also start in the secondary. It gives the Huskies an intriguing mix of veterans and youth.

There also is the matter of whether this is the week Scarlet Knights freshman tailback DeAntwan Williams sees meaningful minutes since his speed could be effective in getting to the corner, and also in the passing game.

UConn offense vs. Rutgers defense

Despite losing 2,000-yard rusher Donald Brown to the NFL, UConn began the season as a run-oriented team. Not much happened to change the approach until last week, when Huskies red-shirt sophomore quarterback Cody Endres threw for 378 yards and nearly led an upset of West Virginia.

The biggest difference is UConn now employs a no-huddle offense, but it is still run-oriented. The 6-foot-4 Endres is completing 64.8 percent (94 of 145) of his passes for 1,314 yards, but he has six touchdowns to go with four interceptions.

And Rutgers would prefer for Endres to throw the ball rather than have the tandem of Andre Dixon (654 yards) and Jordan Todman (596 yards) controlling the game on the ground. The backs each have seven rushing touchdowns and are the main reasons UConn is averaging 171.7 rushing yards per game.

CB David Rowe
It will put a premium on smart tackling and assignments to make sure cutbacks aren't available. If Scarlet Knights middle linebacker Ryan D'Imperio can have a big game, it bodes well for Rutgers controlling the tempo.

Limiting the Huskies running game will also take the play-action pass out of the equation, and give Rutgers safety Joe Lefeged more reason to be a factor in the passing game. The big hitter loves to pressure quarterbacks via the blitz, and UConn is susceptible to safety blitzes.

There is not one receiver the Huskies like to isolate, but expect the indoctrination of Rutgers sophomore cornerback David Rowe to continue since teams want very little to do with throwing toward fifth-year senior Devin McCourty.

UConn's top three receivers, Isiah Moore (18 catches), Brad Kanuck (17) and Marcus Easley (15), each are prominent members of the offense.

The improved health of linebacker Antonio Lowery, who did not play last week at Army because of various ailments, should also be beneficial to stopping Dixon and Todman.

UConn special teams vs. Rutgers special teams

The Scarlet Knights blocked a punt in each of the last two games, and like to try to swing momentum through special teams. Rutgers' return game has improved the last few weeks, but remains last in the Big East.

However, Connecticut gave up a kick return for a touchdown in the loss to West Virginia, and also is replacing Howard on punt returns.

Prediction: UConn 20, Rutgers 16


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