It has been less than a decade since Rutgers was a Big East doormat while Syracuse was reaching a bowl nearly every year.
But the roles have been reversed, and the 25th-ranked Scarlet Knights will be trying to send the Orange to a ninth consecutive league loss while winning their fourth straight game overall as they visit the Carrier Dome on Saturday.
Between 1987 and 2001, Syracuse played in 12 bowl games while Rutgers did not reach the postseason, but coach Greg Schiano has built the Scarlet Knights into a solid program while the Orange have fallen upon hard times.
Rutgers (7-2, 2-2) is almost certain to advance to a bowl for a school-record fifth straight year, especially after an impressive 31-0 win over then-No. 23 South Florida last Thursday vaulted the team back into the rankings.
“It’s awesome,” freshman quarterback Tom Savage said. “That’s all you can say about it. It’s a great feeling, but we have three games to work on right now and that’s what we are doing.”
While losses to Big East unbeatens Cincinnati and Pittsburgh early in the season all but removed the Knights from the conference title race, Rutgers has won 14 of 16 dating to last season, including a PapaJohns.com Bowl win over North Carolina State.
In the most recent victory, Savage threw two touchdown passes and sophomore running back Joe Martinek racked up 128 yards and a score. But it was a defense that forced four turnovers and held the Bulls to a season-low 159 total yards that put together the best performance.
Rutgers hadn’t blanked a Big East opponent since beating Temple 62-0 on Oct. 2, 1993, and it took extra satisfaction after South Florida had talked about gaining revenge after losing the previous three games to the Knights.
“To come out here and play like that and get a win like that after guys were saying this and saying that - we just kept saying that’s not what we’re about,” cornerback Devin McCourty said. “We’re not going to talk about what we’re going to do. We’re just going to prepare and come out and play.”
Since struggling to slow down Cincinnati in its opener, Rutgers has allowed an average of 11.6 points and forced 28 turnovers in its last eight games, tied for the most takeaways in the nation in that stretch.
Three road victories in 2009 have also extended the Knights’ road winning streak to five dating to last season, and they’ve won four straight against Syracuse, including lopsided victories in their last two visits to the Carrier Dome.
That does not bode well for the Orange (3-7, 0-5) who need to beat either Rutgers or UConn next week to avoid a winless season in conference play. Syracuse, which has gone 1-6 in the Big East each of the last three years, last failed to get a conference victory in 2005.
The Orange have been among the most turnover-prone teams nationally, with 25 giveaways - including 14 interceptions by quarterback Greg Paulus.
Paulus, the former Duke basketball player, was 12 of 16 for just 89 yards and an interception in a 10-9 loss at Louisville on Saturday as Syracuse lost despite yielding just 151 total yards.
“We’re still going out there to win games, not to give people experience for next year,” first-year coach Doug Marrone said. “It’s not next year until the last game is over. The way people are getting experience now on this team is through injury. We always played to win. I think that’s what you do at Syracuse.”
The Orange have lost six players for the season to injury in the last two games, and top receiver Mike Williams unexpectedly quit the team two weeks ago.
Among the team’s bright spots lately has been running back Delone Carter, who will try for a third straight 100-yard game.