Preview: Rutgers travels to Syracuse

Syracuse once dominated the series, winning 12 straight during the 1980s and 1990s, but things have changed. Rutgers has won the last four meetings by an average of 23.7 points, and is ranked No. 25 nationally heading into Saturday's game. What are the keys?

A year after getting drubbed 70-14 for the 12th straight defeat in the series, Rutgers shocked Syracuse for its only win of the 1999 season, a 24-21 overtime stunner.

In the three prior games to the Scarlet Knights first win in the series since 1986, the Orange outscored Rutgers 162-17.

So, the current edge No. 25 Rutgers (7-2, 2-2 Big East) is enjoying heading into Saturday's game at the Carrier Dome doesn't compare to the domination the Orange enjoyed, but it does mark the most success the Scarlet Knights have had in the series.

In winning the last four meetings, the Scarlet Knights have scored at least 31 points each time, and the averaging winning margin is 23.7 points.

The momentum each program carries into this contest is from opposite sides of the spectrum.

The Scarlet Knights have won three straight, the last being a 31-0 thrashing of South Florida. Syracuse lost to Louisville 10-9 on a touchdown in the closing minutes to eliminate the Orange from bowl contention.

The Orange (3-7, 0-5) have also lost seven starters for the season due to injury, including leading tackle and middle linebacker Derrell Smith and arguably the conference's best defensive tackle in Arthur Jones.

And Syracuse is without leading receiver Mike Williams, who quit the team a few weeks ago when he was faced with being disciplined for an off-the-field incident.

Rutgers offense vs. Syracuse defense

If there is one thing Syracuse does well, it is stop the run. At least, they did so before losing Jones and Smith.

The Orange ranks second in the Big East in rushing defense at 99.2 yards per game, but is first in average against per attempt at 3.0 yards per play, and are physical at the line of scrimmage.

Conversely, the Scarlet Knights are not particularly adept at running the ball in the first half, but do improve as the game wears on behind big-bodied running back Joe Martinek, who is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and has 729 yards and eight touchdowns.

The key, though, is what the red-shirt sophomore does as the game progresses. Martinek is averaging 8.1 yards per carry in the fourth quarter.

Rutgers' Brian Leonard after the 2006 Syracuse game
Another intriguing aspect will be Syracuse's blitz schemes, especially with running back Kordell Young out for the season. Young was Rutgers' third-down running back of choice in passing situations because he was so good at picking up the blitz.

That responsibility now falls to Martinek, and to keep him fresh sophomore Jourdan Brooks should get meaningful carries after not playing two of the last four weeks.

Rutgers has developed in a team that sets up the run with the pass, which means quarterback Tom Savage needs to be comfortable in the pocket, and that should play into a big day for receivers Tim Brown and Mohamed Sanu.

The two have combined for 77 of Rutgers' 124 receptions, and look to take advantage of a pair of freshmen in the secondary. Strong safety Shamarko Thomas and cornerback Phillip Thomas each start alongside junior free safety Mike Holmes and junior cornerback Da'Mon Merkerson.

The heavy blitzing also means tight ends Shamar Graves and D.C. Jefferson will be called upon to have big day, either in max protection blocking schemes or getting coverage against a linebacker down the field.

There are many reasons Syracuse is winless in the league and 3-7 overall, and one is a pass defense ranked last in the Big East at 254.4 yards allowed per game. It has yielded 21 touchdown passes and has six interceptions.

Rutgers defense vs. Syracuse offense

Former Duke guard Greg Paulus took four years off from football to play basketball, and although his transfer to Syracuse was highly publicized, he has not fared well.

Forget the 65.8 percent completion percentage because it is a mirage. The biggest issue is Paulus, who does get out of the pocket and run, has thrown 14 interceptions against 10 touchdowns for a Syracuse team seventh in the Big East in scoring at 19.2 points per game.

Paulus' interception ratio is not a good mix in facing the nation's top team when it comes to turnover margin. Rutgers is plus-21, and has intercepted five passes in the last two games. And there is not one person to throw away from since 11 Scarlet Knights registered an interception.

Rutgers LB Antonio Lowery
The Orange is without Williams, whose 49 receptions is still more than twice the number of second-leading receiver and backup running back Antwon Bailey (21). Rutgers also has a shutdown cornerback in Devin McCourty, which means backup quarterback Ryan Nassib (25 of 53) could make an early appearance.

Syracuse is seventh in the league in passing efficiency (119.6), and last in yards per game (185.7) through the air.

Rutgers has increased its ability to pressure the quarterback, using a variety of blitzes and varying the points of attack, as of late, culminating with the seven sack performance against South Florida.

The Scarlet Knights bring pressure through the middle via their linebackers, and like to sprinkle in blitzes with strong safety Joe Lefeged. Again, the recipe does not bode well for Syracuse, which is seventh in the league in protecting its quarterback (25 sacks). Rutgers ranks third in the league with 29 sacks.

In talking to the Scarlet Knights throughout the week, Syracuse's running game is the concern. Delone Carter has three 100-yard games this season, and is 148 from the 1,00-yard mark. He is averaging 4.4 yards per carry, and has nine touchdowns. Bailey, the backup running back, is averaging 4.7 yards on five carries a game.

Rutgers special teams vs. Syracuse special teams

If it comes down to field goal kickers, Syracuse has the edge.

Scarlet Knights placekicker San San Te is 14 of 21, and has missed a field goal in four of the last five games. Syracuse's Ryan Lichtenstein is 11 of 13, with misses coming from 39 and 50 yards. Orange punter Rob Long is averaging 43.3 yards on 53 attempts, with 16 fair catches and 22 inside the 20.

Rutgers' Teddy Dellaganna is averaging 42.1 yards on 44 punts, and has 11 fair catches and 18 inside the 20.

But the Scarlet Knights have a big advantage in the big play department. McCourty has blocked six kicks in his career, and also returned a kick 98 yards for a touchdown.

Prediction: Rutgers 31, Syracuse 17

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