Syracuse's rapid rise this season may have caught some people off guard, but not Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights saw firsthand what the Orange's potential was late last year when they got blasted 31-13 in the Carrier Dome in a surprise upset. That's why defensive tackle Charlie Noonan chuckled when asked what improvements he saw in Syracuse this year.
"They beat us pretty bad last year, so that's hard to say," he said. "They run the ball real well, and that's where it starts."
The Orange rushed for 213 yards in last year's win, mixing in some misdirection and option-style plays they hadn't shown before. Rutgers will be on high alert for any new wrinkles in Saturday's rematch, but right now the Scarlet Knights' defense just needs to get back to basics.
The defense and special teams have saved the day during a 4-4 start as the offense mostly has sputtered. But Rutgers is allowing 31 points per game in conference play, ahead of only Cincinnati. That includes 69 points allowed the past two games, both losses.
Each of the first three Big East opponents has had a 100-yard rusher, including Mo Plancher's 135-yard effort in last Wednesday's loss at South Florida. The Scarlet Knights rank last in the league with just seven sacks in eight games after finishing with 40 last year. They have only 47 tackles for loss after registering 113 in 2009.
"We're not making any excuses here," Noonan said. "It comes down to executing. Some of it's mental, but at the end of the day it's about being in your gap and tackling. We haven't done either well enough, obviously.
"We know what we're capable of doing. There's not much we can do except to play better."
Head coach Greg Schiano said he's not worried about the sacks total, which can sometimes be misleading, because his team is pressuring and hitting quarterbacks. But the low TFL numbers concern him, as does the defense's inability to create those third-and-longs that often lead to big plays and favorable stats.
He said fatigue could be playing a factor. That could be both emotional fatigue from the Eric LeGrand spinal injury situation, or just physical weariness since the loss of LeGrand has shortened the rotation on the defensive line. Schiano said redshirt freshman Michael Larrow would see more time up front to help the depth.
Like everybody else in the league, Rutgers remains alive in the Big East race, and returning to its home field for the first time since Oct. 8 should help. A home loss, though, would put a serious dent in any postseason hopes.
"We're at a turning point right now," Noonan said.
Things likely won't turn out well for the Scarlet Knights unless they're defense starts turning opponents back again.