NCF Nation: Marcus Cooper
TAMPA, Fla. -- You saw ugly, but you also saw relentless.
You saw mistakes, but you also saw beauty.
This has been the story of the Rutgers season so far, and it replayed itself that way again Thursday night against USF in a game that featured as many head-scratching plays as head-turning plays. What was definitive in the 23-13 win over USF: The Scarlet Knights have a championship defense.
Its offense? Well, that remains to be seen.
What helps, of course, is having a workhorse back such as Jawan Jamison, who had a school-record 41 rushing attempts for 151 yards as Rutgers kept pounding away at what was supposed to be one of the better defensive lines in the Big East.
What helps, of course, is to have your quarterback manage the game the way Gary Nova did. For every two great passes he threw, he had a clunker. He overthrew receivers, underthrew receivers and has not quite gotten the deep ball down. But note: Nova had no interceptions, and made several critical third-down conversions on second-half drives that pulled Rutgers from behind.
What helps, of course, is playing a team in USF that Rutgers has dominated. Quarterback B.J. Daniels fell to 1-3 against the Scarlet Knights, and looked just as flustered Thursday night as he did when he played against them as a freshman in 2009 in a 31-0 loss.
Daniels threw three interceptions -- two on tipped balls. Five days after leading his team to a comeback win with an unbelievable 56-yard touchdown pass to Andre Davis in the closing seconds, Daniels had an opportunity to sprinkle some Nevada magic in Florida.
Down 16-13 with 2:48 left, USF got the ball at its own 35. Daniels threw complete on first down to Davis, easily his favorite target.
Third down: incomplete.
Fourth down: incomplete.
“You find a way to stay in this man’s head, keep him running around making some throws where they weren’t the greatest throws,” said Rutgers safety Wayne Warren, who had one interception. “Just stay after him. We’re an attack defense. We’re going to come after you. I think every team knows that. We practice it and preach it and try to do well at it.”
USF, of course, has had terrible luck on Thursday nights, falling to 0-9 on this particular day as Big East members. When asked about the voodoo, USF coach Skip Holtz answered, “I believe the curse was we turned the ball over five times.”
The Bulls, a veteran team many expected to make a serious run at a Big East title, have now lost nine of their past 10 conference games. This was same ol', same ol' USF on full display.
But truth be told, this team had no business being in the game in the fourth quarter.
Rutgers had the edge in turnover margin, time of possession, first downs and plays. But the Bulls tied everything up at 13 with 9:23 remaining thanks to a huge 32-yard play from Daniels to Derrick Hopkins down to the goal line -- on a ball that Marcus Cooper nearly intercepted.
Demetris Murray punched the ball in from the 1-yard line, and all of a sudden momentum seemed to be swinging back to the Bulls despite all their mistakes. You should note on this drive, Rutgers was called for two false starts in a row on third down, and this explains why USF hung around until the very end.
No matter how great Rutgers has looked on defense, its offense has sputtered at times, and penalties have been a major issue. Rutgers had 11 for 85 yards against USF, bringing its season total up to 31 penalties in three games.
Despite these mistakes, Rutgers did enough to win. With less than 2 minutes to play Jamison iced the game with a 41-yard rushing touchdown, featuring a nifty spin move, and yes, the name Ray Rice was invoked more than once. Can this team be as good as the 2006 version?
“To make comparisons this early in the year is dangerous,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “This football team has done a nice job in the first three games, getting better in each game. The formula is our Rutgers formula. We want to run the football, which hopefully will create some one-on-ones in the passing game. That was our formula in ’06. That was our formula last year. Maybe we didn’t do it as well at times last year. I don’t think I’m ready to make those types of comparisons yet, but I do think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Flood may not want to make those pronouncements. But his defense is already there, if the first three games of the season are any indication.
Nobody has rushed for 100 yards on this team. Nobody has scored more than 13 points. This D has allowed two total touchdowns in three games.
“This defense is playing really great,” Warren said. “A lot of us are confident, but at the same time, we’re just ready to work. We’re happy with the win, but it doesn’t stop here for us.”
Jones dropped two other would-be interceptions earlier in the game, but the fact he was in position to make those plays speaks to how far he's come since last season, when he played with a fractured tibia. Now, the fifth-year senior is hoping to close his college career by helping his school accomplish a program-first: win a Big East title.
How nice was it to reach the end zone Saturday?
Did you remember the feeling from high school?
BJ: Yeah, I remember it. It's nothing compared to high school; it's such a bigger stage. But I was happy to be able to help my teammates and help us win that game.
Did it make up for a couple of the earlier close calls?
BJ: I try not to say it made up for it because I was just playing the game like I'm told to do: Come down with the ball and hopefully next time I'll be able to get it. But yeah, I would just say that it was a much-needed play and it helped the team and it kind of did make up for the ones I did drop.
You revealed this week that you played through last season with a fractured tibia. Why?
BJ: I played because I knew my team needed me, and as long as the doctors and everybody said I was able to go, that's what I was going to do.
How much did that hurt?
BJ: It hurt a lot, it hurt a lot. It was very painful. I would not wish it upon anybody.
What part of your game did it limit the most?
BJ: I would say I wasn't able to break as fast as normal, and speed-wise, I couldn't get going as fast as I would like to. But that helped me mentally, because I had to get smarter in my game and I had to be there that much more mentally, because physically I wasn't as capable as I usually am.
When did you suffer the injury?
BJ: It happened during the summer. It initially started in the summer, and it progressively got worse, and by camp it was fractured.
What was the offseason recovery like?
BJ: I went into surgery with Khaseem Greene. We had surgery on the same day. And after that we just kind of grinded together in the training room and just made sure that we were doing the right things to get back as quickly as possible. And then once spring ball hit and I was able to go and I realized I was going to be back to myself, it was a good feeling.
How do you feel now?
BJ: I'm 100 percent. I'm ready to go.
Marcus Cooper has made strides in the past year. How have you two pushed each other?
BJ: Marcus is doing a great job right now and we're really close friends. We're best friends. We compete all the time. Not just on the field -- we're always together off the field. We're always competing with each other, so whether it's at the cornerback position or playing video games or while we're at the apartment, we push each other to try to make each other the best at everything.
How has Kyle Flood put his stamp on this program so far?
BJ: Coach Flood's doing a tremendous job, and I hope people could realize that on Saturday because you can tell guys are out there playing for him and flying around, playing fast. And that's what we need to do if we want to reach our ultimate goal, which is a Big East championship. So he's doing a great job and he's keeping everybody focused on what the goal is.
Looking forward to coming home Saturday?
BJ: Yeah, it was good to land back here in Jersey and practice here all week. And it should be exciting on Saturday. Hopefully we'll have a good turnout. I'm excited to see the fans show their support.
You've been there awhile. Any bucket list for this last hurrah?
BJ: Oh that's an easy one, a Big East championship. That's the goal. And it would be great to end this season with that trophy with my brothers, with my senior class I came in with, and that's what the whole summer was for. We worked to pursue that goal and we're still working to get that goal now.
2. West Virginia. Keith Tandy returns after making first-team All Big East last season, though the Mountaineers have to replace Brandon Hogan, a second-team selection. They do have an experienced player in Pat Miller set to take over, with Brodrick Jenkins and Brantwon Bowser providing depth as well.
3. USF. The Bulls have to make up for the loss of Mistral Raymond, but have plenty of experienced players back in Kayvon Webster, Ricardo Dixon, George Baker and returning starter Quenton Washington. West Virginia gets the nod ahead of USF because of Tandy.
4. Syracuse. Both starters are gone in Mike Holmes and Da'Mond Merkerson. Kevyn Scott and Keon Lyn are penciled in to start. Scott has experience, while Lyn has plenty of potential. The problem is depth. Walk-on Joe Nassib is listed as a backup. Early enrollee Jaston George needs to show big improvement in the fall.
5. Pittsburgh. Coach Todd Graham has talked up K'Waun Williams and fifth-year senior Buddy Jackson after both had good springs. Antwuan Reed missed spring with injury but should be fine for the season, giving the Panthers three players with the potential to have a good year. The problem is that Williams is inexperienced and Jackson has failed to live up to expectations. Reed was inconsistent last season, too.
6. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights lose their best cover cornerback in Brandon Bing, and David Rowe moved to safety. Both starting jobs are up for grabs. On the post-spring depth chart, Logan Ryan and Marcus Cooper were battling for one spot and Brandon Jones and Mason Robinson for another. Robinson moved over from receiver. Jordan Thomas also is in the mix after moving from running back.
7. Cincinnati. The Bearcats were pretty dismal in the secondary last season. They return everybody, and Dominique Battle should be back from a knee injury that cost him most of the season. Still, they need to tackle better and become more aggressive to help this unit improve.
8. Louisville. The Cardinals have major problems at cornerback. They lose starters Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns, and Darius Ashley is suspended indefinitely following his second DUI arrest. Jordan Paschal, Anthony Conner and Preston Pace are in the mix. Freshman receiver Charles Gaines was moved here in the spring to provide some relief. But this is a major area of concern.
- Pittsburgh quarterback: Pitt may well be the preseason Big East favorite, but the Panthers have to figure out their quarterback situation first. Sophomore Tino Sunseri came close to winning the job in a heated three-way battle last year and settled in as Bill Stull's backup. Pat Bostick, however, has improved his mechanics and has won big games in the past. This should be a good competition that might not be settled until the fall.
- Louisville quarterback: Three players -- Justin Burke, Adam Froman and Will Stein -- all started games under center for the Cardinals, and none of the trio distinguished himself as heads and shoulders above the rest. Whoever wins the job in the spring might not necessarily be the guy in the fall, as new coach Charlie Strong is bringing in some promising freshmen quarterbacks as well.
- South Florida running back: Skip Holtz has suggested he'd like to have a real No. 1 tailback, something the Bulls haven't had in a long time. Mike Ford had a huge game against Northern Illinois in the International Bowl and may finally be ready to assume that go-to-guy role as a senior. Sophomore Lindsey Lamar will push for the job, as well as possibly Jamar Taylor and several newcomers.
- Rutgers receiver and cornerback: Like last year, the Scarlet Knights go into the spring with one proven wideout (this time, Mohamed Sanu) and a bunch of question marks. It's time that someone from the group including Julian Hayes, Tim Wright, Keith Stroud and Marcus Cooper separate himself. At corner, Rutgers needs a replacement for Devin McCourty. Will a guy like Brandon Bing step forward, or will one of two redshirt freshmen -- Darrell Givens and Logan Ryan -- make a move in the spring?
- Cincinnati's defensive front seven: With a new coaching staff and probably a change back to a 4-3 scheme, the Cincinnati players have basically been told they're back to square one this spring. Add to that fact that both defensive ends and two starting linebackers were seniors this past season, and there are a lot of jobs up for grabs. The constants appear to be defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, linebacker JK Schaffer and Walter Stewart, who could either play linebacker or on the line. After that, it's one big competition.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Fear not, Big East football fans. In less than a month, South Florida will be back on the practice field, with the rest of the league teams starting their spring drills shortly afterward.
There will be no shortage of situations to follow during the spring. There's a new head coach at Syracuse, new coordinators almost everywhere and no fewer than five teams seeking a new quarterback.
We've got all the story lines covered here in our team-by-team spring primer:
Spring practice starts: March 31
Spring game: April 25
What to watch:
• Defense, defense, defense. Safety Aaron Webster is the only returning defensive starter from 2008, so this spring will be about finding out who's ready to step into bigger roles. Several backups have experience, including linebacker Andre Revels and defensive end Curtis Young. But all jobs should be open. And with this week's firing of defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, the Bearcats could be working under a new scheme.
• Cincinnati brings back quarterback Tony Pike, receiver Mardy Gilyard and its top two rushers in Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel. But the spring will be time to find new playmakers as well. Isaiah Pead averaged 6.6 yards a carry in limited duty as a freshman and should see his role increase. The bubble wrap will come off promising redshirt freshman Quentin Hines. Receiver D.J. Woods had a solid freshman season and will need to build upon that to help replace Dominick Goodman.
• You don't normally pay much attention to punters in spring practice, but this is an exception. The Bearcats have to find a suitable replacement for two time All-American Kevin Huber.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final 20 Duke 7 1 Florida State 45 Final 2 Ohio State 24 10 Michigan State 34 Final 5 Missouri 42 3 Auburn 59 Final 17 Oklahoma 33 6 Oklahoma State 24 Final 7 Stanford 38 11 Arizona State 14 Final 25 Texas 10 9 Baylor 30 Final 16 UCF 17 Southern Methodist 13 Final Utah State 17 23 Fresno State 24