Rutgers, Cincinnati winning with defense

The two worst teams in the Big East last season are now among the two best.

How has it happened for Cincinnati and Rutgers?


Both teams feature aggressive, opportunistic units that have made huge strides defending opponents, and that is a big reason each team has gone from 4-8 in 2010 to 4-1 at the midway point of the season. A quick check of the stats show how far both defenses have come.

Last season, Rutgers and Cincinnati were the two worst defenses in total defense, scoring defense, pass efficiency defense and sacks. Cincinnati was the worst team in the league in turnover margin.

Now? Rutgers is No. 1 in scoring defense; Cincinnati is No. 3. Rutgers is No. 2 in total defense; Cincinnati is No. 4. The Scarlet Knights lead the league with 20 sacks. Cincinnati is third with 17.

And the two teams lead the nation in turnover margin. Rutgers has 22 takeaways -- tying the total amount from 2010. Cincinnati is second with 18 takeaways -- four more than all of last season.

Rutgers has gotten so many solid performances from so many of its players, coach Greg Schiano demurred when asked for an MVP.

"The group," Schiano said. "The thing that I really enjoy most about coaching these guys is there is an unselfishness about us. That is the MVP."

There are a few big reasons Rutgers is playing well on defense. Schiano began moving players around the defense to help get more speed on the field.

Among the most significant moves -- Justin Francis to defensive tackle; Khaseem Greene to weakside linebacker; and David Rowe to safety. Greene is in contention for Big East defensive player of the year, as he averages nine tackles a game. Francis leads the league with 4.5 sacks. Rowe has two interceptions this season.

Schiano, whose background is on defense, is now calling the plays for the first time since 2008. Linebacker Steve Beauharnais said that has had a huge impact. At the beginning of training camp, Schiano showed a tape to his entire defense that essentially set the tone for what he wanted out of them.

The tape showed animals in the wild hunting for food. Specifically, Beauharnais remembers seeing lions taking down zebras as their prey. Schiano used it as an analogy for his players -- they needed to be relentless in pursuit of what they wanted. In their case, that meant going after the ball and their opponent.

"At first I was like what does this have to do with football?" Beauharnais said in a phone interview. "But when he stopped to explain it, everybody got the picture. You see us all swarming, attacking. We are real aggressive, and we are always running to the ball."

Schiano also stressed the need to play as one before every practice during training camp. He would hold his two hands far apart, then join them together in a fist. That was his way of showing his players how they needed to come together.

"We've always been friends, but I don't think we've ever been this close," Beauharnais said. "Everybody talks to everybody, and everybody hangs out with everybody. It's like a family."

The mentality has been much the same at Cincinnati. Coach Butch Jones has stressed becoming a more physical team. In fact, there are signs hanging up in the locker room that say, "Live Toughness Daily."

That has shown. The Bearcats have used an aggressive defensive front to help them set the tone in their games. Dan Giordano and Derek Wolfe have four sacks each, and Wolfe is third in the league with seven tackles for loss. In their last two outings, they have held their opponents to negative rushing yards.

What has helped has been the return of all 11 starters on defense. They have gained another year of experience, which means they are another year more mature, and another year more responsible to each other.

"The overall maturity and bond that our team has now is really starting to come into effect," Cincinnati linebacker JK Schaffer said. "Even when the offense isn’t putting points up on the board sometimes, we’re not saying, 'What is the offense doing? They need to put some points on the board.' No we’re like, 'OK, let’s go out there and play.' The whole mindset changed. Our team had to grow up. We were immature last year, a little resistant to some of the things we were doing. Now that the team’s grown up, we’ve accepted our jobs and responsibilities. Coach Jones talks about indisputable role understanding and guys are doing that."