Preview: Rutgers vs. UCF

Central Florida has won its last three games and is looking for the first bowl win in school history. Rutgers has won three straight bowl games, and is looking to win nine games for the first time since 2006. The teams meet today (8 p.m., ESPN) in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It is a weekend Rutgers could have used for recruiting, for studying for finals, for healing, for practicing the younger players more intensely and so on and so on.

Instead, the Scarlet Knights escaped the first major snowstorm of the winter, but the pricey trade-off is an early bowl game today against a hungry, eager, enthusiastic Central Florida program looking for its first bowl win.

Sure, Central Florida will have the home field advantage since only 8,000 or so of the folks expected at Tropicana Field for the St. Petersburg Bowl are expected to be from Rutgers, but that should not be a big issue.

What matters is the level of excitement the Scarlet Knights had in preparing for the first matchup between the schools, and if they want to play this game or have their minds on exams, the holidays or the NFL.

Talent-wise the Scarlet Knights hold the advantage. But it always doesn't come down to pure talent.

And it is certain Central Florida will be focused on winning.

Rutgers offense vs. Central Florida defense
The Golden Knights are fourth nationally against the run, allowing 82.5 yards per game, and if the Scarlet Knights are going to run the ball with any type of success, it will likely be with receiver Mohamed Sanu out of the "Wildcat" package.

That Sanu is a former high school quarterback adds intrigue to the package, but his limited throws this season have been unimpressive.

Running back Joe Martinek needs 77 yards to reach the 1,000 plateau, but that could be difficult given a UCF defensive line Rutgers coach Greg Schiano compared favorably with Pittsburgh's front four.

Can the Scarlet Knights create enough of a push to establish a running game?

That hasn't been the case all season in the first half against a quality opponent, which puts the pressure on quarterback Tom Savage's right arm, and his decision-making process.

Savage is coming off a brutal performance in horrid weather conditions against West Virginia, and has had time to think about that. When he performed poorly against Syracuse last month, Rutgers came out and established the passing game quickly the next week against Louisville.

And while the Golden Knights may be able to stop the run, slowing down the pass hasn't gone so well. UCF is 112th (of 120) against the pass, and is yielding 265.6 yards per game in the air with a young secondary.

Savage is completing 52.3 percent of his passes, for 1,917 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions, but will not have his top threat fully healthy.

Leading receiver Tim Brown (51 catches, 1,051 yards, 8 TDs) is expected to play despite a sprained ankle, but his effectiveness could be minimal if he cannot cut on the Trop's turf. It will put more pressure on Sanu, who has 47 catches, and increase the need for freshman Mark Harrison and tight end Shamar Graves to play a bigger role in the passing game.

The matchup between Rutgers junior left tackle Anthony Davis, who is expected to announce his intention to play in the NFL shortly after the season is over, and Conference USA defensive player of the year Bruce Miller is one to watch. He had 12 sacks, but he is not the only threat to get to Savage. UCF defensive end Jarvis Geathers has 11 sacks.

Rutgers defense vs. Central Florida offense
What type of blitz packages will Rutgers use to try and confuse quarterback Brett Hodges, a transfer from Wake Forest, and the UCF offensive line?

And can the Scarlet Knights contain running back Brynn Harvey, who has rushed for 1,077 yards and 14 touchdowns?

Desire and enthusiasm is a big part of defense, and this is where it will show the quickest whether Rutgers wants to be in St. Petersburg. UCF's offense is pedestrian, at best, and on the conservative side.

Harvey is averaging 4.3 yards per carry, but has run for 398 yards and seven touchdowns in the last three games, which includes a win against Houston.

Hodges is 184 of 301 for 2,263 yards and 15 touchdowns, but he also has thrown 11 interceptions. He also has three receivers to chose from in A.J. Guyton (42 catches), Rocky Rose (37) and Kamar Aiken (32), who has seven touchdown catches.

If Rutgers can return to its turnover-forcing ways, which were quelled in the final three games, it can rattle UCF's confidence early.

Health is not an issue for the Scarlet Knights, with coach Greg Schiano saying linebacker Antonio Lowery is ready to play. Even so, freshman Steve Beauharnais will get the start.

Rutgers' defensive line has had trouble getting pressure without blitzing, but if it can get to Hodges without sending extra bodies, it will make the secondary that much stronger.

Rutgers special teams vs. Central Florida special teams
It is hard not to imagine the Scarlet Knights holding the advantage here, be it with their proclivity of blocking punts or returning kickoffs. Devin McCourty and Joe Lefeged have each returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and McCourty has proven a master on blocking punts this season.

Rutgers placekicker San San Te is 17 of 26 on field goal attempts. Central Florida Nick Cattoi is 13 of 19 on field goal attempts.

Prediction: Rutgers 29, Central Florida 17


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