Louisville-Rutgers Leads Big East Football Finale

The college parade of championship football starts tonight in Jersey when Rutgers hosts Louisville (7:30 PM ET, ESPN) in a battle for the Big East’s BCS bid. The matchup is somewhat ironic—given the realignment announcement of recent days, I’ve heard it joked that this game is really an extension of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge that’s been going on in basketball. But it’s the Big East football championship on the line tonight and that’s just the start of a big weekend in this league, with shares of the title and bowl bids on the line along with the BCS slot. So let’s begin with TheSportsNotebook’s preview of tonight’s Louisville-Rutgers game.

Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is as dynamic as they come and he’s been prolific all year long. In five of six Big East games, Bridgewater has cleared the 300-yard mark and twice gone over 400. He operates at high efficiency, completing 69 percent and his passes, while having only thrown six interceptions all year. He makes big plays, averaging nearly nine yards per attempt and tossing 23 touchdown passes. And if you think you’ll stop him by taking away a favorite receiver, think again—while DeVante Parker might be his favorite target, Bridgewater shares the wealth with Damian Copeland, Andrell Smith and Eli Rogers.

The Cardinals’ running game took a hit when Senorise Perry was lost for the season with a knee injury, but Jeremy Wright already helped share the load in the backfield and is capable of keeping it going. But this area is still the problem with the Louisville offense. In the Cards’ recent losses to Syracuse and UConn, Louisville has been shut down on the ground. Furthermore, they are being beaten on the ground defensively, with backs like Syracuse’ Jerome Smith and UConn’s Lyle McCombs having big days. Even one of their best wins—a 34-31 overtime triumph over Cincinnati—saw them give up big yardage on the ground.

Rutgers is an offense ideally suited to attack this defense, relying heavily on the ground game. For most of the year it was Jawan Jamison, who churned out 100-yard games with efficiency until an ankle injury slowed him up in recent weeks. Jamison is listed as probable for tonight, but even if he’s not, Savon Huggins took the ball and ran with it—literally—in going for 179 yards in a Rutgers win at Cincinnati two weeks ago.

There’s no reason to think the Scarlet Knights aren’t going to have success on the ground—the key will be whether it’s simply success—which Louisville might be able to live with—or complete and utter dominance, which they would not overcome. Let’s set 200 yards as a team as a benchmark to watch with Rutgers tonight.

Gary Nova is the Rutgers quarterback and while he won’t say he’s the exact opposite of Bridgewater, he’s at least opposite enough for Rutgers fans to be concerned. On my Monday podcast at Prime Sports Network, host Greg DePalma is a New Jersey native and Rutgers fan and has completely given up any hope for his team winning this game, based solely on Nova.

I see where the mindset comes from. In spite of playing on a run-oriented team that plays great defense, Nova has thrown 13 interceptions—not only is that more than twice as many as Bridgewater, but it comes in completely opposite systems. How many picks would Nova throw if his team had to rely on him the Louisville has to rely on Bridgewater? Rutgers fans fear the answer. Nova threw six interceptions in a loss to Kent State and he really hasn’t played a notable game since lighting up Arkansas back in September. With the Rutgers quarterback our benchmark number is two—if he throws fewer interceptions than that, his team’s going to win. More than that, they lose. If it’s two picks on the dot, we’re going to the wire.

Both teams come into this game on a low note. Louisville lost to UConn in triple overtime last week, a game where Bridgewater fractured his non-throwing hand. He’s going to play tonight, but we’ll have to see if it has any negative impact. Rutgers no-showed at Pitt. In both cases, the Cardinals and Scarlet Knights were probably looking ahead to this game and in both cases they lost to an opponent who was fighting for their bowl eligibility, but in Louisville’s case their softness against the run was obvious and Rutgers’ play was so poor in all areas that it was simply alarming on its face.

The winner of this game secures the conference’s automatic bid to the BCS and it’s looking like that bid would be to the Orange Bowl to face the ACC champ (the Florida State-Georgia Tech winner on Saturday night). Rutgers is a three-point favorite on their homefield, an indication that oddsmakers see these teams as essentially even.

Normally I would pick Rutgers without hesitation—I like teams that run the ball and play defense over teams that overly reliant on a great quarterback and that’s what this matchup boils down to. The wild-card is Nova—most teams that run the ball and play great defense don’t have quarterbacks with interception issues. I’m still picking Rutgers, but with a little bit of trepidation—the kind of trepidation that means if I were in Las Vegas tonight, I wouldn’t actually go to the window on this one.

If Louisville wins it sets up a tie for the conference championship—though the Cardinals will be ranked higher in the BCS and get the major bowl spot. Rutgers has already assured itself of at least a share of the title. Syracuse, whose season is complete, would also get a piece of hardware should Louisville win. And in that event, Cincinnati could also play its in to the four-way tie of teams at 5-2.

Fans outside these schools might not care about anything beyond the BCS bid, but for the programs, getting a trophy still matters and that would add to the drama of Saturday’s Cincinnati-UConn game in Storrs (3:30 PM ET, ABC). UConn is playing to qualify for a bowl, and later on Saturday night, Pitt is doing the same thing when the Panthers visit South Florida (7 PM ET, ESPN2).

The Big East will not fill its bowl commitments unless both UConn and Pitt win, so it’s fair to say there are fans in the Sun Belt, WAC and MAC conferences, who have bowl-eligible teams , but no place to put them, will be rooting hard for Cincinnati and South Florida.

We’re in the midst of what boils down to a last hurrah for Big East football, at least in terms of competing for major bowl games. This weekend’s games, starting tonight with Louisville-Rutgers, will be a worthy conclusion.