PITTSBURGH (AP)—There’s nothing deceptive about a Rutgers offense that gives the ball to Ray Rice on nearly every other play. Trickery isn’t a necessity with a runner like Rice.
Rice’s 63-yard run set up his own short touchdown in the fourth quarter immediately after Pittsburgh had closed to within three points, and the No. 19 Scarlet Knights won their first big test of the season by beating the Panthers 20-10 Saturday.
Rice carried 39 times for 225 yards to nearly outgain Pittsburgh by himself and put Rutgers in position to make a major move up the AP poll if it can beat No. 6 Louisville at home on Nov. 9—as long as it beats Connecticut on Oct. 29. Rutgers (7-0, 2-0) hasn’t been unbeaten so deep into a season since 1976, when it was ranked as high as No. 17 but played mostly against Ivy League-type competition.
“It feels good,” said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, whose team also has No. 4 West Virginia still to play. “It puts us in position to keep moving forward.”
Pitt (6-2, 2-1 Big East) had won four in a row and likely would have made the Top 25 with a victory. But a Panthers offense averaging 37.6 points did almost nothing against a Rutgers defense that was No. 1 nationally in scoring defense and No. 2 in total defense.
The Knights did what they do best: Run the ball, control the clock and get the ball back quickly when they did give it up. They sacked Tyler Palko four times and limited what was the nation’s most efficient quarterback—Palko had 17 touchdown passes and three interceptions—to 169 yards passing. Rutgers outgained Pitt 340-236, 268-67 on the ground.
Rutgers has one of the worst passing offenses of any nationally ranked team. With a runner like Rice and a defense like this, it hardly mattered.
“We put ourselves in bad downs and distances, and you can’t do that against a good football team,” Palko said. “We didn’t play well enough to win a big game and they did.”
Rice, a sophomore who already has four career 200-yard games, was the difference as the nation’s No. 4 rusher went over the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in as many seasons—he now has 1,124 yards. After Pitt had drawn to within 13-10 on Palko’s 8-yard pass to Oderick Turner early in the fourth quarter, Rice broke up the middle on the 63-yard run to the Pitt 27 that quickly swung the momentum back to Rutgers.
“That thing, it just parted, it just split and I had a burst and that was it right there,” Rice said.
Two plays later, Rice ran off another 20 yards, then scored from the 2 a play later to again put the Knights up by two scores.
Right before the big run, Schiano came to Rice and asked how good he felt because, coach told player, “We’re going to ride you.”
“I told him I was good,” Rice said. “He said I looked fresh, and I told him I was going to get stronger as the game went on.”
Rutgers beat Pitt in successive seasons for the first time in school history. Pitt had won 19 of 22 in the series before losing 37-29 last season at Rutgers as Rice ran for 114 yards.
“Big players make big plays in big games,” Pitt star cornerback Darrelle Revis said of Rice’s pivotal run. “We couldn’t bounce back from that.”
Rice joins a growing list of recent-era 200-yard rushers against Pitt that includes West Virginia’s Pat White, Virginia Tech’s Kevin Jones and Notre Dame’s Julius Jones. Rice finished seven yards short of Terrell Willis’ school-record 232 yards against Temple in 1994.
“He’s the real deal,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “He got into the secondary so fast (on the 63-yard run) we didn’t have time to react.”
Asked if Rice should be considered for some postseason honors, Schiano said, “If he keeps putting up these numbers. It’s all about productivity, and he’s doing things special backs do.”
Rutgers had gone up 13-3 late in the third quarter. Mike Teel, who had more interceptions (seven) than touchdown passes (five) in an offense that was No. 109 nationally in passing, hit Tiquan Underwood on consecutive pass plays for 14 and 7 yards, the second for a touchdown. Underwood had only nine catches this season before making five for 41 yards.
Teel also missed a possible second touchdown pass late in the first half when Dennis Campbell, open in the end zone, juggled what would have been a touchdown catch and the ball touched the ground before he could control it.
Rutgers led 6-0 at the half on two field goals by Jeremy Ito but easily could have had a much bigger lead. The Scarlet Knights advanced to the Pitt 21 and 2 on consecutive drives late in the second quarter, but settled for Ito’s 21-yarder with 29 seconds left in the half.
Ito had missed from the 38 a few minutes before but, three plays after that, Rutgers’ Ron Girault recovered a fumble by Pitt’s Derek Kinder after a 25-yard completion to the Knights’ 39.
Rutgers hadn’t allowed a point in the third quarter all season until Pitt drove for Conor Lee’s 46-yard field goal on its first possession of the second half.