With all the uncertainty surrounding the status of Saturday's game Tulane fans can now officially focus on the start of the 2012 football season after the athletic department confirmed today that the game will proceed as scheduled. Saturday night will mark a new era of Tulane football ushered in by new head coach Curtis Johnson. His first test as a head coach comes from the Big East when the Rutgers Scarlet Knights come to down to New Orleans to square off against the Green Wave at 7:00 PM (CT) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The game will be nationally televised on the CBS Sports Network.
Rutgers will also be introducing a new coach this season opener with head coach Kyle Flood replacing Greg Schiano after he accepted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coaching job. The team posted a 9-4 record in 2011 and ended their season with a 27-13 win in the Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State. Fortunately for Flood the team returns 15 starters and boasts one of the stronger defenses in the Big East. The new head coach had been on Schiano's staff since 2005 although there are questions how the defense will fair without its mastermind calling the shots and how the team will adjust after so many assistants followed Schiano down to Tampa Bay. Despite these questions many professional prognosticators have pegged Rutgers as a team that will contend for the conference championship.
Rutgers Positional Breakdown
The coaching staff handed the keys to sophomore Gary Nova after beating out junior Chas Dodd in fall camp. Nova took the starting job from Dodd with five games left in the season and also lead an impressive comeback win against Syracuse in the team's fourth game of the season. He guided the team to victories of USF, Army, and Cincinnati. Nova is a product of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, New Jersey so in addition to displaying potential last year the fan base is also enchanted with the fact that he is a highly touted home state product leading his home state university. Though he played well last year he was also prone to INTs, throwing 9 to his 11 TDs. That is surely not unusual for a freshman QB but he figures to continue to go through growing pains as he does not have a full season as a starter under his belt. If Tulane can limit the run game and force Nova into making plays there is the potential for him to make a big mistake.
When talking to the media this week Coach Johnson discussed how Rutgers likes to pound the ball, especially using zone run plays. The Scarlet Knights will lean heavily on their run game to help set up the passing game for Nova as well as control the tempo of the game. The team averaged only 98 yards per game on the ground last year but they hope to improve with the combination of sophomores Savon Huggins and Jawan Jamison. Their struggles to run the ball can also be attributed to less-than-stellar run blocking last year, but these two players were also adjusting to the college game and gaining experience. Both players averaged less than 4 yards per carry so in order for the running game to become a larger threat the team will need to increase that average.
The Scarlet Knights lost their most prolific offensive player in Mohamed Sanu when he entered the NFL draft after his junior season. His season last year was one for the record books, catching 115 balls for 1,206 yards. His 115 receptions became the Big East single season record besting former Pitt star Larry Fitzgerald. It will be difficult for anyone to match that production, but deep threat Brandon Coleman figures to be the closest option; he posted 17 receptions for 552 yards last year (good for an eye popping 32.5 yards per catch). He is 6'6" with blazing speed but also had an issue with drops last year. Behind him are RS-junior Quron Pratt (32 rec., 327 yards), fifth-year senior Tim Wright (11 rec., 147 yards), speedster sophomore Miles Shuler, junior Jeremy Deering (4 rec., 65 yards), and senior Mark Harrison (14 rec., 274 yards). This position appears to in flux and they are looking for a consistent option behind Brandon Coleman. The tight end position was not a consistent offensive threat and are utilized more for blocking. They are looking for a more consistent solution at that position.
The team is hoping for better production from this unit, especially in the run game. The team averaged 2.8 yards per rush, which is barely good enough for a first down even with four downs. They only return two starters and they lost two all conference players (Art Frost, Desmond Wynn) but the prevailing logic seems that they have nowhere to go but up.
This unit is lead by two fifth year seniors Marvin Booker (who saw limited action last season after surgery in 2010) and Scott Vallone (58 tackles). 8 of their 10 linemen return from last year but they lose Manny Abreu (29 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 TFL) and Justin Francis, who was 3rd team Big East with 64 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL). The team allowed 139 yards per game on the ground last year which was only good for 7th best in the Big East. They boast a lot of depth and experience on the line.
The team returns their three starters at LB (senior SLB Jamal Merrell (44 tackles), senior MLB Steve Beauharnais (77 tackles, 16 TFL, 3 INT), senior WLB Khaseem Greene (141 tackles, 14 TFL) who were the #1, #2, and #8 tacklers on the team last year. Just like the defensive line this unit has both depth and experience to solidify a front seven that will make running the ball tough on Tulane's running backs as well as presenting the threat of getting to QB Ryan Griffin.
The team only loses one player from their two deep last year in SS David Rowe. Replacing him is sophomore Lorenzo Waters, the only non-senior starting in the defensive backfield. At CB are Brandon Jones (39 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 6 pass deflections) and Logan Ryan (67 tackles, 17 pass deflections, 2nd team Big East). The returning starter at free safety is Duron Harmon (49 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 5 INT, 1st team Big East). Just like the front seven this unit is experience and deep. Phil Steele, probably the best preseason prognosticator, has this unit as the best in the Big East.
At kicker is freshman Kyle Federico and at punter is senior Justin Doerner who averaged 40.3 yards on 64 punts. Doerner is also kicking off and had 7 touchbacks on 68 kickoffs, which earned him a spot on the Big East 2nd team.
Defensively, this team is about as deep and experienced of a unit as you will find in college football. Their formidable front 7 and their seasoned defensive backfield will make it a challenging day for Ryan Griffin and the Green Wave offense. They gave up 311 yards per game last year while only allowing 18.3 points per game. Tulane will have to be sharp and put themselves in good spots by winning the field position battle and perhaps making a big play on special teams.
Rutgers' offense lost their biggest playmaker in WR Mohamed Sanu but their running game looks to improve while sophomore QB Gary Nova will try to take the momentum he generated in the last five games into 2012's season opener. Tulane's defense will need to prevent their running game from taking over and letting Gary Nova settle into the play action game. The Green Wave's best bet is to force Nova to win the game with his arm and force him to make critical mistakes.
Look back tomorrow for an overview the keys to a Tulane victory and the matchups worth watching.
Opponent Breakdown: Rutgers
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