Okay, so we took a game off from out Staring Down the Musket feature, but that wasn't our fault. Go blame Sean Keeley at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician for telling me he would do the Q&A, then leaving for the ACC and completely forgetting about my questions. Although, in hindsight, it's probably a good thing, since my questions would have looked really dumb after the debacle last Friday night.
This week, we visit with the Rutgers blog, On The Banks. Much like us, Rutgers fans were expecting to be 6-1 and ranked heading into Saturday's game after taking care of an inferior opponent on the road last Friday night. And, much like us, the Scarlet Knights went out and laid an egg, taking most of the luster off this once-promising matchup. Despite the lack of national cache', it remains a huge game for both teams, who now have no margin of error going forward.
The big story is former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed last year and will be leading the team onto the field. That should be a truly inspiring and powerful moment for all in attendance. Couple that emotional advantage with the strength of RU's defense, and the Mountaineers should be on upset alert for the second straight week. How are Scarlet Knights fans feeling about the matchup? Let's get on with the interrogation:
Country Roads: Rutgers fell from a spectacular 11-2 season in 2006 to a strange 4-8 season last year before bouncing back and starting this season 5-1...before falling to Louisville last week. Honestly, how's the morale around Piscataway right now?
On The Banks: Morale isn't a problem. The loss to Louisville was a setback, but Rutgers can still have a successful season if they can right he ship in short order. The game will be won or lost based on execution. Critical players did not get the job done last week, and they will have to bounce back for Rutgers to beat a good opponent in West Virginia.
CR: The Knights have feasted on turnovers this year, riding that margin and a strong defense to a hot start. What do they have to do to beat WVU on Saturday? Is there a certain number of turnovers they need to create? Or can they take a page out of Syracuse's book and play power football for four solid quarters?
OTB: Clearly, Rutgers will need to pressure Geno Smith. That's been the team's recipe for success all year, and Syracuse won with their customary heavy dosage of blitzes. After a great first half of the season, the pass rush stumbled for the first time all year against Louisville. The best case scenario is that was just the hangover from playing a triple option team in Navy. Rutgers clearly will need to force big plays on defense, while at the same time freshman quarterback Gary Nova has to make better decisions. Beyond those factors, Rutgers needs to play ball-control football, and keep the dangerous Mountaineer passing game off the field.
Rutgers has similar defensive numbers to Syracuse, but they emphasize power more on both sides of the ball, while RU is more geared towards speed. Rutgers defenders will try to go around the West Virginia line instead of going through it. On offense, the Knights have struggled running the ball all year; more sustaining drives with the passing game.
CR: Who are the offensive playmakers WVU needs to look out for? Obviously Mohamed Sanu stands out, and Mountaineer DBs need to account for him on every play. Is Gary Nova the real deal going forward, or will he follow in Tom Savage's footsteps? How about Savon Huggins? Will Rutgers' signature recruit end up living up to the hype?
Sanu generates all the headlines, but Rutgers has two athletic freaks at receiver in Mark Harrison and Brandon Coleman. The problem is that both have dropped a number of easy catches this year. If only a few of those were caught, they could well have six or seven wins right now. There have been so many near misses that literally went right through their fingertips. If either of them can get it together, an offense that has struggled to generate big plays will get a lot more dangerous.
The problem with Savage more than anything was that Rutgers had a horrible offensive coordinator the past two years that destroyed his confidence. The new one is a lot better, and Frank Cignetti has Gary Nova in a good position to succeed. Nova has all the tools you look for, but he is still a freshman - what killed him against Louisville was overconfidence and poor decision making.
Huggins has had an up and down season. The problem is that Rutgers still has issues with run blocking. The OL is still trying to recover from two years of having to play in a scheme that made no sense. Rutgers also prefers to use a receiving/running fullback in Joe Martinek. He's skilled at those tasks, but not really a traditional blocker who can open holes up front.
CR: Yep, conference realignment. Rutgers seems positioned for a future move to the B1G or the ACC, but neither move seems imminent. Are fans wringing their hands over where you will end up?
OTB: Isn't everyone? People are worried, but the general consensus is that dominoes will keep falling, and a slot will open up. There's less anxiety than anger towards the Big East conference for being so inept and corrupt. John Marinatto and his Providence College cronies should have just stepped aside over the summer and let the adults like Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti and West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck call all of the shots. If that happens, and the conference acted proactively instead of reactively, I truly believe that the Big East would be in a position of power today instead of being on the verge of collapsing. Everyone only started looking around once it was clear the conference would never take the concerns of the football programs seriously. Which is ridiculous, as they are the ones holding all of the leverage cards in this standoff.
In regards to Rutgers in particular, they have a lot to offer in terms of television markets and academic prestige. The football program is much better than Pitt or Syracuse over the past few years, and men's basketball is finally moving in the right direction. They are undoubtedly lobbying conferences behind closed doors, but there won't be any public leaks until the deal happens. The athletic department says they are confident that Rutgers will land on its feet regardless of what happens. I agree. Rutgers and West Virginia will land on their feet, it just will take a while to sort everything out.
CR: Prediction time. WVU is favored by 7 and the over/under is around 54. Who ya got?
OTB: Both sound high, but I would probably take West Virginia. There are plenty of unknown factors going into this one - how the teams will bounce back coming off losses, the weather, etc... Rutgers is a good football team, and a good program. West Virginia is just better though. Their winning streak didn't get so long by accident. The sheer length is a bit long, as you figure that there has to be an upset sooner or later, but the Mountaineers were always a bit better even in the close games in the series. At the minimum they have earned the benefit of the doubt until Rutgers can finally steal a win.
CR: Bonus: I'm making the trip northeast this weekend. Where should I be tailgating and what would you suggest to make my experience a good one?
OTB: The blue and purple lots are traditionally where the younger tailgating crowd hang out, although they've been pushed out further in recent years as fan interest in the program has grown. Visitors in their twenties and thirties would be best suited to visit Easton Avenue in New Brunswick for its dive bars and (mostly) greasy spoon fare, while anyone seeking a quieter time (upscale dining, theatrical shows, etc...) will find it in the downtown area just past the train station.
Most of the surrounding area is fairly suburban and sprawled out, even rural in parts. There are interesting spots outside of New Brunswick, with lots of tasty dining option (ethnic or otherwise), but you have to work (and drive) to find them. That is why many visiting fans usually just get back on the train to New York City or Philaldephia after games. You can always drive down Rt. 18 to hit the beaches, but it might be a little late in the year for that by now.
[Ed: I'm actually going to the game with my special guest and will likely meet up with WVUIE97 and company, wherever they end up. After looking at the forecast, I really hope it's in one of those aforementioned dive bars so we can stay warm and dry until kickoff.]