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October 16, 2013The Rundown
Rutgers is 4-2 at this point of the season, playing four games that were every close throughout the fourth quarter and beyond. Easy wins over Norfolk State and Eastern Michigan did not have as much drama, but Rutgers fans found themselves on a roller coaster ride through the other four games. Here are some good and bad points to take away from those wins and losses:
The first-year starters
Rutgers has introduced a trio of first-year starters who have made big differences and played major parts in each of RU's wins.
Steve Longa - The nation's 17th leading tackler has racked up 61 tackles thus far. Longa has also been the team's defensive MVP, not bad for a kid who just turned 19 years old.
Paul James - Up until he went down with a lower leg injury in game no.4, James was the nation's leading rusher. He solidified the RU rushing attack and opened things up for the passing game.
Leonte Carroo - Every time he touches the ball, something good happens for Rutgers. He is tied for fourth in the nation with seven TD receptions and is not even RU's primary receiving target.
Struggles were to be expected considering Rutgers lost its top three corners, its starting free safety and nickelback (three of whom were drafted). This Rutgers secondary was young and inexperienced coming in and some bad breaks could make things worse. Here are some of the unfavorable occurrences this season at the cornerback position:
Rutgers has played eight true freshman thus far this season, the most since 2011 when eight true freshmen also saw the field. Here is a ranking of how those freshmen in terms of how much they have contributed this season for Rutgers:
Rutgers' schedule has introduced the team some tough competition early on, pitting the Scarlet Knights against two of its toughest tests of the season in road contests against Fresno State and Louisville. The second half of the schedule should be a little more favorable. Here's a glimpse at what Rutgers is up against:
Oct 26 vs Houston - The Cougars have put together a 5-0 mark thus far but those wins have not come against the most spectacular competition. Outside of its FCS opponent, Houston has defeated four teams with a combined record of 7-17. Even if the Cougars find a way to upset BYU this weekend, it will not be a dominating undefeated team that comes to Piscataway.
Nov 2 vs Temple - The Owls are off to an underwhelming 0-6 start and things do not look very promising for a dramatic turnaround in Philly this year. First-year head coach Matt Rhule is struggling with a young team whose losses include forgettable ones to the likes of Fordham and Idaho. The Owls don't look to pose much of a threat to the Scarlet Knights.
Nov 16 vs Cincinnati - The 4-2 Bearcats have reached that mark by beating three FBS teams with a combined record of 1-17. A loss to USF and a battering at the expense of Illinois leave Cincy as one of the weakest 4-2 teams in the country. The days of Brian Kelly are long gone in Cincinnati as the Bearcats will likely have to fight just to be in the middle of the pack in the AAC.
Nov 21 @ Central Florida - This looks to be Rutgers' toughest matchup through the rest of the season. UCF's 4-1 record is legit with a defeat over Penn State and a three-point loss to South Carolina. Friday night's game against Louisville will have league title implications on the line. Win or lose against Louisville, UCF will still be a tough matchup for Rutgers on a short week.
Nov 30 @ UConn - The last conference game featuring these two teams isn't likely to carry with it a lot of buzz. Chances are, a downtrodden Husky team will have dialed it in by then as UConn is still searching for its first win. The crowd could wind up being very sparse as UConn continues to flounder in the post-Randy Edsall era.
Dec 7 vs South Florida - The Bulls never play very well in the cold and things could be icy for USF by that time. The 2-4 Bulls will have to pull off some upsets if they intend to go bowling. That doesn't look likely and by the time Bulls make it to Piscataway, USF fans could already be counting the days until next season.
So what lies ahead for Rutgers? A conference title is not yet out of reach but Rutgers will need some dominoes to fall. First, the Scarlet Knights will need to win out. Secondly, UCF needs to upset Louisville Friday night. If that does not happen, the Cardinals would need to lose two conference games for RU to have a chance at a BCS bowl. With Louisville's final five games against USF, UConn, Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati, two losses seem highly, highly unlikely. But if UCF defeats Louisville, things could get very interesting down the stretch. Louisville would still need to lose another game, but the Cardinals fell victim to conference upsets against Syracuse and UConn last season.
Even if a league title is off the table, Rutgers still has a lot to play for over the next couple of months. The Scarlet Knights have a real chance to reach double digit wins for the first time since 2006. That goal would still be attainable with another regular season loss. RU would just have to close out its season with a bowl victory.
It will also be very important for this Rutgers team to build some momentum heading into the Big Ten. Next year, teams like USF, Temple and SMU will be replaced by Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. This young RU team still needs some grooming for what will be a step up in competition next year. Rutgers has proven capable of competing with Big Ten teams on the recruiting front, but now the coaching staff will have to develop that talent. The second half of this season could go a long way in that developmental phase as well as serving as a telling sign of how good this coaching staff can be.