After perhaps its worst defensive performance in 20 years, West Virginia will try to regroup against a Rutgers team with one of the nation's best big-play defenses.
The 25th-ranked Mountaineers visit the Scarlet Knights on Saturday, going for their 17th consecutive win in a series that may be about to go on hiatus.
West Virginia is potentially headed to the Big 12 to replace Missouri, but coach Dana Holgorsen's biggest current concern is the Big East race. The Mountaineers (5-2, 1-1) seemed like the favorites until a 49-23 loss at Syracuse last Friday, when they surrendered their most points since a 51-6 loss to Penn State in 1991.
Geno Smith threw two interceptions, one of which set up a touchdown, while the team also gave up a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
"It's quite simple," Holgorsen said. "Syracuse beat us physically on all three sides of the ball. They outplayed us and they outcoached us. It's as simple as that."
The Mountaineers were held to 70 yards rushing -- the fourth time in five games they failed to reach 100 yards.
Another growing concern is the defense. West Virginia gave up 31 points in a win over Maryland on Sept. 17 and 47 points to LSU a week later, and those teams -- along with Syracuse -- each rushed for more than 185 yards.
West Virginia ranks 22nd nationally in total defense, but the unit's inability to make big plays has been a problem all season. The Mountaineers, who have been held without a sack in four different games and without an interception in five, rank near the bottom of the FBS with nine takeaways.
"We have to regroup, we have to get back to the drawing board and the season is far from over," defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich told the school's official athletics website. "We'll see what happens."
The Mountaineers may need a far better performance out of their defense, with the offense facing a tough matchup against the surprisingly stingy Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers (5-2, 2-1) ranks ninth in the FBS in points allowed per game (16.0) and 20th against the pass, giving up 185.3 yards per game. It also leads the nation with 25 takeaways, including 15 interceptions.
Smith, however, has more weapons than any other offense Rutgers has faced. The Mountaineers rank fifth in the FBS with 374.4 passing yards per game, with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin combining for nearly 200 receiving yards per contest.
With the running game struggling, Holgorsen said the offensive line needs to do a better job of protecting Smith, who was sacked a season-high four times against Syracuse.
That could be especially key against Rutgers, which thrives off its opponents' mistakes.
"We know what they're going to do and that's pressure us," Holgorsen said. "We just have to handle it better."
Rutgers had won four straight before a 16-14 loss at Louisville last Friday. The Scarlet Knights, who went 1-6 in conference play last year, forced only one turnover while freshman quarterback Gary Nova threw three interceptions, including one with 1:41 remaining.
"It was uncharacteristic of us," coach Greg Schiano said. "We had opportunities to make plays but we just missed tackles."
Khaseem Greene anchors Rutgers' defense, leading the Big East with 66 tackles, while Duron Harmon is tied for the conference lead with four interceptions.
Schiano said the Mountaineers will be the toughest challenge yet for his defense.
"They have four wide receivers that are as good as we've played," he said. "Geno, the quarterback, is playing at a very, very high level. Offensive line is experienced. This will be a big test."
It's a test previous Rutgers teams have failed. West Virginia has won 16 straight in the series going back to 1994 by an average of 24.8 points, including a 35-14 win last year.
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After both teams lost last week, this is a must-win for each to avoid dropping to 1-2 in the wide-open Big East. The Mountaineers have beaten Rutgers 16 straight times. All four of Rutgers' victories in the series have come at home, including the last in 1994 (17-12). West Virginia is 18-2 all time against Rutgers in Big East play.
This Saturday Eric LeGrand -- former Rutgers football player -- will have another milestone in his road to recovery when he leads the Scarlet Knights on the field against Number 25 West Virginia. Just a year ago, he was paralyzed after making a tackle against Army. Since then, not only has he been taken off a ventilator but he's been able to stand with the help of therapists.