Rutgers' defense is championship-caliber

TAMPA, Fla. -- You saw ugly, but you also saw relentless.

You saw mistakes, but you also saw beauty.

This has been the story of the Rutgers season so far, and it replayed itself that way again Thursday night against USF in a game that featured as many head-scratching plays as head-turning plays. What was definitive in the 23-13 win over USF: The Scarlet Knights have a championship defense.

Its offense? Well, that remains to be seen.

What helps, of course, is having a workhorse back such as Jawan Jamison, who had a school-record 41 rushing attempts for 151 yards as Rutgers kept pounding away at what was supposed to be one of the better defensive lines in the Big East.

What helps, of course, is to have your quarterback manage the game the way Gary Nova did. For every two great passes he threw, he had a clunker. He overthrew receivers, underthrew receivers and has not quite gotten the deep ball down. But note: Nova had no interceptions, and made several critical third-down conversions on second-half drives that pulled Rutgers from behind.

What helps, of course, is playing a team in USF that Rutgers has dominated. Quarterback B.J. Daniels fell to 1-3 against the Scarlet Knights, and looked just as flustered Thursday night as he did when he played against them as a freshman in 2009 in a 31-0 loss.

Daniels threw three interceptions -- two on tipped balls. Five days after leading his team to a comeback win with an unbelievable 56-yard touchdown pass to Andre Davis in the closing seconds, Daniels had an opportunity to sprinkle some Nevada magic in Florida.

Down 16-13 with 2:48 left, USF got the ball at its own 35. Daniels threw complete on first down to Davis, easily his favorite target.

Second down: incomplete.

Third down: incomplete.

Fourth down: incomplete.

Ball game.

“You find a way to stay in this man’s head, keep him running around making some throws where they weren’t the greatest throws,” said Rutgers safety Wayne Warren, who had one interception. “Just stay after him. We’re an attack defense. We’re going to come after you. I think every team knows that. We practice it and preach it and try to do well at it.”

USF, of course, has had terrible luck on Thursday nights, falling to 0-9 on this particular day as Big East members. When asked about the voodoo, USF coach Skip Holtz answered, “I believe the curse was we turned the ball over five times.”

The Bulls, a veteran team many expected to make a serious run at a Big East title, have now lost nine of their past 10 conference games. This was same ol', same ol' USF on full display.

But truth be told, this team had no business being in the game in the fourth quarter.

Rutgers had the edge in turnover margin, time of possession, first downs and plays. But the Bulls tied everything up at 13 with 9:23 remaining thanks to a huge 32-yard play from Daniels to Derrick Hopkins down to the goal line -- on a ball that Marcus Cooper nearly intercepted.

Demetris Murray punched the ball in from the 1-yard line, and all of a sudden momentum seemed to be swinging back to the Bulls despite all their mistakes. You should note on this drive, Rutgers was called for two false starts in a row on third down, and this explains why USF hung around until the very end.

No matter how great Rutgers has looked on defense, its offense has sputtered at times, and penalties have been a major issue. Rutgers had 11 for 85 yards against USF, bringing its season total up to 31 penalties in three games.

Despite these mistakes, Rutgers did enough to win. With less than 2 minutes to play Jamison iced the game with a 41-yard rushing touchdown, featuring a nifty spin move, and yes, the name Ray Rice was invoked more than once. Can this team be as good as the 2006 version?

“To make comparisons this early in the year is dangerous,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “This football team has done a nice job in the first three games, getting better in each game. The formula is our Rutgers formula. We want to run the football, which hopefully will create some one-on-ones in the passing game. That was our formula in ’06. That was our formula last year. Maybe we didn’t do it as well at times last year. I don’t think I’m ready to make those types of comparisons yet, but I do think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Flood may not want to make those pronouncements. But his defense is already there, if the first three games of the season are any indication.

Nobody has rushed for 100 yards on this team. Nobody has scored more than 13 points. This D has allowed two total touchdowns in three games.

“This defense is playing really great,” Warren said. “A lot of us are confident, but at the same time, we’re just ready to work. We’re happy with the win, but it doesn’t stop here for us.”