Talented Rutgers not a pushover

By Derek Barichello

For many years, autumn in Piscataway, N.J., has meant painful football seasons for the Scarlet Knights, clinching only one bowl bid in its program’s history – but with 16 starters and 17 seniors returning from a 4-7 campaign last year – they have their minds set on clinching number two.

Changing that trend starts Saturday at noon for the Knights, when they kick off their season at Memorial Stadium against the Illini.

Fifth-year head coach Greg Schiano would love to crash Ron Zook’s opening day party.

“We’ve had a good training camp,” Schiano said. “Opening up with a victory at Illinois will be the final exam for week one.”

The Knights are poised to do so. Returning quarterback Ryan Hart, who threw for a school-record 3,154 yards last season, should keep the Illini defense on its heels.

Joining Hart is an offensive arsenal that includes three All-Big East selections; junior fullback Brian Leonard, senior wide receiver Tres Moses and junior tight end Clark Harris.

Leonard provides the biggest threat out of the backfield. He led the Knights in rushing in 2004 with 753 yards on 199 carries and added 61 catches for 518 yards, making him a versatile back and hard to contain.

Moses is Rutgers go-to receiver, leading the team with 81 receptions for 1056 yards last fall.

“They are talented and experienced,” Zook said. “Their quarterback (Hart) is their leader.

“I saw something a few weeks ago that said they are having a quarterback battle. To have a guy throw for 3,000 yards and have a quarterback battle is a good thing to have. He can run. He’s a poised guy. He’s been here and done that.”

Although not as strong as its offense, the Knights return talent on defense.

The strength of the Knights defense is its line, led by senior defensive end Ryan Neill, who recorded eight sacks last season, with the weakness coming at the secondary. Freshmen Courtney Greene and Glen Lee are set to start their first college games at safety for Rutgers.

“Their defense plays with motors,” Zook said. “They chase the ball. They are very experienced and battle-tested. It will give us a good opportunity to see where our program is.”

Junior center and Manasquan, N.J., native, Matt Maddox, said the turnaround for the Rutgers program has come from recruiting.

“They are recruiting more nationally,” Maddox said. “They are getting the guys, who usually left Jersey.”

The result has Rutgers picked sixth to finish in the Big East conference this season.

On Saturday, one of the biggest challenges the Knights face is not having any game film on the Illini since Zook took the helm. Schiano said knowing what to prepare for on Saturday was an obstacle.

“Since we don’t have anything, we really have to get ready for everything,” Schiano said. “We can put together the puzzle, but we won’t have a clear picture until game day.”

One of the pieces to the puzzle is Zook’s no-huddle, spread offense, which Schiano feels they will be prepared for come game day.

“We have a lot to prepare for defensively,” Schiano said. “With the spread offense, there is a misconception that it is throw, throw, throw. We’ve played West Virginia, who plays a similar offense, so we feel we have some experience with that.”

Since there was no game film on Zook’s Illini, Schiano decided to not share their own game film with the Illini, breaking the traditional practice of opponents exchanging each other’s game film.

“In his shoes, I would’ve done the same thing,” Zook said. “All they have on us is tape from Florida. It would be an advantage to us if we got the tapes on them.”

Rutgers might not have film on the Illini, but what they do have is former running backs’ coach Robert Jackson, who served as the Illini’s wide receivers’ coach under Ron Turner last fall.

“The biggest thing he can help them with is that he knows the personnel,” Zook said. “He knows their speed and how they react.”

The Knights have won four of its last five season openers, including last year’s surprise upset of Michigan State, 19-14. Schiano said he would like to make it a Rutgers tradition to open the season with a victory over a Big Ten opponent.