In facing Rutgers Thursday with the Big East championship on the line, UofL will be taking on a team much like Connecticut, which beat the Cards 23-20 in two overtimes on Saturday.
Like UConn, Rutgers is offensively challenged but stout defensively. The Scarlet Knights rank 85th in the country in rushing (140.7 ypg), 84th in passing (214.1 ypg), 96th in total offense (254.8 ypg) and 87th in scoring (24.6 ppg). Those stats were before Rutgers lost 27-6 at Pittsburgh Saturday, and all will decline because the Scarlet Knights were shut down by the Panthers (just 50 yards rushing, 157 passing, 207 total offense).
The defense has been very good, although Pitt gouged the Scarlet Knights. Before the Pitt game, Rutgers ranked 12th in the country in rushing D (108 ypg), 32nd in passing D (204.6 ypg), 14th in total yards allowed (312.6 ypg) and fourth in scoring D (12.4 ppg). The Panthers rang up 138 rushing yards, 227 passing and 365 total, along with 27 points.
So what to make of Rutgers, which has played a soft out-of-conference schedule (Tulane, Howard, Kent State, Army and Arkansas, which appeared a formidable foe before the season but turned out to be a patsy).
Furthermore, Rutgers lost at home to Kent State, 35-23. The Knights rolled through the Big East before Pitt, which UofL whipped.
The Knights, who were coming off a 9-4 season that included a 27-13 victory over Iowa State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, were picked to finish third in the league because they had 16 starters returning, including 2011 Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene, a talented linebacker. Seven other defensive starters returned.
They also have a new coach, Kyle Flood, but he has been around the program since 2005, the last four years as the assistant head coach to Greg Schiano, who now is coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Flood has vowed to continue Schiano's "Keep Chopping" slogan that signified the toughness of the program.
Sophomore Gary Nova (6-2, 225), a part-time starter last season, earned the starting nod this season and is doing an adequate, if not scintillating, job. He has completed 191 of 320 passes (59.7 percent) for 2,282 yards (207.5 a game) and 20 TDs with 13 interceptions. A strict drop-back thrower, he's run the ball just 15 times for minus-22 yards. He's been sacked only eight times, which is fifth in the nation and leads the Big East. Against Pitt he was 18 of 37 for 157 yards and a TD with an interception. He was sacked once.
Sophomore Jawan Jamison (5-8, 200) is the team's leading rusher with 1,004 yards (4.4 a rush, 91.3 a game), although he was held to 14 yards on nine carries by Pitt. He has run for four TDs. He's a good receiver, averaging 2.6 catches and 28 yards a game, with two TDs. He's also 1 for 1 passing, a 16-yard TD throw.
The leading receiver is sophomore Brandon Coleman (6-6, 220) with 37 catches for 563 yards (15.2 a catch, 51.2 a game ) and nine TDs. Senior Mark Harrison (6-3, 230) also has 37 catches (11.6 yards per catch, 39.0 per game), five for TDs, and senior Tim Wright (6-4, 220) has 35 catches (12.1-yard average, 38.4 a game), two for TDs. Coleman is especially dangerous. He has 15 TD catches in just 24 games.
The line is solid, headed by sophomore RT Kaleb Johnson (6-4, 300), a Freshman All-American last season.
RU has two field-goal kickers, both freshmen. Kyle Frederico is 6 for 11 with a long of 52 yards, and Nick Borgese is 3 for 4 with a long of 42 yards.
Eight starters returned, headed by Greene (6-1, 234), who leads the team with 115 tackles (10.7 a game), which is 11th in the country. He has 10 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks, and he has returned a fumble 20 yards for a TD.
Second on the team in tackles with 77 is senior cornerback Logan Ryan (6-0, 190), who also leads with four interceptions, which is tied for 14th in the country. The Knights have 15 INTs in all, with senior CB Brandon Jones (6-1, 185) having three, one he returned for a TD. Senior safety Wayne Warren (6-1, 205) has two, one he returned for a TD.
Other top tacklers are senior LB Jamal Merrell (6-4, 255) with 70, including eight for a loss, senior LB Steve Beauharnais (6-2, 230) with 68, four for a loss, and senior DT Vallone (6-3, 275) with 42, 9.5 for a loss. The Knights are 34th in the country in TFL, averaging 6.5 a game.
After ranking fifth in the nation last season in forcing turnovers, the Knights are 12th this season at 1.1 a game. They have forced five fumbles, with senior safety Duron Harmon (6-1, 200) also returning one for a TD (73 yards).
Senior Justin Doerner is averaging 37.9 yards a punt, and his net average is just 34.15 yards, which is 107th in the country.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Greene is an absolute stud. He would have been a middle-round draft pick last spring but returned to try to work his way up the draft board, which he has done. His brother, by the way, is Pitt running back Ray Graham, who ran for 113 yards and a TD Saturday against Rutgers.
The defense, especially the ball-hawking secondary.
This is Flood's first head coaching job after 17 years as an assistant. He is just 41 years old.
The Cards can beat the Knights. I'd like to see a trick play or two, a reverse or two, and an imaginative offense, all of which were missing against UConn.