Fate in its hands, Rutgers eyes a Big East crown


Fate in its hands, Rutgers eyes a Big East crown

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) With three weeks left in the season, Rutgers is in the driver's seat in the Big East Conference.

The road is straight for first-year coach Kyle Flood and his program, one that has never won the league.

But if the Scarlet Knights (8-1, 4-0) win their final three games, they will capture the conference crown, a BCS bowl bid and complete a more than a decade-long revival that will see the birthplace of college football rise from a gridiron doormat to elite status.

The final steps won't be easy, though. Rutgers' schedule is back loaded with its three toughest opponents - Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1), Pittsburgh (5-5, 1-4) and No. 20 Louisville (9-1, 4-1), whose surprising 45-26 loss last week to Syracuse (5-5, 4-2) left the Scarlet Knights alone in first place.

``It's something that is always on our minds. Last year, we were one victory away from a Big East title, so we're not overwhelmed,'' cornerback Logan Ryan said. ``We've been there before with the pressure and we came up short. I think one thing we learned is that you have to come out to play every week.

``Keep chopping and you'll end up where you want to be.''

It starts this weekend in Cincinnati, a place that has never been very hospitable to the Scarlet Knights. They are 1-6-1 all-time there, with their only win coming in 1987.

Ironically, the last time Rutgers started 4-0 in the league was 2006. The fourth win was a nationally televised upset of then-No. 3 Louisville. The following week, the Scarlet Knights went to Nippert Stadium and were embarrassed by the Bearcats, 30-11. The title slipped away two weeks later when West Virginia beat the Ray Rice-led team in three overtimes.

While Pittsburgh isn't having the best of seasons, the Panthers recently took No. 3 Notre Dame to three overtimes before falling. And of course, it all could come down to the final weekend and Louisville, which has a bye this week.

Flood - given the job after Greg Schiano left in January for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL - isn't worried about his team losing focus staring at the big picture.

``I think when you are playing an opponent like we are this week, and again, I'll say it one more time - a team that has been able to call themselves the Big East champions three of the last four years - they have your attention right away,'' Flood said of Cincinnati, a program that went to BCS bowls in 2008 and 2009. ``There is nothing else on our mind this week other than trying to be 1-0 this week and executing our game plan against whatever game plan they show up with.''

There are a couple of other teams thinking the same way. Cincinnati and Louisville both have a chance at the title if Rutgers stumbles down the stretch, with Louisville having the inside track, having beaten the Bearcats.

Syracuse has an outside chance at the title, but it would have to finish tied for first with Louisville. For that to happen Rutgers would have to lose its final three games, Cincinnati would have to lose its last two after beating the Scarlet Knights this weekend, and Louisville would have to lose to Connecticut next weekend and beat Rutgers.

Louisville coach Charlie Strong isn't going to worry about what-ifs. He will sit back this week and watch Rutgers, knowing that the Cardinals will go the rest of the season without their leading rusher, Senorise Perry, because of a knee injury.

``I told them, `Guys, I know this. We go to Syracuse and we got our butt kicked in. Still though, you have to beat Rutgers to go win it.' So, your goal is still there,'' Strong said. ``Whatever is in front of us is still there. It's all about taking care of Connecticut. Let's not worry about Rutgers.''

For those who haven't seen them, the Scarlet Knights are reminiscent of the Virginia Tech Big East teams of the late 1990s. They are a fast, aggressive defense that is outstanding against the run and very opportunistic in getting their hands on opponent miscues.

Rutgers ranks in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense (fifth, 13.4 points per game), total defense (14th, 309.4 yards, pass efficiency defense (17th, 109.9 yards), rushing defense (17th, 110.0 yards) and pass defense (25th, 199.4 yards).

The special teams are among the best in the country, and have been for years. They have blocked a nation-best eight kicks this year - including two field goal attempts by Army last weekend- and 31 kicks since 2009, which also is best in the country.

The offense is the question mark despite the presence of running back Jawan Jamison (105.9 yards per game) and receiver Brandon Coleman, who has a league-high eight touchdown catches.

Sophomore quarterback Gary Nova has thrown 18 touchdowns but also has tossed eight of his 10 interceptions over the past three games, including a few that were just bad decisions. Against Army, it seemed that the offensive game plan was overly conservative to avoid mistakes and allow the defense to carry the team.

It remains to be seen if that will work in the final three games.

``We've been underdogs all year,'' said linebacker Khaseem Greene, the league's co-defensive player of the year in 2011. ``Everybody expects us to lose or wants us to lose. We're going to be the same Rutgers team that was the underdog when we went down to Arkansas or when we played all these other teams. I love the underdog role.''

All that said, the critics this year have at least a little to go on. Rutgers, after all, has played just one FBS team with a record over .500 - Kent State of the Mid-American Conference - and lost to the Golden Flashes, 35-23, on homecoming in Piscataway. Last week, Rutgers was tied 7-7 with Army (2-8) in the fourth quarter.

But Nova isn't worried. He's got a job to do, and skeptics aside, he knows Flood is in his corner as the Scarlet Knights seek out history.

``He told me that no matter what happens this year, I'm going to be his guy and I'm going to be his guy for the next three years,'' Nova said. ``Having that out of your mind in the game is just huge and takes a lot of weight off my shoulders.''

If there is an intangible for Rutgers down the stretch, it might be Flood. He is a player's coach that has carried on the culture and brand of Rutgers Football that Schiano cultivated.

``People may not believe us, but we believe we can win every game on our schedule,'' Ryan said. ``Coach Flood believes in us. Coach Flood is not afraid to talk about winning a championship. That's what we're trained for, so we're not afraid to go out there and say we expect to win the Big East Championship.''

Cavaliers clamp down on Pitt

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Cavaliers clamp down on Pitt

PITTSBURGH -- No. 1 Virginia allowed just seven points in the first half and secured the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title outright with a 66-37 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Freshman guard De'Andre Hunter came off the bench to lead the Cavaliers (26-2, 14-1 ACC) with 14 points in a game that didn't take big offensive efforts from Virginia's regulars. Of the five starters, only guard Ty Jerome exceeded his season average with 13 points.

The game was never competitive, as Virginia started on an 8-0 run and Pitt didn't make a field goal until Jared Wilson-Frame hit a 3-pointer at the midway point of the first half.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett rested most of his regulars in the second half. Reserve Nigel Johnson added 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting.

Parker Stewart led Pitt (8-22, 0-17) with 12 points, all on 3-pointers. Pitt had next to no presence inside. The Panthers were outscored 28-8 in the paint and out-rebounded 36-24. Seven of Pitt's 11 made field goals were from beyond the arc.

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

The Caps could not shake Buffalo for two periods, but a dominant finish on Saturday helped them pull away for a 5-1 win. Here's how they finally put away the Sabres.

A quick start

Strong starts go a long way towards helping a team in the middle of a slump. It's a confidence boost for a group in desperate need of one and the Caps got that boost on Saturday from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov used his wheels to zip in behind the defense and score just 50 seconds into the game. Washington led 1-0 at the end of the first, just the second time in 19 games they have held a lead after the opening 20 minutes.


Andre Burakovsky snapping a second period slump

It looked in the second period like the Caps were caught trying to protect the lead again, but Andre Burakovsky woke the team back up with his incredible highlight end-to-end goal. It really looked like Buffalo was going to tie the game at one, but instead, Burakovsky extended the lead to two. Going end to end the way he did shows a player who is starting to play with some confidence, something Burakovsky has lacked for much of the season.

Ovechkin's two-goal third period

Buffalo would not go away. Sam Reinhart got the Sabres on the board just 14 seconds into the third period and suddenly the Caps found themselves in a one-goal game again. But Ovechkin ended any hopes for the comeback as he struck in the top corner of the net on the power play from the office. He would later add a deflection goal to extend the lead to 5-1, giving a scuffling Washington team the dominant win they so sorely needed.