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Big East Week: Life On the Margins

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Or: How you should learn to stop worrying and love the Knights.

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Nobody seems to know exactly what to think of Rutgers yet, respecting the Knights’ stark upward arc – last year wasn’t a from-nowhere story, it being a surprising but logical step up from the truly pioneering 7-5 team in ‘05 – but maintaining a wary distance in the summer polls. Only Athlon thinks the Knights might approach their most recent success (RU is tenth in its top 25 on the strength of 13 mostly key returning starters), and the only outlet that thinks they’ll finish ahead of Louisville or West Virginia in the conference (in this case, Louisville). The perception elsewhere seems to regard seven or eight wins as the program’s new "default," and last year a flukey departure from whence a still-building upstart shall return.

But did Rutgers play like an 8-4 team with a couple breaks? As Steele might say, it was net plus-four in close wins, games that could have relegated the same darling team to the fringe with a different bounce or two:

Rutgers 2006 'Swing' Games
Game Score Yards +/– 1st Dwns +/– TO Margin "Cheap" Pts.*
at No. Carolina W, 21-16 – 41 – 3 + 2 -
at So. Florida W, 22-20 – 21 Even + 2 + 8
Connecticut W, 24-13 – 18 – 1 + 1 + 14
Louisville W, 28-25 + 66 Even 0 + 3
at W. Virginia L, 39-41(3OT) + 13 + 1 + 1
(* - "Cheap" points come via short field (25 yds. and in), safeties and defensive or special teams touchdowns. In this case, they also include the post-penalty winner againt Louisville and a dropped two-point conversion by South Florida to tie with seconds on the clock, fortune that came back to roost when RU missed a mandatory two-point pass to tie West Virginia in overtime. The UConn game really stands out in this regard: Rutgers did next to zip on offense but scored the decisive touchdowns on a fumble return and blocked punt.)

Otherwise, the skepticism here concerns the help the Knights needed from Carolina’s Joe Dailey and USF’s Matt Grothe, who threw two interceptions apiece that served to kill a potentially game-winning drive and set up a pair of easy field goals that provided the eventual winning margin, respectively, in games their teams otherwise might have won.

What’s most interesting, though, is what doesn’t appear on that chart, for both good and ill from the Rutgers perspective. Optimistically, aside from UNC in the opener, the challenges were mostly against good teams; lesser fare like Illinois, Syracuse and Ohio U. of Ohio and threatening fringe teams like Navy, Pittsburgh and Kansas State were handled fairly decisively, where the heavies (West Virginia and Louisville) were obviously in the grasp. This was the work of a legitimate, durable contender. In that light, every game on the schedule is within reach, and eight of them seem safe enough to be counted as relative givens, if not automatic.

On the flip side, Rutgers was handled decisively itself at Cincinnati, one of the real foundation-rocking games of the season, one that singlehandedly cut the gap between the middle of the pack and its ambitious stray to nil; given last year’s close calls, the six games against Navy, Maryland, Cincinnati, South Florida, UConn and Pittsburgh look dangerous enough in conjunction with obvious underdog situations against WVU and Louisville to threaten the Knights’ bowl status in the worst case.

That would be a stunning development, especially because Rutgers has the personnel back to continue doing the important things it’s done extremely well each of the last two years: offensively, the Knights can run on virtually anybody, even without a dangerous (or, like, mediocre) passing game to divert attention from Ray Rice, and defensively, they get after the quarterback like crazy. The chaotic hornet’s nest of random blitzing that so impressed with five sacks against Louisville has racked up 88 QB takedowns in two years, just four short of the same Cardinals for most in the country, and has produced ten games in that span with at least five sacks. Getting back Jamaal Westerman and Eric Foster in the pass rush is the equivalent of returning Rice and acclaimed tackle Jeremy Zuttah in the running game – those elements have consistently delivered at a high level and make Rutgers a very non-flukey threat at all times. This was the best defense by a mile in a defensive conference last year and should start this season with the same distinction until proven otherwise.

Britt: the Big East’s worst nightmare. Well, outside of West Virginia, anyway.
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What has dragged those contributions to earth, and makes the team still so vulnerable to so much of the schedule, is the completely spotty performance of Mike Teel. Nobody’s asking the kid to throw for a lot of yards, and he didn’t, but he wasn’t always all that much of a competent timely manner: in addition to leading the 96th-ranked passing offense, yardage-wise, Teel had a negative (12:13) TD:INT ratio and finished as one of the lowest-rated quarterbacks in the league. His contributions to the wins over Ohio, South Florida and UConn – against whom he collectively threw five interceptions and no touchdowns in low, low octane performances – might have come out in the negative at the end. His four-interception meltdown at Cincinnati was the main catalyst for that blowout.

And that was an improvement, actually, over his dreadful freshman relief effort (2 TD to 10 INT), which along with the late contributions of hyped freshman Kenny Britt (lanky late qualifier averaged 15 yards on 29 catches in a little less than half a season and took over the game at West Virginia) is reason enough for optimism that commenters are out pre-empting the inevitable skepticism. They have an argument: Teel as a sophomore, however mediocre the vast majority of the time, was a significant step up from Teel the freshman, and reasonably a prelude to a much-improved upperclassman with chops; the Cincinnati disaster, in fact, occurred in the midst of a minor passing renaissance that began with Louisville and corresponded with the addition of Britt:

Mike Teel Emerges, 2006
Comp. % Yds./Gm. TD INT Off. Scoring*
First 10 Gms. 52.4 144.3 7 13 17.5
Last 3 Gms. 65.2 230.7 5 0 38.0
(* – Discounting the team’s six defensive and special teams touchdowns and 56-point effort against Howard, because it’s Howard.)

That’s what Britt meant to Teel, and what a competent Teel meant to an offense that had been painfully one-dimensional all season. If Teel the junior is a holdover of the unsung Teel of December, Rutgers is a contender with no reservations. But probably only if he’s that.