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December 18, 2009
St. Petersburg Bowl: Rutgers vs. UCF
MORE: Bowl schedule
While Saturday night's St. Petersburg Bowl doesn't have a marquee matchup, don't tell the schools involved the game isn't a big deal.
This will be the fifth consecutive bowl for Rutgers but just the sixth bowl in the school's history -- and remember that Rutgers played in the first college football game, in 1869. UCF, meanwhile, is in just the third bowl in its history. This appearance comes about two hours away from the school's campus in Orlando.
Rutgers is one of just nine Big Six teams to have won a bowl game in each of the past three seasons.
While the teams are happy to be in the postseason, there have been some travails in the past week. Rutgers' preparation time was squeezed in around the players' exam schedule; exam week ended Friday for Scarlet Knights players.
Things have been much tougher for UCF coach George O'Leary; his younger brother, Terry, 62, died of cancer Dec. 11 and George attended memorial services early this week on Long Island. George O'Leary gave the eulogy for his brother, who had been a lawyer.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Rutgers run offense vs. UCF run defense: Sophomore Joe Martinek, who is steady but certainly not a star, is Rutgers' leading rusher. He had four 100-yard games, but only one (128 vs. USF) came against a legit opponent. He averages 76.9 yards per game, but that dropped to just 45.4 in the Scarlet Knights' four losses. Freshman WR Mohamed Sanu can be an effective runner out of the "Wildcat" formation. UCF is fifth in the nation in rush defense, allowing 82.5 yards per game. The Knights allowed just four teams to rush for more than 100 yards and held Miami to 70 and Texas to 67. But UAB carved up UCF to the tune of 205 rushing yards. Most of that was by Blazers QB Joe Webb, so keep an eye on how UCF defenses Sanu in the "Wildcat." UCF has solid linebackers, headed by Cory Hogue.
Rutgers pass offense vs. UCF pass defense: Savage had an OK freshman campaign, but he is coming off probably his worst game -- a 9-for-27, 153-yard, two-interception outing in a loss to West Virginia. He should do just fine in this one if Rutgers is able to establish the run. But Rutgers coaches have to be worried about what will happen if Savage has to throw for Rutgers to win. UCF has a good pass rush, and the Scarlet Knights' offensive line has been a sieve at times this season. Sanu and Tim Brown, a Florida native, are the only Rutgers receivers with more than 13 catches. Brown has the speed to get deep, and Sanu is a solid middle-of-the-field threat who is physical and has deceptive quickness. UCF's pass defense numbers aren't that good, but that's partially an offshoot of teams having to throw because they couldn't run. True freshman CB Josh Robinson is a big-timer; he has six interceptions and is second on the team with 65 tackles. Miller and fellow E Jarvis Geathers have combined for 23 sacks, and both come flying off the edge.
UCF run offense vs. Rutgers run defense: Sophomore Brynn Harvey has been solid for UCF, rushing for 1,077 yards and 14 touchdowns. He carries a streak of three consecutive 100-yard games into this bowl -- but he also was going against some bad defenses (Houston, Tulane, UAB) in that stretch and scored half his season total of touchdowns in that trio of games. Rutgers has good rush-defense numbers, but Syracuse, Army, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and West Virginia had big days on the ground against the Scarlet Knights. There is no true defensive standout, but there is an active linebacking corps. Expect coach Greg Schiano and his defensive staff to throw some run blitzes at UCF.
UCF pass offense vs. Rutgers pass defense: Senior QB Brett Hodges, who transferred home to Orlando after leaving Wake Forest, played well in his only season with the Knights. He threw for at least 230 yards in each of the last three regular-season games, but again, was that because the offense is clicking or the opposing defenses were pitiful? While Hodges threw five TD passes in the last three games, he also threw four picks. UCF has a nice receiving corps; there isn't a go-to star, but the group still has been effective. Kamar Aiken has seven TD catches and is a deep threat. Rutgers' secondary was torched by Cincinnati -- nothing wrong with that -- but also by Connecticut and Maryland. Rutgers has 13 interceptions, by 11 players. Senior CB Devin McCourty -- also a special teams star -- is the guy to watch in the secondary. Putting pressure on Hodges will be up to Jonathan Freeny, who is from Tampa, which is across the bay from St. Petersburg; he leads the team with 8.5 sacks, but 4.5 of them came against FCS foes. Six of his 10 quarterback hurries also came against FCS foes.
Rutgers special teams vs. UCF special teams: Scarlet Knights K San San Te has been busy this season, attempting 26 field goals. He made 17 but was just 2-for-8 from 40 yards or more. P Teddy Dellaganna has had a good season, and Rutgers' coverage teams also have been good. Sanu has been mediocre as a punt returner, but McCourty and SS Joe Lefeged each have a kick return for a touchdown. Rutgers has blocked six kicks this season, including five punts. UCF's return teams have been solid, the coverage units excellent. Freshman KR Quincy McDuffie has one return for a touchdown this season. K Nick Cattoi has an OK leg but lacks consistency; he was better from beyond 40 yards (5-for-7) than he was between 30 and 39 yards (3-for-6). P Blake Clingan doesn't have a strong leg, but he gets good height on his kicks and has dropped 23 inside the 20.
Rutgers coaching staff vs. UCF coaching staff: Schiano has made Rutgers football relevant nationally, and he deserves a ton of credit for that. Still, while this season's 8-4 mark looks good, the Scarlet Knights didn't play a tough schedule and finished 3-4 in the Big East. His staff has undergone a lot of shakeup in the past few years and still is coming together. He has co-coordinators on both sides of the ball. O'Leary has UCF in a bowl for the third time in five years. His defense-first approach is rare in Conference USA, but when he has had a competent offense, his teams have been tough to beat in league play. Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable is a veteran assistant and his ideas mesh well with O'Leary's.
X-factor: UCF should enjoy a sizeable crowd advantage, as Tropicana Field is about two hours from UCF's campus in east Orlando. If Rutgers struggles early -- which wouldn't be a surprise, seeing as the Scarlet Knights finished exams Friday -- the crowd could become a huge factor for UCF.
Rutgers will win if: It's simplistic but true -- the Scarlet Knights need to run effectively to keep pressure off Savage; they also need to stifle Harvey. Rutgers enjoys a big size advantage along the offensive line of scrimmage, so the Scarlet Knights need to show they can run the ball right at UCF. Defensively, they can't let Harvey get untracked; if Hodges can use play-action, he will hurt Rutgers' secondary.
UCF will win if: The first priority is to crowd the box in an effort to stop Martinek. Rutgers isn't going to win if Savage has to throw it 25-plus times. The Scarlet Knights will have trouble protecting him from UCF's quick defensive ends. The lower the point totals, the better it will be for UCF.