2012 SEASON IN REVIEW:It almost happened last season. Rutgers came so close. However, in the end the Scarlet Knights came up short in their bid for their first ever outright Big East title. That doesn't mean the season wasn't a good one. Under first year head coach Kyle Flood, who took over for Greg Schiano, Rutgers finished the season 9-4, was named co-conference champions along with Louisville and Syracuse, earned a bowl bid and even spent some time in the national rankings.
Rutgers came blazing out of the gate and ripped off seven straight victories to start the season, including an impressive 35-26 win on the road against Arkansas. By playing dominating defense Rutgers also took care of its first three conference foes by an average of 16.3 points per game including a 35-10 rout of Temple.
However, the good times came to a screeching halt when Rutgers lost at home to Kent State (35-23). A pair of wins against Army (28-7) and at Cincinnati (10-3) were nice rebounds and kept Rutgers well within reach of the outright league title. Rutgers needed just a win against Pittsburgh to secure the crown, but lost 27-6 setting up a huge showdown with Louisville in the last game of the regular season. Rutgers led 14-3 at halftime but some costly turnovers in the second half led to a 20-17 loss.
Due to the loss to the Cardinals, Rutgers missed out on the Big East's BCS bowl bid. Rutgers still earned a bid to the Russell Athletic Bowl but a 13-10 loss to Virginia Tech in that contest ended a season that started so well on a three game slide.
A 29 at Fresno State S 7 vs. Norfolk State S 14 vs. Eastern Michigan S 21 vs. Arkansas O 5 at SMU O 10 at Louisville O 26 vs. Houston N 2 vs. Temple N 16 vs. Cincinnati N 21 at UCF N 30 at Connecticut D 7 vs. South Florida
OFFENSE: QB Gary Nova WR Brandon Coleman OT Kaleb Johnson OT Andre Civil OG Antwan Lowery C Betim Bujari
DEFENSE: DE Marcus Thompson DE Jamil Merrell LB Jamal Merrell S Lorenzo Waters
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Kyle Federico
OFFENSE:The coaching ranks at Rutgers got shaken up again this season but not at the top spot. Instead it is at offensive coordinator, where Ron Prince will be taking over. Prince was a former offensive line coach in the NFL for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts most recently.
The enigma that is Gary Nova will bring back experience at quarterback but it remains to be seen how much of a positive that will be. At times last season Nova looked poised and efficient but he also showed some bad habits. Nova threw for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns, while completing 57 percent of his passes. However, he threw 13 interceptions in the last six games, including two in the last five minutes of the loss to Louisville. Prince and the rest of the Rutgers staff will hope Nova shakes off that slump this year.
The most exciting player on the offensive side of the ball for Rutgers is undoubtedly Brandon Coleman. The sizable receiver stands at a staggering 6- foot-6 which makes him a lethal threat in the passing game especially around the end zone. Coleman hauled in 43 passes for 718 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and should be collecting all-conference honors this year.
Coleman's head coach has even higher expectations for the talented wideout.
"(Coleman) as a wide receiver (is) somebody who I think will be one of the premier players but not just in our conference but in the nation," Flood said.
The rest of the receiving corps is less exciting, although Quron Pratt (22 receptions, 230 yards) has some experience.
While Nova and Coleman bring consistency in the passing game the Scarlet Knights will be in desperate need to fill the spot left by workhorse Jawan Jamison. Jamison rolled up 1,075 yards last season, showing great toughness. The hope is that Savon Huggins (410 yards) can fill his shoes. The rest of the stable of backs is made up of a number of inexperienced players.
The left side of the offensive line has the experience any team would envy. Both left tackle Kaleb Johnson and left guard Antwan Lowery will be back as is center Betim Bujari. Andre Civil will anchor the right side from the tackle slot, while Taj Alexander gets the first chance to fill in at right guard.
DEFENSE:This is the area in which Rutgers excelled last season. While the offense was competent, Rutgers absolutely punished opposing squads defensively. Rutgers ranked 10th in the country in total defense (311.6 ypg) and fourth in scoring (14.2 ppg). The Scarlet Knights were especially strong against the run, ranking sixth nationally in that category (97.2 ypg).
Replicating that type of production will be a tall order for this year's rendition. Gone are Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene and a number of other strong performers such as Steve Beauharnais.
"We've played high-level defense at Rutgers for a long time. And we've done it with a lot of different people," Flood said, while acknowledging there are big holes to fill. "At linebacker , we lost two great players but we are fortunate to have a young man like Kevin Snyder who is also here, who will help bridge the gap."
Snyder (30 tackles, 7.0 TFL) wasn't a full time starter last season but he has plenty of experience.
The more likely candidate to replace Greene as the heart of the defense and the linebacking corps is senior Jamal Merrell. Last season Merrell was third on the team with 83 total tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. Merrell and Snyder will man the outside spots which leaves the middle open for freshman Steve Longa who has the unenviable task of literally replacing Greene.
The secondary has also been diluted with losses of Logan Ryan (4 INTs, 21 passes defended) and Brandon Jones (5 INTs). Safety Lorenzo Water (68 tackles) is the only returning starter in the group that will field sophomore Tejay Johnson and freshman Ian Thomas. Converted wide receiver Jeremy Deering will also get time in the secondary, specifically at safety.
Continuing the trend of losing talent, Rutgers won't have one of its top pass rusher from a year ago with Scott Vallone (12.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) gone. However, the unit up front may be where Rutgers has the most returning skill. Jamil Merrell had a team-high 5.5 sacks last season and Marcus Thompson, also a defensive end, has starting experience.
SPECIAL TEAMS:Kyle Federico suffered a hip injury last season that limited his kicking duties. Nick Borgese filled in and knocked in 5-of-8 field goal attempts. Federico should be the primary option but Borgese can certainly stand in if need be. Nick Marsh is a senior that will take over for Justin Doerner, who handled every punt attempt last season.
In the return game Deering was a solid kick returner (24.3 yards per return) and will be the primary specialist there. Miles Shuler returned a single punt last season for 23 yards. Flood will be looking for more of that after last season's primary punt returner, Mason Robinson, averaged just 4.8 yards per return.
OUTLOOK:Outside of Coleman there is not much star power on either side of the ball for Rutgers. Flood will still have this team ready to go, especially on defense which makes navigating through the 2013 schedule a task that will involve a number of grinding battles.
A trip to face Fresno State will be the first of those tests as Rutgers heads west to open the season on August 29. Rutgers then plays three straight games at home highlighted by a rematch with Arkansas. Rutgers will get a shot at conference favorite Louisville early in the year with a road trip to face the Cardinals in the second conference game of the season. After Louisville, Rutgers has another three-game homestand including a showdown with Cincinnati. Trips to UCF and UConn close out November, while a home game against South Florida wraps up the campaign.
Rutgers ended last season with a 2-4 record in the second half. Much of the blame there can be placed on the regression of Nova. This time around the defense won't be able to keep the offense propped up. That means Nova needs to improve and Coleman needs to take another step toward his phenomenal potential. Without such help Rutgers might be headed back towards the middle of the conference pack.
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor