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November 9, 2006

Game of the Week: Louisville at Rutgers

"Other things being equal, If the RU DL gets off the line quick and the RU blitz attempts force Brohm to have to throw early before he has a real chance to find guys RU has a great chance to pull off a win. If they hold our line off long enough for him to find his guys we have major problems."
-- RU_77 on the Rutgers Football message board on ScarletNation.com.

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About every 137 years or so – like clockwork – Rutgers plays a football game of national significance.

Undefeated and ranked 15th, the Scarlet Knights (8-0) will make a rare appearance on the national stage when they face No. 3 and undefeated Louisville (8-0) tonight in a game which many have proclaimed the most important in the New Jersey school's history.

That's an exaggeration, of course. The most important game was played on Nov. 6, 1869 when Rutgers faced Princeton at New Brunswick, N.J., in the first ever college football game.

Since then, Rutgers football has done little if anything to pique national – or even local – interest. But if not for that game in 1869, college football might not have taken off and this week thousands of Rutgers students wouldn't have been standing in ticket lines so long one would might think Springsteen had booked a concert in Piscataway.

The game is so important it could ultimately determine the Big East championship and a shot at the national crown.

Well, that's what is within reach of Louisville, which is ranked third in the latest Bowl Championship Series standings. Rutgers would have to stretch a little farther, but that's the way it is for a program that never before has been ranked when facing a ranked opponent.

Rutgers hasn't defeated a ranked opponent in 18 years - when the Scarlet Knights shocked No. 15 Penn State, 21-16.

In contrast, Louisville hasn't defeated a ranked opponent in seven days. The Cardinals toppled then-No. 3 West Virginia for an emotional victory that anointed them legitimate national championship contenders.

That leaves Rutgers and Louisville facing polar opposite questions as the fervor for their nationally televised game grows.

Can the Scarlet Knights avoid getting too psyched up? Can the Cardinals maintain the intensity level they needed a week ago?

"I think there's definitely a danger of (getting too excited)," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "If you have to deal with it this week then it's hard to fix, but the way we approach things around here … it doesn't matter who you play. When you start getting concerned about the opponent and start changing the way you do things then you have a problem.

"Now, we're not naοve to the fact that our opponent is the best we've faced this year, but we need to stay focused on what we're doing because you can't control what they're doing."

Louisville was in control of its big victory over West Virginia after Malik Jackson returned a fumble for a touchdown and Trent Guy returned a punt for a score that provided a 30-14 lead in the third quarter.

By then, discussion had already begun as to whether Louisville deserved to play for the national championship more than a one-loss team like Florida, Auburn, Texas, California, USC or Notre Dame.

"We can't pay attention to all that stuff," said Louisville junior quarterback Brian Brohm, who passed for 354 yards against West Virginia. "All that talk doesn't matter until the season is over. I don't think we need any extra motivation. The opponent ahead of us is plenty of motivation for our team.

"The West Virginia game gave us a lot of confidence, but we need to stay focused on Rutgers. It would be huge if we can finish this off the right way."

Of course, the right finish starts with beating Rutgers, and the first step in doing that would be slowing the Knights' running game. Rutgers has produced an average of 193.3 rushing yards per game behind running backs Ray Rice and Brian Leonard.

"We need to try to force Rutgers to throw the ball," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "We've got to get ahead of them and make them throw."

That seems to be a sound strategy. Rutgers' passing offense ranks 114th nationally, and quarterback Mike Teel has more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes (six). His best performance netted 215 yards and three touchdowns against Navy. He has thrown for no more than 145 yards and one touchdown in any other game.

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"We're going into the ninth game of the year, so it's about that time (for a big passing game)," Teel said. "But we just want to go and play and find a way to win, however that is."

That would be playing keep-away from Brohm, who Schiano said is the best quarterback he's faced in his six seasons as Rutgers' coach.

"I think our running game as a whole is important. It's a way to control the football," Schiano said. "It's a way to play what we think is New Jersey and Big East style football. Hold the ball, run it, throw when you have to."

Perhaps that will work, but the Scarlet Knights will likely need some luck, too, because they have to overcome a discouraging trend as well as Brohm.

Rutgers is 0-6 all-time against top 10 teams.

But history may actually be on the Knights' side.

Rutgers is undefeated in games of national significance, having beaten Princeton 6-4 back in 1869.

Week 11 Game of the Week: No. 3 Louisville at No. 15 Rutgers
Louisville run offense vs. Rutgers run defense: Although Louisville ranks 10th nationally in run offense with a 203.3-yard average per game, that statistic is misleading. The Cardinals racked up huge totals against defensively challenged Kentucky, Syracuse and Temple. The Cardinals managed 114 rushing yards or fewer against Miami, Cincinnati and West Virginia, which are strong against the run. The early loss of Heisman Trophy contending running back Michael Bush obviously didn't hurt the victory total, but did weaken the Cardinals' running game. Kolby Smith has done an admirable job in place of Bush. Smith has rushed for 524 yards and six touchdowns, but his highest production against a good defense was 73 yards last week vs. West Virginia. Rutgers' run defense will provide one of the toughest challenges he'll have faced this season. The Scarlet Knights rank 16th against the run nationally and have allowed only five rushing touchdowns all season. Edge: Rutgers
Louisville pass offense vs. Rutgers pass defense: Louisville's passing game is so good it doesn't matter who operates it. When quarterback Brian Brohm was lost with an injury for two games, the Cardinals didn't miss a beat with Hunter Cantwell. Upon returning, Brohm has thrown for more than 300 yards in two of three games. Receivers Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia, a 6-foot-6-inch mismatch, have combined for 74 catches for 1,269 yards and six touchdowns. Rutgers has 10 interceptions, including a team-leading three by sophomore safety Courtney Green. The Knights also have a strong pass rush with three players – Jamaal Westerman, William Beckford and Ramel Meekins – collecting at least four sacks. But Pittsburgh is the only team they've faced that ranks in the top 50 in pass offense. However, the Knights limited Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko to 169 yards passing and one touchdown. Edge: Louisville
Rutgers run offense vs. Louisville run defense: Ray Rice has gotten attention as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender by rushing for 1,203 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's been held to fewer than 100 yards in two of the last three games, so that could be a concern. However, that span also includes a 225-yard game against Pittsburgh. Big Brian Leonard (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) is an excellent complement to Rice and has rushed for 241 yards. Louisville ranks 24th nationally against the run and has held five opponents to 83 or fewer rushing yards. But the Cardinals also allowed Cincinnati 212 rushing yards and were burned for 318 by West Virginia. Edge: Rutgers
Rutgers pass offense vs. Louisville pass defense: Quarterback Mike Teel has had a decent year, but if the Knights have to rely on passing to win they're in trouble. Teel has completed just 54.9 percent of his passes this year for just six touchdowns – and half of those were in a 34-0 victory over Navy. He's also thrown eight interceptions. The Knights' wide outs aren't much of a threat. Brian Leonard, coming out of the backfield, is the leading receiver. Louisville leads the nation in sacks, and 14 players have divided the 31 sacks the Cardinals have accumulated. Amobi Okoye and Malik Jackson each have five. The Cardinals, who have just five interceptions, have allowed 525 passing yards in their last two games. Edge: Louisville
Louisville kicking game vs. Rutgers kicking game: Louisville kicker Arthur Carmody is 14 of 15 on field goals attempts and is 5-for-6 inside the 40. He needs two points to set a school record for points in a career. Punter Todd Flannery averages 39.7 yards per attempt. The Cardinals don't cover kicks particularly well, but Trent Guy had a 40-yard punt return for a touchdown last week. Rutgers is adequate on kick coverage and returns, and kicker Jeremy Ito is 11 of 14 with a long field goal of 53 yards. Punter Joe Radigan averages 45.5 yards per attempt and has killed 16 inside the 20. Edge: Rutgers
Louisville coaches vs. Rutgers coaches: Bobby Petrino is such a highly regarded coach that every year another college or an NFL team seems interested in hiring him. He's 37-8 in four years at Louisville and has won at least nine games every season. His 82.2 winning percentage is the second best for active Division I coaches, trailing only USC's Pete Carroll. Greg Schiano, one of the nation's youngest coaches, has done a remarkable job in building Rutgers into a top-20 program. When the Knights are extended a bowl invitation later this year, it will mark the first time in school history they will appear in bowl games in consecutive seasons. Edge: Louisville
X-Factor: Louisville has allowed opponents to score on just 59.1 percent of their red zone opportunities. The Cardinals have allowed just 13 scores on 22 drives that reached their 20 yard line. Furthermore, only nine of those resulted in touchdowns.
Louisville win will if: The Cardinals defense must be effective in containing Rutgers' running game. Louisville overcame a big rushing performance by West Virginia last week by returning a punt and a fumble for touchdowns. They can't count on those every week. They must also avoid an emotional slump after posting such a big victory over the Mountaineers.
Rutgers will win if: The Knights cannot allow Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm to have a hugely productive passing game. That would likely require the Knights getting consistent pressure from the pass rush and controlling the ball with their running game. Ray Rice and Brian Leonard need to be productive running and first and second down, so quarterback Mike Teel won't face too many third-and-long or third-and-medium situations.
Notes: With a victory, Louisville will be 9-0 for the first time in school history. The Cardinals have a six-game winning streak on the road and have won 10 of their last 12 away from home. …Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm is 14-2 as a starter, and he has eighth career 300-yard passing game. Three of those have come this year. … Sophomore receiver Mario Urrutia averages 20.4 yards per catch in his career, which is the best among active Division I receivers. … With a victory, Rutgers will clinch a nine-win season for only the fifth time in its history. … The Knights defense has held four of its eight opponents to fewer than 200 yards of offense and has posted two shutouts for the first time since 1992. … Rutgers has a 58-7 scoring advantage in the first quarter. The touchdown was set up by a turnover which gave Ohio possession at the Knights' 17-yard line. … Ray Rice has reached at least 100 yards in 11 of his 20 career games.
Buchanan's pick: Louisville 31, Rutgers 21
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