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Real rebound or paper tiger? Answer comes Friday for Rutgers

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Just 30 minutes into its 2009 season, Rutgers' high hopes disappeared like that Russian mobster who escaped through the snowy woods in the famous "Sopranos" episode. The Scarlet Knights trailed Cincinnati 31-7 at halftime of the opener en route to an eventual 47-15 humiliation.

Since then, Rutgers has won four straight, but it hasn't exactly faced a murderer's row. In fact, the schedule has been more like a malodorous row: Howard, Florida International, Maryland and Texas Southern. Combined record of those four: 6-15.

There might not be a more suspect four-game winning streak in the country. And so the obvious question facing the Scarlet Knights this Friday night against Pittsburgh is, did they put cement shoes on that opening-week performance? Or have the last four games been merely a mirage produced by crummy competition?

"I don't know where our best is going to put us in relation to Pitt," coach Greg Schiano said. "I just hope we can play our best and find out where that stacks up."

Here are some reasons to believe Rutgers has turned a corner.

True freshman Tom Savage took over the reins of the offense in the second half of the Cincinnati game and has provided a steady hand. After season-opening starter Dom Natale threw three interceptions in the first half of that game, the Scarlet Knights haven't had a pick yet. The offensive line has stabilized with the addition of Desmond Wynn at right guard.

"I think we took tremendous strides in getting better," Savage said. "I feel like we're more comfortable out there with the whole scheme and we're more comfortable with our teammates."

The defense, after getting shredded in Week 1, now looks more like a Schiano-coached defense. It has created four defensive scores in the four victories and has gained 16 total turnovers.

"They're playing as good a defense right now as anybody in our conference," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They're definitely doing things as a football team that are a heck of a lot better than they were in Week 1."

Now here are some reasons for skepticism.

While Savage has avoided turnovers, the passing game is nowhere near as productive as it was a year ago. Rutgers is seventh in the Big East with 181 passing yards per game, and Savage is completing just 56 percent of his passes. This will be his first Big East start.

The running game has put up decent numbers, but you would expect the Scarlet Knights to bulldoze weak FCS opponents like Texas Southern and Howard on the ground. Schiano says the running game lacks consistency. And no matter how good the stats are, there's no getting around that they were compiled against wildly inferior teams.

"I think we've improved," Schiano said. "But we still have a long way to go."

The biggest sign for optimism, actually, may be the next opponent.

Rutgers has never lost to a Wannstedt-coached team and will get the 5-1 Panthers at home. Remember last year, when the Scarlet Knights were 2-5 and struggling mightily to score points. Then they went to Pitts on Oct. 25 and scored a stunning 54-34 rout that spurred a dominating run the rest of the season.

"They've always had their way with us, so I'm sure they're looking forward to this game," Wannstedt said.

Rutgers receiver Tim Brown sees a turnaround similar to last season happening. He said the team had a meeting after the Cincinnati loss where the players "said a couple of things to each other, came together and started playing fast and playing hard." Confidence only increases after four straight wins, no matter who they come against.

Now it's time for the Scarlet Knights to prove whether that confidence is warranted.

"We're ready to show people what the real Rutgers is all about," Brown said.