Vanderbilt takes justifiable pride in its football tradition, dating back to 1890 when the first intercollegiate team was organized. But Rutgers' tradition, of course, goes back even further-- 21 years, to be exact. In 1869 Rutgers and Princeton met in New Brunswick in the first recorded game of college football. (Rutgers won, 6 to 4.)
Rutgers is one of those college football programs that by all rights probably ought to be successful, but much like Vandy, seldom is. Rutgers is the state university in New Jersey, a talent-rich state. But the Knights perennially struggle to keep the state's top talent from fleeing the state to higher-profile programs to the west and south. Should Rutgers ever figure out how to win the in-state recruiting wars, one would think RU could become a power, or at least a perennial Big East contender.
The school brought in Coach Greg Schiano four years ago to try to accomplish just that. Much like Bobby Johnson, Schiano was charged with turning around a traditionally moribund program, and after the Knights went 5-7 last year, many people thought he was on the verge. An opening-day victory over Michigan State got Rutgers' season off to a rollicking start, but a loss in the second game to New Hampshire brought the Knights back to earth. Rutgers subsequently beat Kent State 29-21, and lost last week in Vanderbilt-esque fashion to Syracuse, 41-31.
Saturday's game should be a much higher-scoring affair. Rutgers will be the first truly pass-happy team the Commodores have seen yet this season. Last year head coach Greg Schiano appointed Craig ver Steeg as his offensive coordinator, and ver Steeg almost instantly made the offense more productive.
You can expect Rutgers, currently leading the Big East in passing yardage, to move the ball through the air and score some points. Junior quarterback Ryan Hart (6-2, 197, No. 13), a three-year starter, is averaging 274 yards passing this season (by contrast Jay Cutler, who has thrown for 250 yards many times in his career, is only averaging 167 this year with Vandy moving more and more to a ground attack). Against Syracuse Hart threw three touchdown passes; against New Hampshire he set a new stadium record with 30 completions.
The Scarlet Knights have three receivers who catch more than 4 passes per game: Tres Moses, Clark Harris and Brian Leonard. All are playmakers. Marcus Daniels is also dangerous, but is unlikely to play with a bad knee.
It's no secret; Rutgers will try to throw the football, and that's particularly true if the bruising running back Brian Leonard (6-2, 230, No. 23) is not at full strength. The junior, the team's leading rusher and a Doak Walker Award candidate, is a load when healthy (think Navy's Kyle Eckel), but was forced to sit out the Syracuse game with a thigh injury. Whether he can participate could be a huge factor in this game; if he's unable, it changes the entire complexion of Rutgers' offense. Justise Hairston (6-1, 210) should also see his share of carries. The Scarlet Knights run sometimes out of a one-back set.
The starting offensive line averages 289 pounds. The starting center, converted tight end Ray Pilch, is 6-3, 260.
Defense and special teams are both potential concerns. The linebacker corps has been hit hard by injuries. The young secondary has proven vulnerable to the pass. The defense has been giving up points in bunches, especially to high-powered passing attacks like New Hampshire's and Syracuse's. Senior Jarvis Johnson (5-11, 200, No. 20) is the man to watch in the Scarlet secondary; he's generally all over the field making tackles.
When Vanderbilt has the ball:
It will be interesting to see whether Ted Cain chooses to stay more with the running game, particularly the option, which has been the team's bread-and-butter the last three weeks-- or if he opens up the offense, since that appears to be the way to attack the Rutgers defense. The guess here is that Vanderbilt will have more passing attempts than in any game since South Carolina, and that pass-catchers Brandon Smith, Erik Davis and Chris Young could all have outstanding evenings.
Left tackle Justin Geisinger is still iffy; if he's back, it improves the Dores' ability to pass-protect. Right guard Nigel Seaman really didn't do half bad last week in his first starting role, but it's too early to say how he'd do against an SEC-caliber D-line (not that he'll see one this week). The young players on the line are improving each week, but their inconsistency is still a source of concern.
When Rutgers has the ball
Rutgers likes to put the ball in the air, but the passing game is always more effective if you can also run the ball. Vanderbilt defensive line had by far its best game of the year stopping the run against Mississippi State. Was it legitimate improvement, or was Mississippi State just that bad?
The Commodores haven't faced an outstanding quarterback this year, with the possible exception of Ole Miss' Ethan Flatt. In Oxford Flatt was able to pick apart Vandy's pass defense, as the defensive front got little pressure and the secondary seemed to wear down late. Ryan Hart & Co. could provide a real measuring stick to see how much progress the defense has made, if any, when defending a better-than-average passing attack.
The Commodores should get Kelechi Ohanaja back this week. No offense intended to Marcus Buggs, but Vanderbilt is a much better defensive team when Ohanaja is in the game and Andrew Pace can stick to strong safety.
I went out on a limb last week and said Vandy would be 3-4 going to Baton Rouge on Oct. 30. If the Dores get past this week unscathed, I'm home free; but this one should easily prove to be the most difficult of the three wins to earn. Two things bother me. It's likely to be a high-scoring shootout, and a game that will likely turn on a big turnover, a mistake on special teams, or something of the like. Given that Vandy does not generally do well in high-scoring shootouts, and that the offense was so mistake-prone in its first three games, I'm suddenly feeling very nervous. I'm trying to think positively, but I'm expecting a white-knuckler.