• Rutgers’ win opening up a whole new debate

    first_img BY DOUG McKENZIEStaff Writer PHOTOS BY CHRIS KELLY staff Above, Rutgers’ Brian Leonard converts on a key third-down play during the Scarlet Knights’ game-winning drive against Louisville on Thursday in Piscataway. I thought national championship hopes were only allowed at other schools.Meant for someone else but not the Scarlet Knights. The college football gods were out to get them. That’s the way it seemed. Disappointment haunted all Rutgers fans’ dreams. And then I saw them play, now I’m a believer. (Please pardon the blatant paraphrasing of a beloved Monkeys song, but I’m still a bit giddy from my experiences in Piscataway on Thursday night. Please allow me to explain.) Like most people I talked to, I went into the highly anticipated matchup between the Big East’s two remaining undefeated teams – Louisville and Rutgers – expecting the Scarlet Knights’ unlikely chase of perfection to come to an end. As I was driving up the Garden State Parkway last Thursday afternoon looking at all the “Go Rutgers” signs on the boards that normally promise traffic congestion, I remember thinking to myself how great it was that the entire state, and quite a bit of the tristate area for that matter, was rallying behind head coach Greg Schiano’s squad. Below, RU defensive linemen block an extra-point attempt in the first quarter. And I remember wondering just what the reaction would be if the Scarlet Knights could somehow find a way to upset the nation’s third-ranked team, on national television no less. Once I got close to the stadium, and saw all of the Rutgers’ faithful enjoying the countdown to the biggest game in the program’s history, my feeling of anticipation only grew. There was a festive atmosphere outside of Rutgers Stadium and throughout the campus, an unprecedented level of excitement that helped set the tone for what would be one of the most memorable athletic events in the state’s history. Once I reached the press box, it started to sink in just how special a night this truly was. As I looked around the room, seeing some of the journalists I’ve been watching on television and reading since I was a kid, I couldn’t help but smile. As I walked past a legendary columnist for the New York Daily News, I overheard a comment he passed on to a colleague. CHRIS KELLY staff Rutgers’ Ray Rice busts through the Louisville line for a big gain during the Scarlet Knights’ win on Thursday. “Who knew, huh?” he said, obviously referring to the scene being set on the field below. Truth is, there are those of us who never thought Rutgers would ever host a game of this magnitude – a showdown with national title implications, and for both teams involved. This was a type of game that most people thought was nothing more than a pipe dream. Turns out, it was simply a matter of time before Schiano and company turned it into a fulfilled promise. Once the players took the field, and the 44,111 fans in attendance made their presence felt, Rutgers Stadium instantly transformed into the type of college football environment only the elite programs in the nation enjoy on a weekly basis. Simply put, it was loud, it was electric, and everything you could ever ask for from a college football game. “This is the way college football is supposed to be,” Schiano said following the game. “The metropolitan area maybe hasn’t had this before, but I have a feeling they’re really going to take to it.” And how could they not. Early on, Louisville looked as good as advertised. After stopping the RU offense on its first possession, the Cardinals, on the very first play of their very first drive, struck for a big play, as quarterback Brian Brohm hit Harry Douglas for a 43-yard pass play over the middle. It sparked a scoring drive that put Louisville up 7-0, when Anthony Allen plunged into the end zone from 2 yards out. You could sense the uneasiness sink in among the capacity crowd as the Cardinals took the early lead. You couldn’t help but wonder if this was simply a taste of more to come. But to their credit, the Rutgers faithful did not waver. If anything, they got louder. After Louisville picked off a Mike Teel pass (one of the few mistakes the RU quarterback made on the night), the Scarlet Knight defense came up with a big play, with Devraun Thompson picking off a Brohm pass and returning it 32 yards. Rutgers then tied the game at 7-7 on the very next play when Teel hit Tiquan Underwood with a 26-yard pass. Once again, Louisville did its best to squash the Knights’ spirit, as JaJuan Spillman returned the ensuing kick-off 100 yards for a touchdown. Rutgers managed to block the PAT attempt, but a heads-up Allen scooped up the ball and banged his way into the end zone for the two-point conversion, making it Louisville 15, Rutgers 7. Louisville made it 22-7 later in the second quarter on a Brohm touchdown pass to Scott Kuhn, and following a Rutgers’ drive that stalled on a dropped pass on a third-down play, Louisville again marched down the field in eight plays before the RU defense stiffened and held the Cardinals to a 40-yard field goal. With Rutgers down 25-7 to a team that was playing every bit like the third-ranked team in the nation, it would have been easy to pack it in, to buy into the idea that just hosting a game of this magnitude was already a victory for Rutgers. That’s where this group of Rutgers players decided to distinguish themselves, and prove to the nation that this game was more than any of us imagined coming in. This was not just a statement game for the Scarlet Knights. This was their chance to earn a shot at a national championship. Just beating Louisville in an up-and-down, anything-goes type of game wouldn’t have been enough. They needed to look like the better team when it was over. And that’s exactly what they did. The way Rutgers played the end of the second quarter speaks volumes for the type of confidence and resiliency Schiano has managed to instill in this program. Rutgers not only fought back, they did so in such a dominant fashion, even the team’s harshest critics had to be impressed. They played like a Top 5 team, whether the BCS, Associated Press or voters on the coaches’ poll want to recognize it or not. Offensively, they began to ride the legs of Ray Rice, a bruising tailback who showed the nation something that Rutgers fans have known all along – that he is going to be a force on Sundays in the near future. Teel (8-for-21 for 189 yards) also proved himself on the biggest stage he’s seen in his young career. While not brilliant, he was certainly efficient, and played smart enough to avoid the big mistake that would cost his team a chance to launch its comeback. After a Rice touchdown at the 4:59 mark of the second quarter cut the lead to 25-14, the Rutgers’ defense quite simply took over the game, shutting down the Louisville offense for the rest of the way. Rutgers had a chance to cut into the lead even more when a roughing-the-kicker penalty negated a short punt that would have given RU the ball deep inside Cardinal territory. Still, even though they were down 25-14 at the half, you had the feeling this game was beginning to turn in the home team’s favor. So how do you describe the second half? I suppose the best thing to do is simply let the statistics speak for themselves. For Rutgers, 14 points on a Rice 4-yard touchdown (followed by a successful two-point conversion pass from Teel to Dennis Campbell) and two Jeremy Ito field goals, from 46 and 28 yards. For Louisville, two first downs. By now, everyone knows about the drama the final moments of this game provided. From Rutgers tying the game on Ito’s first field goal, to his eventual game-winner after an offsides penalty game him a second chance after missing from 33 yards. And everyone has seen the highlights of the students storming the field and surrounding the victorious players. And while it was Ito’s heroics that got all the play on highlight reels, it’s the Scarlet Knight defense that truly deserves the highest accolades. Their play in the second half was nothing short of brilliant. The Scarlet Knights’ defensive front was so dominant in the second half that they rendered arguably one of the Top 2 or 3 collegiate quarterbacks in the nation completely ineffective. Brohm spent the entire second half running for his life, and as a result, was gun-shy on a number of key plays down the stretch. All of the Scarlet Knights deserve credit for their efforts, but without the defense’s complete domination of the Louisville offense from the end of the second quarter on, the comeback isn’t possible. As I was leaving Rutgers Stadium, walking among a group of fans who like myself were realizing that they may never witness a more historic or better football game in their lives, I got a kick out of some of the comments I overheard. But without question, the one that sticks out in my mind came from a young girl, who appeared to be attending the game with her father. “I wonder how they’ll disrespect us now,” she said. The answer could come in a few weeks. If the Scarlet Knights, who enter the week ranked sixth in the BCS standings, and either seventh or eighth in the various polls, can beat Cincinnati this weekend on the road, Syracuse the following week at home, and a very good West Virginia team in Morgantown, they will have earned a shot at the national championship. Only they may not get it. Already, there’s talk that the Scarlet Knights will miss out on that opportunity based on several factors – most notably the fact that they weren’t ranked in the Top 25 when the season began and the perceived softness of their schedule, outside of the Louisville and West Virginia games. There’s a theory being circulated throughout the national media that one of the teams ranked ahead of RU (like USC, Florida or Notre Dame) may get the nod, even though they will have a loss. For now, the Scarlet Knights can’t worry about that, and to their credit, they don’t appear to be. Schiano has this team doing all the right things, starting with worrying about the next game. Rutgers has plenty of work to do before it can worry about getting a shot at a national title (by the way, I said the same thing following last year’s Insight Bowl, only in a much more condescending manner). But I’m not about to doubt that they’re capable of getting it done. Like I said, now I’m a believer. BY DOUG McKENZIE Staff Writer last_img

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