PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — On the eve of training camp, Rutgers nose tackle Charlie Noonan made a bold prediction about the defense he captains.

“I think this is the most talented defense I’ve played on,” the fifth-year senior said. “I really do. We have a lot of chemistry, we’re a mature group with a lot of experience and we have a lot of guys that are really talented. I think this defense can be pretty special.”

Two games into the season, the Rutgers defense has been special.

Led by the strong play of senior Joe Lefeged, the Scarlet Knights have picked up where they left off last year and again are ranked in the top half of the Big East Conference in all 10 statistical categories, including first in both scoring and total defense.

After shutting out Norfolk State in a 31-0 victory, Rutgers forced five turnovers in a 19-14 win at Florida International on Saturday.

On Thursday, Lefeged was honored as the Jim Thorpe defensive back of the week after forcing two fumbles and recording an interception, six tackles and a pass breakup at FIU.

“Joe Lefeged has been a very productive player for us all as a three-year starter, now his fourth year,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “He’s a senior, he’s a captain, and you need your seniors to play their best football to win games like (FIU).”

The Scarlet Knights will get their first real test on Sept. 25 when North Carolina arrives at Rutgers Stadium.
“There are certainly a lot fundamental things we have clean up, but with this group we’ll get it cleaned up,” Schiano said. “I can’t say enough about their effort, but we just got a little bit out of whack in our technique in the second game. I think we’ll get back to playing the way we’re capable of.”

Not only has the defense helped Rutgers win the turnover battle with six takeaways, it has held its foes to a 3-for-25 conversion rate on third downs.

“If you win third down more often than not, you usually have a good chance to win because it means you’re getting your offense back on the field,” Schiano said.

Rutgers’ zone-blitzing, 4-3 defenses typically thrive on pressuring the quarterback, but this year’s unit has only recorded three sacks. Getting after the quarterback is something the defense will look to improve during its bye-week preparation, defensive end Alex Silvestro said.

“Right now we’re not really worrying too much about North Carolina,” Silvestro said. “Really it’s like training camp, working on our fundamentals and getting back to basics because points-wise I think we’ve done a good job but technique-wise and really just shutting down our opponent we’re not where we need to be. We’re never satisfied, but I think this bye week will help us get a little closer to the defense we’re capable of being.”

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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