Certainly every game on the schedule is a must-win. But there has got to be an even bigger sense of urgency for Rutgers and No. 25 West Virginia after they both lost last week.
Each has one conference loss, which puts them right in the thick of the wide-open Big East. After Saturday, though, one of these teams will have two league defeats. That will make it much more difficult to compete for a conference championship.
“Coach (Greg) Schiano stresses the Big East doesn’t have a Big East championship game so every game is like a championship,” Rutgers cornerback Logan Ryan said in a phone interview. “We’ve got to prepare that hard each and every week.”
Both teams played uncharacteristically in their losses last week. Rutgers (5-2, 2-1), one of the best teams in the nation in turnover margin, finished at minus-2 against the Cardinals after Gary Nova threw three interceptions.
The defense, which had 24 sacks going into the game, did not have any against an offensive line that has struggled big time. In fact, it was the first time all season that Louisville did not give up a sack.
That pass rush is going to have to be more consistent against the Mountaineers (5-2, 1-1), who gave up four sacks last week to Syracuse and failed to do a good enough job protecting Geno Smith. West Virginia could never get its high-powered offense going because Smith was constantly harassed.
That was a change, too. West Virginia went into the game having allowed just seven sacks in six games. Smith threw two costly interceptions that changed the momentum of the game. Four of his five interceptions this season have come in two losses to LSU and the Orange.
“It’s not only the pressure, it’s the hits and the quarterback pressures you get in addition to the sacks,” Schiano said. “Sacks aren’t always the most important thing. (Teddy) Bridgewater did a nice job of throwing the ball and not taking the big hit too many times. When you watch the Syracuse tape, they did a very good job of hitting the quarterback.
“When you have a great quarterback like Geno Smith, that’s going to be one element. You better mix up your coverages; you better mix up your looks. He’s one of the top quarterbacks in America and we really are going to have to be on our game to have any chance of slowing him down.”
Syracuse exposed some major weaknesses on the West Virginia defense as well. The Mountaineers got no pass rush, continuing a trend that has hurt this team throughout the season. The linebackers also did not have their best game. Quite frankly, nobody had their best game.
“We’ve got to play tougher,” West Virginia defensive lineman Julian Miller said in a phone interview. “There’s no excuse for anything we did out there in all three phases of the ball. That was made obvious and evident.
“You go into a game and you never expect to get out-toughened. Here at West Virginia, the whole identity of this school and this program is toughness. It’s not West Virginia football, and I think that’s what happened. We got away from playing tough, hard-nosed football and we got beat.”
Aside from seeing how both teams play up front, this game features three of the best receivers in the Big East in Mohamed Sanu of Rutgers and Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin of West Virginia. They are the top three Big East leaders in receptions per game and receiving yards per game, so slowing them down is obviously going to be a big part of the game plan for both teams.
Ryan said Bailey has come into his own as a receiver and is now a more complete player than he was a year ago. “That’s a great challenge for me and our defense as a whole, do our job to contain him,” he said.
The greatest challenge, of course, is for both teams to put last week behind them and try to move forward.
“We just have to execute our game plan,” Miller said. “If we don’t do that, then we could have another Syracuse on our hands. It’s all about us executing and being able to play our game and play West Virginia football.”