Teel has chance to answer critics against Louisville

It might have sounded harsh, but Connecticut coach Randy Edsall was only being honest about the defensive strategy any rational Rutgers opponent would employ.

Call it a Teel Curtain.

The idea is to make Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel pass the ball.

Presumably, it will be the strategy employed by No. 3 Louisville (8-0 overall, 3-0 Big East), which visits Rutgers Stadium on Thursday (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET) for a colossal Big East matchup against the 15th-ranked Scarlet Knights (8-0, 3-0). The game pits two of five unbeaten teams.

Edsall, on a recent Big East coaches' conference call, was asked about West Virginia's offense. He responded by comparing it to Rutgers'.

"It's very hard to defense [WVU] because they're not just one-dimensional," Edsall said. "We played Rutgers, which is a little bit more one-dimensional. You can take [tailback] Ray Rice away, and the other guy -- the quarterback -- I don't think can beat you throwing the football."

Edsall had some hard evidence to back up his assertion. UConn was coming off a 23-14 loss to Rutgers, but the Scarlet Knights scored only one offensive touchdown. UConn loaded up to stop the run and held Rutgers to a season-low 114 yards on the ground. The Scarlet Knights' passing game did not capitalize, as Teel completed just 11 of 24 passes for no touchdowns and one interception.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano believes those numbers were deceiving. He insists he has total confidence in Teel's ability to win a game with his arm.

"Mike put three deep balls right on the money -- that's about 180 yards of offense and two or three scores," Schiano said. "I've said many times, we're young. We have a young quarterback and a bunch of young receivers with the exception of [senior tight end] Clark Harris, and that's a tough combination playing in this conference. Young receivers tend to do some things -- drop passes, shorten routes -- that throw off passing games."

Schiano pointed out that Navy also committed extra defenders to stopping the run, and Teel responded by completing 15 of 26 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-0 victory.

"They forced Mike to win the game," Schiano said, "and he did."

Teel, a redshirt sophomore, was asked this week whether he had any reaction to Edsall's comment.

"Not much," Teel said. "I think every coach and every team tries to stop Ray and [fullback] Brian [Leonard] first. That would be my objective, too."

Teel has completed just 54.9 percent of his passes for 1,016 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has the second-lowest passer rating (109.2) in the Big East, and Rutgers has the 114th-ranked passing game out of 119 Division I-A teams, averaging 128.1 yards per game.

Of course, it's not as if the Scarlet Knights have needed to pass much. Rice is third in the country in rushing (150.3 yards per game), and Leonard might be the best all-around fullback in the country.

"It's not that the quarterback can't play," said South Florida coach Jim Leavitt. "He probably doesn't have to, because nobody stops their running game. If they run the ball, they're going to win."

Winning is what the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Teel does best. He is 33-1 going back to his days at Don Bosco (N.J.) Prep, including 10-1 at Rutgers. He'll get a chance to avenge the lone defeat -- Louisville pounded Rutgers 56-5 last season -- on Thursday.

Turns out Teel developed his hatred for losing a long time ago.

"It's the way I was raised, the way I grew up," he said. "I've just never wanted to lose, whether I was playing Wiffle ball with my little brother in the backyard or a Thursday night game against Louisville."

Did he ever lose in peewee football?

"Actually, no," Teel said, laughing. "I won championships in fourth, sixth and eighth grade."

Without losing a game ever? Teel paused to consider the question.

"I think I lost two when I was in fifth grade and one on the freshman team in high school," he said.

Those who know Teel well say his best qualities are fierce competitiveness and poise under pressure.

"He just comes into the huddle with a look in his eye and a sound in his voice," Harris said. "He's always ready to go."

Nobody knows that better than Don Bosco Prep coach Greg Toal, who saw Teel lead his team to back-to-back state titles and post a 23-0 career record. Wisconsin and Rutgers were Teel's final two college choices.

"He's probably the most poised guy I've ever seen," Toal said. "He doesn't feel pressure in the pocket. Whether he makes a mistake or not, he stays calm."

In Teel's junior year of high school, his team played a road game at Bergen Catholic for the state championship. Bergen Catholic stacked its defense to stop the run.

"They did a great job shutting us down," Toal said. "But Mike was unfazed. He was just great that day. We've had some pretty good players, but it's something when you think Mike didn't lose a game here."

Toal's current quarterback at Don Bosco Prep isn't bad, either. Matt Simms, son of NFL great Phil Simms and younger brother of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, is one of the hottest prospects in the country -- and he has committed to Louisville.

As such, Simms will have a rooting interest in Thursday's game, which is being hailed as the biggest in Rutgers' history.

It's pretty high up on Louisville's list, too.

The Cardinals' defense comes in ranked 77th in the country against the pass (211.3 yards per game) and 24th against the run (105.3 yards per game). It held Teel to a 12-for-24 performance in last year's game, intercepting him twice, but Louisville coach Bobby Petrino sees a different player. Teel split starts with senior Ryan Hart last season.

"[Teel] has a lot of experience under his belt now," Petrino said. "He certainly has all the qualities you look for in a quarterback. They have made a very big commitment to running the ball, so his opportunity hasn't been there as much."

Petrino's quarterback, junior Brian Brohm, also is well-acquainted with winning. Brohm has a career record of 14-2, including last Thursday's 44-34 victory over then-No. 3 West Virginia.

Teel isn't worried about matching numbers with Brohm, but he knows the time will come -- perhaps very soon -- when he'll have to pass his team to victory against a high-quality opponent.

"As the competition gets better and better, you have to have a good mix of run and pass," Teel said. "When we get the opportunities, we have to get it downfield."

Safe to say it's the biggest game of his life?

"Yeah, I think for a lot of us it's the biggest game we've had to this point," Teel said. "But, at the same time, it's just another game."

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.