At 5-0, the Scarlet Knights are enjoying their best start to a season since 2006. As the midpoint of the season draws near, the target on their backs grows larger each week.
Big East rival Syracuse (2-3) comes to Piscataway, N.J. this week to take on Rutgers, whose victory over Connecticut has vaulted them to a No. 20 national ranking. The Orange, meanwhile, are coming off their impressive 14-13 win over Pittsburgh in which their defense held the Panthers to just 27 yards rushing in the game.
Against Syracuse, the Panthers were held to just 8-of-17 on third down, and the one touchdown Pittsburgh could muster was on RB Ray Graham's one-yard touchdown run.
Thanks to his performance against the Panthers, Syracuse defensive end Brandon Sharpe was the Big East defensive player of the week as he collected four sacks and seven tackles. The 6'1" senior lineman was converted from linebacker three years ago, and will be someone the Knights' offense will need to game-plan against.
Syracuse's defense may be somewhat weakened this week against Rutgers, as safety Shamarko Thomas is questionable for the game. Thomas sustained an injury while making a tackle in the fourth quarter of last week's game against Pittsburgh.
"I think he's doing fine," said head coach Doug Marrone during a weekly teleconference (as quoted by Nolan Weidner of The Post Standard on Syracuse.com) on October 8. "We're day-to-day with him."
In last week's win, the Orange made use of a strong defensive performance and a balanced offense that featured 120 yards in the running attack, and another 185 through the air. While he threw one interception in the game, starting QB Ryan Nassib was 19-for-30, and ran the ball eight times for 14 yards.
Syracuse currently averages 24 points per game, powered by leading rusher Jerome Smith (288 yards rushing) and the passing of Ryan Nassib (137-of-208 for 1,552 yards and 10 TDs). Talented receivers Marcus Sales (33 catches, five TDs), Jarrod West (21 receptions, one TD) and Alec Lemon (21 catches) will be Nassib's primary targets in Saturday's contest.
While the Rutgers running game, namely Jawan Jamison, has been outstanding this season, the defense has been even better. The steady improvement of starting quarterback Gary Nova has given head coach Kyle Flood renewed confidence in the passing game, but the Knights do have reason to worry about their battle with Syracuse.
The biggest concern for Rutgers is the status of placekicker Kyle Federico, who sustained a hip injury in the win over Connecticut. The injury is likely to keep him out of Saturday's game, and the Knights have been holding open auditions for the kicking spot. Sophomore Nick DeLouisa or freshman Nick Borgese are the most likely candidates to replace Federico.
"I'm not ready to really discuss where [Federico] is at," stated head coach Kyle Flood (as reported by Dave Hutchinson of The Star-Ledger on NJ.com). "It's going to take a couple of days here to really evaluate whether or not we think he'll be able to go."
Game Information: Saturday, October 13, 12 p.m. ET; High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, NJ.