Wednesday, September 22, 2010 Updated: September 23, 3:46 PM ET
Opportunity knocks for Rutgers vs. UNC
By Kieran Darcy ESPNNewYork.com
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Saturday afternoon, Rutgers has an opportunity to enter the national conversation.
The Scarlet Knights play their first big game of the season, versus North Carolina at Rutgers Stadium at 3:30 p.m. (airing on ESPNU). The Tar Heels were ranked No. 18 in the country in the preseason. They've lost two close games to open up the season -- versus LSU and Georgia Tech, both by 30-24 scores -- but North Carolina is still very talented and a formidable opponent.
Rutgers QB Tom Savage admitted to being nervous prior to an ugly win over Norfolk State in Rutgers' season opener.
"They're a good-looking football team," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said after practice Wednesday. "Wideouts are big, linemen are very big, running backs are good size. It's a physically gifted team."
A major factor in the Tar Heels' two season-opening losses was the fact that they were missing numerous players due to an NCAA investigation into agent-related benefits and possible academic misconduct. Thirteen players sat out the LSU game, and 12 of them sat out the Georgia Tech game as well -- including several NFL-caliber defenders, led by defensive tackle Marvin Austin, one of the top defensive players in the country.
Wednesday evening, the NCAA officially suspended North Carolina defensive back Kendric Burney six games and safety Deunta Williams four games for receiving improper benefits. The status of the 10 other players remains in question.
"We've got years of tape on them, so we've studied all those kids," Schiano said of the suspended UNC players. "Right now I just treat them as [if] they're injured, and so we're aware of them. And if they come back then we have to be ready to just give our guys ... a scouting report on their individual talents."
Rutgers, meanwhile, is off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 2007. But it hasn't been pretty. The Scarlet Knights struggled to score against FBS Norfolk State in their home opener Sept. 2, leading only 6-0 at halftime before wearing down the physically overmatched Spartans in the second half to win 31-0.
Then the Scarlet Knights had to come from behind to squeak past Florida International 19-14 in Miami on Sept. 11.
The defense has not been a problem. Through two games, it has allowed only 14 points. The special teams unit has been very good, blocking four punts in the season's first two games.
The offense, on the other hand, has not clicked into high gear yet.
Highly touted sophomore quarterback Tom Savage, who started every game but one his freshman season, has completed only 17 of his 34 passes, with one touchdown and one interception.
Savage admitted feeling more nervous than he'd ever felt before prior to the season opener against Norfolk State. But he sounded more relaxed and confident after practice Wednesday.
"I'm feelin' real comfortable [now]," Savage said. "I mean, this bye week really helped out, we really got to get our feet under us as an offense."
Starting running back Joe Martinek rushed for 109 yards on 20 carries against Norfolk State, but accumulated only 28 yards on 14 carries against Florida International. Martinek also injured his left ankle against FIU, and might not play Saturday.
"It's gonna be a game-time decision," Schiano said. "He's hobblin' around out there. I don't know, maybe it feels better when it comes closer to game time."
If Martinek can't go, highly touted freshman Jordan Thomas will likely start in his place. Thomas has 21 carries for 71 yards on the season.
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Rutgers' most effective offensive weapon right now is probably its Wildcat package, featuring wide receiver Mohamed Sanu behind center. Against FIU, Sanu tossed a 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end D.C. Jefferson from the wildcat formation. Sanu also carried the ball nine times for 44 yards.
"I feel more comfortable doing [the Wildcat], and I'm pretty happy with it," Sanu said Wednesday.
But Davis -- who used to be Schiano's boss, when he hired Schiano to be his defensive coordinator at the University of Miami in 1999 -- is well aware of Rutgers' Wildcat threat, and should have his team well-prepared for it.
"It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on a defense because of the versatility of the guy that they're snapping the ball to," Davis said on a conference call Wednesday. "[Sanu's] an excellent athlete, he has thrown a touchdown pass, he's got the ability to run one in. ... It's something that's been a good addition to their offense."
Rutgers will likely have to put up a rather large point total to beat North Carolina. As good as the Scarlet Knights' defense has been, they haven't faced an offense nearly as talented as North Carolina's. The Tar Heels have averaged 310 yards passing per game in their first two games, led by senior quarterback T.J. Yates.
Two years ago, Rutgers got drubbed by North Carolina, 44-12, at Rutgers Stadium. It should be closer this time around. If Rutgers ever found a way to win -- even with North Carolina missing all those players -- it would send a message to the rest of the Big East and the rest of the country that Rutgers must be reckoned with this season.
The Scarlet Knights have a golden opportunity to raise some eyebrows.
Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.More from ESPNNewYork.com »