Ok, I admit, I scrutinized the scenarios for Rutgers' BCS chances over pumpkin pie, finished off my Thanksgiving leftovers watching Louisville and South Florida go at it, and even rooted my giblets off for Pittsburgh this weekend. Unfortunately, each one of the scenarios involved one key assumption...a Rutgers win over Connecticut.
But after holding opponents to under 17 points per game on the season, Rutgers collapsed in East Hartford, losing 40-22 on Saturday, November 26th and dashing their hopes of becoming the first Big East team to leapfrog from last place to first in consecutive seasons.
Rutgers stumbled right out of the gate with 2 quick turnovers, both leading to UConn scores. The first, a fumble on just their third series, left running back Jawan Jamison with an injured ankle that limited his play for the remainder of the day.
That first turnover served as a mere foreshadow for the 6 that lie ahead. A botched snap in the second quarter led to yet another Huskie touchdown, the third one off of a turnover in a disastrous first half.
Despite a dismal team showing, a few individual performances stood out for the Scarlet Knights. Brandon Coleman had 223 receiving yards on 6 receptions, including a handful of highlight-reel catches and a 92-yard touchdown run. Hey Brandon, where ya been buddy? Muhamed Sanu recorded the 10th 100-yard receiving game of his career, after finishing the day with 133 yards. Hopefully Coleman's performance is a sign of things to come for the red-shirt freshman, as Sanu will most likely take his game to the next level next year.
On the defensive end, linebacker Khaseem Greene made 13 tackles to cap his fine season total of 123. Fellow LB Steve Beauharnais contributed 9 on the day.
So who takes the blame for the meltdown? After a year marred by quarterback controversy, Chas Dodd got the season-finale start, but threw for a disappointing 141 yards, to complement Rutgers' horrid -9 rushing yards. Gary Nova saw action in the 4th quarter, and racked up a deceivingly high 298 yards in the air, but also threw 2 picks. Defense and special teams, the cornerstone of this Rutgers team all year, was hampered by flubbed tackles and poor kick return coverage, setting up Connecticut in prime field position all afternoon. So let's just say you can spread the blame pretty thin on this one.
A lot of fans are eager to point the finger at coach Greg Schiano, not just for this game, but for another disappointing finish. I'm as disheartened as anyone over Saturday's epic meltdown, and that's exactly what it was, but the truth is, Rutgers finished at the bottom of the Big East last season, and was projected to do the same this year. Granted, part of that falls on the coaching staff, but hiring offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti was a bold move that at least pulled the team out of last year's doldrums. Schiano has always been open about putting defense first on his agenda, and guess what? Rutgers turned out to be one of the top defensive teams in the country through its first 11 games.
Yes, a couple botched kicks and greasy hands cost Rutgers a handful of key mid-season games, notably to Louisville. But let's not forget that it also took the team a total of 3 overtimes to record unconvincing wins over Syracuse and South Florida. Clearly, this was a team lucky even to be in contention in its final game, but Rutgers fans, including yours truly, drank the Kool-Aid and set ourselves up for a major letdown.
But after the nasty sting of the Connecticut game wears off, it's only fair to take a step back and give the Scarlet Knights credit for winning 8 games this year and coming up a few games shy of a BCS bowl. All this, despite foreboding preseason polls, a roster chock-filled with guys fresh out of high school, and no clear-cut quarterback to speak of (O.K., that one falls on Schiano, I'll give you that).
After all is said and done, Rutgers is most likely looking at the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in December. I would be lying if I said I am happy with that after spending more time than I'd care to admit poring over the BCS scenarios this past week. But an 8-4 season and another Rutgers football game on tap after Christmas? Yeah, I think I'd have signed up for that in August.
Congratulations to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on a hard-fought 2011 season, and here's to one more win before New Years.