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A BCS bid is up for grabs on Thursday night.
When the Big East released its 2012 schedule, many circled the Nov. 29 date between Rutgers and Louisville as a matchup that could decide the conference title. And after 11 games and several twists and turns this season, it’s no surprise the Cardinals and Scarlet Knights meet with a trip to a BCS bowl on the line.
After opening this season 9-0, Louisville has been headed in the wrong direction with back-to-back losses. The Cardinals dropped a 45-26 matchup at Syracuse on Nov. 10 and lost 23-20 to Connecticut in three overtimes last Saturday. Rutgers relinquished full control of the Big East title after a 27-6 road loss at Pittsburgh last week, which was also its first defeat in conference play this year. The Scarlet Knights also lost to Kent State 35-23 in late October.
These two teams have played 11 times, with Rutgers holding a 7-4 edge in the series. Louisville has won the last two matchups but has lost four out of the five contests at Rutgers.
And a game preview about Rutgers-Louisville wouldn’t be complete without a mention about conference realignment. With both teams slated to leave the Big East in 2014, after next season’s matchup, who knows when these programs will meet again on the gridiron.
When the Louisville Cardinals have the ball:
The health of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the biggest wildcard for Thursday night’s game. The sophomore suffered a broken wrist on his non-throwing hand and a sprained ankle in last week’s loss to Connecticut. Bridgewater is expected to play but is obviously less than 100 percent. The Cardinals will have to make some changes on offense, as Bridgewater will be unable to take snaps from center.
With Bridgewater battling injuries, Louisville’s supporting cast needs to step up. With Senorise Perry sidelined for the rest of the year with a torn ACL, Jeremy Wright will be the No. 1 back. However, Wright managed only 43 yards in last week’s loss to Connecticut and faces a Rutgers defense allowing just 110.7 rushing yards per game.
In addition to jumpstarting the rushing attack, Louisville’s offensive line can’t afford to allow many hits on Bridgewater. The Scarlet Knights are averaging just 1.6 sacks per game, but the Cardinals’ front five ranks sixth in the Big East in sacks allowed this year.
If Bridgewater gets time to throw, he should have opportunities to make some plays against Rutgers’ secondary. The Scarlet Knights allowed 419 passing yards against Arkansas and 356 to Syracuse, which happened to be the best offenses this defense has faced this year.
With a receiving corps that features solid options like DeVante Parker, Eli Rogers, Damian Copeland and Andrell Smith, the Cardinals have a chance to throw for over 300 yards on Thursday night.
When the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have the ball
After scoring at least 20 points in seven out of its first nine games this year, Rutgers’ offense has been stuck in neutral the last two weeks. The Scarlet Knights managed just 10 points against Cincinnati and recorded only six points against Pittsburgh.
Despite the recent struggles, a matchup against Louisville’s defense could be what Rutgers’ offense needs to get back on track. The Cardinals rank seventh in the Big East in rush defense and fifth in total yards allowed. The Scarlet Knights are averaging only 341.4 yards per game, but the matchups favor opportunities for success.
Running backs Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins have been a solid one-two punch this season, with Jamison leading the team with 1,004 yards. Considering Louisville’s struggles against the run, Jamison and Huggins should be able to find plenty of room on Thursday night.
Louisville leads the Big East in pass defense but has allowed 19 passing scores and opposing quarterbacks are completing nearly 60 percent of their passes (58.5 percent). Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova has not topped more than 186 passing yards over the last three weeks and has tossed at least one interception in each of his last five games. Although Nova hasn’t played well in recent weeks, the playmakers are in place for a bounce back performance. Brandon Coleman is a big-play target, averaging 15.2 yards per catch and scoring nine times this year. Mark Harrison, Tim Wright and tight end D.C. Jefferson are also reliable options in the passing game for Nova.
With a Big East title on the line, expect both teams to have a little extra motivation for Thursday night’s game. Louisville has to prevent Bridgewater from taking too many hits, while finding ways to establish a ground attack that has been missing the last two weeks. Rutgers has the better defense, while its offense should be able to move the ball on the ground against the Cardinals’ front seven. The stats say Rutgers but here's a hunch Louisville snaps its two-game losing streak with a huge road victory.
Prediction: Louisville 24, Rutgers 20
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