2009 St. Petersburg Bowl Preview
Rutgers (8-4, 3-4; Big East) vs. Central Florida (8-4, 6-2; Conference USA)
December 19th, 2009 @ 8:00 PM (EST) – ESPN – St. Petersburg, Florida
The St. Petersburg Bowl enters its second year of existence after bursting onto the scene last year with a Big East-Conference USA showdown. In the first St. Pete’s Bowl, South Florida defeated Memphis by a 41-14 score. This season will again match the two leagues and Conference USA will hope to have a stronger showing in the 2nd time around.
Rutgers is coached by Greg Schiano, who is in his 9th year in charge of the Scarlet Knights. Schiano’s career record is only 54-54 but the past five years have produced a solid 42-21 record and five bowl berths. Heading into this game, Rutgers is 3-1 under Schiano in the postseason. 2009 was a somewhat disappointing season as their 3-4 Big East record fell short of many people’s expectations. However, Rutgers was still excellent during the middle of the year, reeling off a 7-1 record after an opening day blowout loss against eventual conference champion Cincinnati. Unfortunately, their year ended on a sour note with two losses in their final three games.
Rutgers’ offense had a tough year, finishing 60th in the country in scoring at 27.5 points per game. However, their true offensive standing was far, far worse: 75th in rushing and 95th in passing! Freshman Tom Savage started most of the season at quarterback, so it isn’t a surprise that Rutgers has had struggles. What is a surprise is their scoring average ranked that highly when they had serious issues moving the ball.
One explanation for their surprising scoring total was that Rutgers was 15th in scoring defense at 17.4 points per game, meaning that their offense was consistently put in good position. They were one of the country’s best teams against the rush (19th nationally) and against the pass (37 th). Their defense forced an amazing 32 turnovers and finished 13th in the country in sacks! Clearly, their defense was a driving force behind their success. However, Rutgers’ great year is best framed by this statistic: They have only turned the ball over 12 times and their +20 turnover margin is the best in the country.
Central Florida is led by George O’Leary, who is completing his 6th year in Orlando. His record at UCF is 34-40 and this is the 3rd winning season for the Knights during his tenure. However, in the previous two trips to the postseason, his team is 0-2 and his career bowl record is only 3-4. O’Leary was the coach at Georgia Tech for eight years and briefly was in charge at Notre Dame, leaving him with an overall record of 86-73. The 2009 edition of the Knights began the year in tough fashion, coming out of the gates with a 3-3 record that was marred by offensive struggles. However, UCF was excellent down the stretch, finishing 5-1 with the only blemish coming at National Championship-bound Texas.
Central Florida finished the year at 68 th in scoring at 26.3 points per game. That included lowly finishes at 73rd in rushing and 70 th in passing. That’s simply not very good. However, the Knights have shown strong improvement, averaging over 32 points per game during the second half, an average that would have been much higher were it not for a 3 point outing at Texas. The Knights especially relied upon sophomore tailback Brynn Harvey, who ran for 400 yards and 7 touchdowns in their final three games.
But the real strength of their team has been their 23rd ranked scoring defense that held opponents to 20.7 points per game. They were dominant up front, finishing 4th in the country in rush defense, one of only 12 teams to hold opponents to under 100 yards per game. But the biggest respect that can be shown to their run defense was their 112th ranked pass defense. When there is that much of a disparity between the two then you know that teams simply can’t run the ball. Finally, the Knights forced 26 turnovers on the year while ceding the ball 18 times. Their ability to force turnovers is impressive but their +8 turnover margin in only slightly above average and the Knights simply cannot afford turn the ball over against Rutgers’ extremely opportunistic defense.
A key ingredient in this game will be both teams’ motivation because on the surface they are very closely matched. Central Florida had a strong close to their season and will be thrilled to be playing so close to home and that seems to indicate a high level of excitement for O’Leary’s team. Meanwhile, I’m not so sure that Rutgers is really excited to be in this game after losing two of their last three and blowing a chance at a more prestigious bowl destination. Oftentimes, bowl games can be decided by which team really wants to be there and that edge seems to strongly favor UCF.
On the other hand, the Knights are more prone to turnovers and exploiting opponents’ mistakes has been Rutgers’ M.O. all season. However, in their final three games they actually lost the turnover battle and that could have been a major factor in their poor finish. That also seems to undermine their greatest strength heading into the St. Petersburg Bowl.
In the end, Central Florida appears to be playing better going into the postseason, has the stronger offense and isn’t as reliant on turnover margin to emerge victorious. Furthermore, UCF would seem to be more excited about this game and that’s a big advantage. Expect a low-scoring game that is won by Central Florida’s strong defense and ability to protect the football and the Battle of the Knights will belong to UCF.
St. Petersburg Bowl Pick: Central Florida 20, Rutgers 16
By: Matt Baxendell
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