Preparation, chemistry fuel Rutgers' success

Joe Lefeged learned the value of preparation last year while playing next to Rutgers' star safety Courtney Greene.

"He could diagnose plays before they even started, based on what the offensive lines was doing or how the receivers were lining up," Lefeged said. "He was calling out plays before they even happened on the field."

Greene has moved on to the NFL, but his kind of meticulous preparation has continued. Lefeged, a junior strong safety, has learned how to do many of the things Greene excelled at, while senior cornerback Devin McCourty has become perhaps not only the team's best defensive player, but its leader.

"Devin gets us together at night to watch film after meetings, and that really helps in practice," Lefeged said.

McCourty, who's staked his claim as the Big East's top cornerback this season, also draws high praise from head coach Greg Schiano.

"I think he prepares incredibly hard, and I am talking one of the top five I have been around, either college or pro," Schiano said Monday. "He works very hard at it and practices very hard. Every day he goes out there, he is playing a football game in practice. So then it is no mystery that when he gets in the games, he makes plays."

The Scarlet Knights' defense may lack a lot of household names, but in typical Schiano fashion, it is developing into one of the toughest in the league as the season wears on. That showed in last week's 31-0 win over South Florida, as the Bulls were held to just 159 total yards. Rutgers created four turnovers and had seven sacks in that game.

The defense held down the fort early in the year when the offense was searching for its legs under true freshman quarterback Tom Savage and some new receivers. Now the offense is beginning to come around for the 7-2 Scarlet Knights, helping make a strong finish possible.

For the season, the Scarlet Knights are allowing just 15.6 points per game, though some of that is a result of a weak schedule. The number that's most impressive, regardless of opposition, is the 29 takeaways, which ranks second best in the nation. That figure includes 13 interceptions, which ought to give pause to this week's opponent, Syracuse. The Orange, with Greg Paulus still learning the ropes, have thrown more interceptions (15) than all but four teams in the FBS.

So is the Rutgers defense licking its chops to go after Paulus?

"We don't really look at it like that," said Lefeged, who has an interception and two forced fumbles this year. "We look to make turnovers and force fumbles against whoever we go against. Any given quarterback can light it up."

You can count on the Scarlet Knights to be well prepared for Paulus, however. Lefeged said this is the first year since he's been on the team that the entire defensive unit comes in on its own to watch film together. He credits excellent unity and chemistry as the reasons for the defensive success.

"We're jelling together as a team," he said. "And it's starting to show right now."