NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — Just as Dana Holgorsen is making the right moves in West Virginia, so too is Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, whose offseason reshuffling of the defense and recent decision to start freshman quarterback Gary Nova are reaping rewards.
The Scarlet Knights, along with the Mountaineers, are setting the early pace in an unpredictable Big East that’s already seen some head-turning results. They’ll soon be joined by the winner of this week’s matchup between host Cincinnati and Louisville as the only remaining teams without a loss in conference play.
The Scarlet Knights (4-1) are 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 2006 with a nonconference game looming Saturday against Navy.
Rutgers wasn’t on anyone’s radar when the season started, not after losing its last six games a year ago following the paralyzing injury to Eric LeGrand.
At the end of 2010, Schiano was fed up with his sluggish defense, so he moved several returning starters to other positions in the offseason to infuse more speed.
Justin Francis, who shifted from defensive end to defensive tackle, had a career-high eight stops, including two of the team’s six sacks, in a 34-10 dismantling of Pittsburgh last week. Safety-turned-linebacker Khaseem Greene posted 11 tackles to boost his team-high total to 45.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Logan Ryan had two of Rutgers’ four interceptions against Pittsburgh. He returned one of them for a touchdown.
Who’s sluggish now? The Scarlet Knights are giving up 15 points per game, 11th best in the FBS, and are tied with South Carolina with 22 takeaways, the most in the nation.
Nova snared his first start against Pittsburgh after rallying Rutgers in relief of Chas Dodd to a double-overtime win over Syracuse. Against the Panthers he threw for 174 yards and two touchdowns.
And don’t forget about Mohamed Sanu, the conference leader with 45 receptions.
“What I’m excited about is the way our guys have come together, the chemistry on our team,” Schiano said. “We had as tough a year last year as we’ve ever had around here. And for a lot of reasons. We’re not there yet, but I like the direction we’re heading.”
Circle Oct. 29 on the calendar, when West Virginia plays at Rutgers in a key game in the league title chase.
With the rise of Geno Smith as one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks, No. 13 West Virginia is well ahead of athletic director Oliver Luck’s early hunch that Holgorsen’s offense would need a year or so to take root.
It’s rooted, all right.
“I couldn’t be happier with where we’re at right now,” Holgorsen said. “We’re getting better every week. I’ve said it for a while, the only way we’re going to win the championship is if all three sides of the ball are improving every week. Coaches, players, everybody’s bought in.”
In 2010, 523 yards of offense was a season high under former coach Bill Stewart.
With Holgorsen, it’s a normal day’s work.
West Virginia (5-1, 1-0) is scoring in bunches, just as Holgorsen’s teams did before he was lured away from Oklahoma State. A lack of offensive production was one reason Holgorsen was hired as offensive coordinator last December. He was elevated to head coach after Stewart was forced out in June.
West Virginia has surpassed 43 points or more three times this season. It scored 40 only twice in Stewart’s three seasons.
Smith is third nationally with 2,159 passing yards and tied for sixth with 16 touchdown passes. Stedman Bailey has four straight 100-yard receiving games and teammates Ivan McCartney and Tavon Austin also are getting plenty of catches.
Holgorsen will be pressed to keep up the pace in a challenging second-half schedule in West Virginia’s quest to return to its first BCS bowl since 2007. West Virginia returns to play four of its final six conference games on the road against teams with a combined 21-11 record.
One overriding issue has been the offense’s inability to start fast. The Mountaineers have fallen behind early in all but one game and they even trailed FCS Norfolk State at halftime.
They’ve always responded with a spark, usually from Smith. On Saturday, West Virginia led Connecticut 10-9 at halftime before scoring 33 unanswered points. Smith finished with 450 passing yards and four touchdowns.
“The fact that we’re good in spurts is better than the alternative, I guess,” Holgorsen said. “There’s going to be adversity, which we’ve faced … and we’ve overcame it and we’ve moved on.”
The Mountaineers have a week off before traveling to Syracuse on Oct. 21. Holgorsen doesn’t believe his team’s challenges will be any different. West Virginia built a 24-point lead in its only road game at Maryland before holding on for a 37-31 win.
“Not only do we have to play good at home,” he said, “we’ve got to learn how to travel and go into somebody else’s place and do OK.”
If that happens, the Big East, which could use some good news with recent defections of football members, won’t be the only BCS conference without a Top 10 team.
(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)