Rutgers' run defense poses problems for Pitt
Thursday, October 15, 2009
By Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

running back Dion Lewis faces a Rutgers defense which has only allowed an average of 65.2 rushing yards per game this season.

It would have been hard for Rutgers not to improve defensively after its season-opening loss to Cincinnati. Not only did the Scarlet Knights give up 47 points -- the most they had allowed in six seasons -- but Cincinnati gained 564 yards.

The fact that Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike threw for 362 of those yards was difficult to watch, but what was more galling for coach Greg Schiano was the Bearcats' 168 rushing yards.

"Stopping the run is what we do here at Rutgers, so what happened was disappointing," Schiano said.

When Pitt travels to play at Rutgers tomorrow night, the Panthers will be facing a much-improved run defense. After four consecutive victories, the Scarlet Knights have climbed all the way to the top of the Big East Conference in that category. They are allowing an average of 65.2 yards per game after limiting their past three opponents to a combined 45 rushing yards, including "holding" Division I-AA foe Texas Southern to minus-25 yards on the ground in a 42-0 victory last week.

"In that Cincinnati game, we didn't play Rutgers defense," said Scarlet Knights linebacker Ryan D'Imperio, a preseason first-team all-Big East selection. "We've come a long way since that game. We've made a lot of adjustments, a lot of improvements."

One of the adjustments, D'Imperio said, was getting used to the increased crowd noise at the renovated Rutgers Stadium, which added extra seats in the offseason and now houses more than 53,000 fans on game days.

"We had a lot of miscommunication that first game because we couldn't hear," D'Imperio said.

The crowd does not figure to be any less raucous for Rutgers' first Big East game since the Cincinnati loss. Those fans -- and others who follow college football -- are eager to see whether the Scarlet Knights' improvements are for real, or if they merely came against a watered-down schedule that included Division I-A foes Howard and Texas Southern plus Florida International and Maryland, the worst team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Schiano knows he will have a better idea of how improved the run defense is after facing Pitt, which ran for 221 yards in its victory Saturday against Connecticut. Freshman running back Dion Lewis is second in the Big East with 123 yards per game.

"This week is a huge challenge," Schiano said. "Pitt is an experienced group. Their offensive line is playing as well as any offensive line in the country. They have not one, but two, good backs. They have good vision, speed, the whole deal. If it was just that, you could load up against the run and force the quarterback to beat you, but [Billy Stull] is playing as high from an efficiency level as anyone, and they have three of the better pass-catchers in the league. They're an explosive offense, and it's difficult to choose what to emphasize."

Rutgers has had Pitt's number in recent years, winning the past four meetings, including a 54-34 victory last season at Heinz Field. In those four games, Pitt has averaged just 76 yards rushing. In the 2005 game at Rutgers Stadium, the Panthers had minus-11 yards rushing in a 37-29 loss.

Rutgers is a difficult team to play because the Scarlet Knights blitz a lot and have their linebackers and defensive linemen constantly move before the snap.

"You have to handle it physically, but they force you to handle it mentally, too," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "You have to be sharp."

Pitt is only fifth in the Big East in rushing offense (166.5 yards per game), but Stull sees a growing confidence in the running game and the offense as a whole.

"I think Connecticut was No. 1 last week, and we kind of had something to do with [the Huskies falling to fourth in rush defense this week]," Stull said.

"That's another tribute to our guys up front. They got the game ball this week from them stepping up in the second half. We finished with 221 yards rushing. That's awesome."

[HIGH-LIGHT]NOTES [/HIGH-LIGHT]-- The Panthers practiced indoors yesterday due to the inclement weather. With rainy and cold conditions expected Friday night in New Jersey, Wannstedt said one day practicing outdoors was enough. "We were outside [Tuesday], had the wet balls. We'll do all of that stuff in here. The biggest thing we're looking for in a short week is being able to have well-executed practices. ... The Big East has extended its relationship with the Meineke Car Care Bowl through 2013. The Meineke Car Care Bowl gets the third selection from the Big East after the Champs Sports Bowl and the automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series for the conference champion.