The Rutgers Scarlet Knights have a chance to clinch at least a share of their first ever Big East title, but will have to endure a road test against the pesky Pittsburgh Panthers to pull it off. With one of the premier defenses in the country, Kyle Flood's team will be able to hold back the Pitt attack and emerge victorious on Saturday afternoon.
Other than the team's only loss to Kent State earlier in the season, the No. 18 Scarlet Knights sport an unblemished record and haven't allowed an opponent to have a 100-yard rusher.
Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham is dynamic and will be doing his best to help the Panthers' cause as they fight to hang onto bowl contention. They need to win their final two games to qualify.
But Graham will be shut down even in front of the home crowd in Heinz Field despite the fact that he may wind up playing there some Sunday in the future. Flood is a first-year coach, but has instilled a particular toughness in the Rutgers' front seven, which allows just 108 yards per game (h/t NCAA), good for 12th in the nation.
The obvious loophole in this argument is Graham's standout performance at Notre Dame just weeks ago, when he ran for 172 yards against the vaunted Fighting Irish defense.
However, the Irish simply had a letdown in the midst of an undefeated, national championship-caliber season. It was by far the defense's worst game of the year, and the Panthers played what had to be considered their best game of 2012.
Who will win this Big East showdown?
Although there will be a sense of desperation with this Pitt team, the Scarlet Knights know what is at stake. They won't be looking ahead to next week's tilt with Louisville, where the outright Big East title could be on the line.
In last week's 10-3 victory over Cincinnati—the Big East's highest scoring offense—the Bearcats didn't get on the board until the waning moments of the game.
Kevin Goheen of the Star-Ledger pointed out a revealing quote by Scarlet Knights LB Khaseem Greene after UC decided to go for it on fourth down early in the game deep in Rutgers territory:
We feel that someone is disrespecting us when they go for it on fourth down against us. We take that real personal...That was the message; If they’re going to go for it, we’re going to make them pay for it. That’s exactly what we did.
Greene, a senior, happens to be the half-brother of Pittsburgh's Graham, and will be eager to stuff him in their last contest in collegiate competition.
Panthers QB Tino Sunseri has been extremely efficient this year, posting a 16-2 touchdown to interception ratio. But he was picked three times in this matchup last year, and the Scarlet Knights' secondary is able to more than hold their own on the back end, ranking first in the conference in passing efficiency defense (h/t Pittsburgh Post Gazette).
There is a reason Rutgers is 9-1 and its opponent is 4-6, but there is plenty of reason to think that this will be a tight game.
Despite the big news of a move to the Big Ten, expect the Scarlet Knights to focus on the golden opportunity at hand of an unprecedented Big East championship and take care of business against the Panthers.