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Who The Heck Is Pitt Playing: Rutgers Edition

We're at the halfway point in Pitt's season previews. Next up is a visit to New Jersey and the land of bad driving.

Who the heck is Pitt playing: The Rutgers Scarlet Knights

When and where are we playing: Rutgers High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, NJ on October 8th, 2011. Kickoff time is TBD.

Why should I care: It's a Big East game...Seriously it's Rutgers I got nothing else. I'm sure there will be plenty of stories about how Rutgers hired a bunch of Pitt assistants but other than that, I got nothing.

Have we played these guys before: Yep, most of them have been Pitt victories too. Pitt won last year's game in Pittsburgh 41-21 and leads the all-time series 21-7.

What conference do they play in: The Big East

How did they do last season: Rutgers took a step back in 2010, finishing at 4-8. But they did something Pitt couldn't do and beat UConn. 

Who's the coach: Greg Schiano, who is in his 10th season at Rutgers.

How many starters return: 10 on offense, 5 on defense, 1 kicker/punter

What's the offense like? Rutgers will work out of primarily a pro-style offense in 2011. It's actually kind of appropriate that the Rutgers preview follows the USF preview. I wrote last time how USF's offense was really bad last season. Well, Rutgers had an even worse offense in 2010. They finished 114th in total offense, at just under 295 yards/game last season. They weren't awful in the passing game, throwing for 194 yards/game in 2010 (for comparison, Pitt only averaged just over 200 yards/game). But unlike the Panthers, Rutgers had a bad rushing game, rushing for 101 yards/game.  They also only scored just under 21 points/game. What was the reason for this? One of the worst offensive lines in recent memory, and not just in the Big East, but in the entire country. They allowed 61 sacks, easily the worst in FBS and 10 more than the second worst team.

Around this time last year, it was the Tom Savage show in Piscataway, after he threw for over 2200 yards, 14 TDs, and only seven picks in 2009. But then Savage got injured in 2010, opening the way for Chas Dodd, a true freshman. Dodd started seven games and threw for over 1600 yards, 11 TDs, and 7 picks in 11 games. Savage would later transfer out of the program, so Dodd is clearly the starter in 2011. As for the backup, two true freshman are vying for that spot. One should be familiar to Pitt fans as he was a Pitt recruit last season before Wanny left. The two players are Gary Nova and Mike Bimonte.

Rutgers traditionally has had success on the ground, but 2010 was the exception. Behind a god-awful offensive line, the unit struggled. But there are some players here that good be in for a breakout season should the line even marginally improve. There are four potential starters at RB: sophomore Jeremy Deering, junior De'Antwan Williams, redshirt freshman Jawan Jamison, and true freshman Savon Huggins. If we're looking at a purely statistical point of view, Deering should get the start in the first game. Deering rushed for 352 yards and two scores. That's who I feel should start for Rutgers to start, although Scarlet Knights fans are hoping for Huggins to have a Dion Lewis type freshman season. Huggins should at least be given a chance to earn the starting job once the season begins with his work on the field. At the fullback position, Joe Martinek transitioned from RB to FB at the start of spring camp after spending all of 2010 nursing an ankle injury.

If you had to pick an area of strength on this offense, it would be at wide receiver, where Rutgers has two potential all-conference picks in juniors Mark Harrison and Mohamed Sanu. Harrison was the clear No. 1 WR in 2010, with 829 receiving and nine TDs, so he should have the same role in 2011. Sanu is Rutgers' do-it-all man. Need him to pass? He went 6 of 9 for 160 yards and three scores. Want him to run the ball? Sanu rushed for 309 yards and four TDs. Catch a pass? He had 418 receiving yards and two scores. So there's a lot to like about Sanu and it's a wonder he didn't get more preseason recognition (it may have partially been due to how bad Rutgers was last season). Two more options at WR include Brandon Coleman and junior Tim Wright.

The offensive line, as I said, was absolutely terrible last season. The reason was that four of the five starters started for the first time a year ago and now, after losing only one starter, the line should get better. On the left side of the line are sophomore Andre Civil and senior Desmond Wynn at LT and LG, respectively. The center spot will be manned by sophomore David Osei. The right side of the line will be made up of sophomore Antwan Lowery at RG and senior Desmond Stapleton at RT. So there is starting experience here and that clearly will make a difference in this season as opposed to last, but as of right now, there's no guarantee that this line will improve enough for Rutgers to succeed in 2011 ... and by succeed I mean make a bowl game, which for Rutgers is a big deal.

The offense was bad, really bad, in 2010. But ten returning starters will make a difference in 2011. No, it won't be Oregon explosive, but it should be enough to get Rutgers at least one more win this season.

Ok, now what about the defense? Thankfully for Rutgers, the Big East was down in terms of offense last season; otherwise, it could have been much worse. The Scarlet Knights finished at 65th in total defense, allowing 374 yards/game. They also were 62nd in scoring defense, allowing 26.5 points/game. As far as rushing and passing defense goes, Rutgers was average there, allowing 156 yards on the ground and 218 yards threw the air. So as you can see, they were statistically average in 2010 and, like all other Big East teams, their decent numbers were probably due to the conference's poor offensive showing - meaning the stats could've been a lot worse if this team was, say, in 2009.

The defensive line will be the site of many positional battles throughout camp this season due to the loss of three starters from a year ago. The lone returning starter is junior Scott Vallone at DT, who recorded 44 tackles and 6.5 for losses a year ago. At the end position, seniors Manny Abreu and Justin Francis will be starting for the first time in 2011. Abreu had 48 tackles at the outside linebacker position a year ago and moved to defensive end in spring camp while Francis had 21 tackles and two sacks a year ago. At the final tackle position, the starter should be sophomore Mike Larrow, who is listed as the starter in Rutgers 2011 media guide, although that is far from a guarantee. Sophomores Jamil Merrell and Isaac Holmes will also battle for the starting spot.

The linebacking unit will be headed by junior linebacker Steve Beauharnais, the team's leading tackler with 79 tackles. Beauharnais spent 2010 at middle linebacker, but will return to strong-side linebacker in 2011, where he starred as a freshman in 2009. The middle linebacker will be Ka'Lial Glaud, who played in all 12 games last season and started two. As for the weak-side linebacker, junior Khaseem Greene will start after spending all of 2010 starting at free safety. He seemed to handle the transition well in spring camp, but it will be interesting to see how Greene handles his new position once games actually start.

The secondary loses one of the best in the conference in Joe Lefeged, but hopes are that the unit will not miss a beat in 2011. There will be a bit of shuffling in the unit. For example, senior David Rowe, who spent two seasons starting at cornerback, will now move to free safety. The strong safety position will be manned by junior Duron Harman. As for the two cornerbacks, there are four players battling for the two starting spots: senior Mason Robinson, juniors Brandon Jones and Marcus Cooper, and sophomore Logan Ryan. All showed promise in spring drills and could easily be the starter heading into the first game.

The defense, unlike the offense, is replacing a lot, especially up front. And with Dana Holgorsen and Todd Graham joining the Big East coaching ranks this season, that could pose a problem for Rutgers - especially if the offense doesn't improve. The success of this unit will depend on how well the defensive line plays. With three new starters, it'll be important that the line is playing well by the time Pitt comes to Piscataway, which will be Game 5 for Rutgers. 

What about special teams? Place-kicker San San Te returns after starting for the past three years, an obvious plus for Rutgers. As for punter, there is a competitioon between walk-on Justin Doerner and freshman Anthony DiPaola after losing last year's starting punter to graduation.

Prediction? I think this one will be closer than anticipated for Pitt fans. The game is in Piscataway and let's not forget that prior to the past two seasons, Pitt had lost four straight to the Scarlet Knights. The three Pitt coaches that foudn their way to Rutgers won't help Pitt's chances, but I wouldn't place too much stock in that deciding the game. Despite all that, I think Pitt pulls it out in the end. I don't know if Rutgers has improved enough on offense and the defense loses enough to make me cautious about picking the Knights. Pitt 27, Rutgers 21.

Want more info on Rutgers? Head over to On the Banks.

Stats are courteous of the NCAA, information about the starters is from Rutgers 2011 Media Guide.