This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
2006 was the year that fortune smiled on Rutgers football, if only for a few fleeting weeks. It was a season of inauspicious beginnings, but momentum soon built and snowballed into an overwhelming crescendo during one fateful November night in Piscataway that's still seared into the brains of every Rutgers fan to this very day. The carriage eventually turned into a pumpkin thanks to a classic letdown game the next week at Cincinnati, a few bad bounces against West Virginia, and the Big East's crummy bowl lineup. That season is remembered as the time of Rutgers football's greatest apex, and most stinging disappointment.
To think that it all almost never came to pass. The opener against North Carolina was a war of attrition, which sent two evenly-matched teams in opposing directions: Rutgers on a magical run, and UNC to new depths of misery, eventually leading to the firing of the overmatched John Bunting. The Knights followed up with laugher wins against Illinois (avenging their heart-wrenching 2005 loss) and Ohio, before narrowly escaping Raymond James Stadium behind arguably Ray Rice's finest game on the college level to topple USF. Who can forget Eric Foster's post-game locker room speech?
The team really jumped onto the national radar however the following week against Navy.
Rutgers returned to the AP and Coaches polls for the first time in decades following their Thursday night defeat of USF on ESPN. 5-1 Navy loomed, enjoying new levels of success under Paul Johnson. Many oddsmakers favored the Midshipmen leading up to the contest in Annapolis, which saw a record crowd in attendance at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. Rutgers tackle Ramel Meekins injured Navy QB Brian Hampton in the first quarter, a right hook aimed at Navy's glass jaw, resulting in complete shell shock. Teel and receiver Tiquan Underwood torched the overmatched Navy secondary, and the potent Navy Triple Option had no answer for the undersized-but-athletic Scarlet Knight defense seemingly a perfect counter to their every strategum.
Next came the 6-1 Panthers at Heinz Field, newly hot under second-year coach (and Greg Schiano mentor) Dave Wannstedt. It was anticipated to be RU's toughest matchup to date on the year, with linebacker H.B. Blades spouting bulletin board material throughout the offseason. The game largely lived up to that billing as a brutal defensive slugfest, finally sealed via more Rice heroics.
That was followed by a sleepy Sunday night win against UConn, and all of a sudden the atmosphere on campus was like nothing I had ever seen before in my four years on the banks. The school administration had to force everyone at my freshmen orientation to attend the home opener against Buffalo by closing the dining halls. Roaming drunken crowds cursed Teel up and down College Avenue after the USF win, and come early November students were literally camping out for tickets. Fan support had already been steadily trending upward, but the very absence of easy walk-up tickets, never mind a giant lottery process would have been downright unfathomable only months before.
In typical Rutgers fashion, the inexperienced athletic department and school administration completely dropped the ball on the lottery. Years before the football team would draw crowds of twenty to thirty thousand with good weather. Now it was every man for himself, with me dialing any tangential acquaintance from the past four years in a desperate, and ultimately futile quest for tickets. There was no greater righteous indignation than being guaranteed student tickets for four straight years (paid for by mandatory student fees, mind you), only to see a bunch of unscrupulous opportunists and scalpers snatch the Louisville tickets up in a bid to extort outrageous profits.
For a while it looked like I would be left to stew at the Olive Branch that Thursday night, while the likes of Mark Consuelos (who? exactly) and a legion of bandwagoners bid up all available tickets. The plan then was to go to class as normal that afternoon, before jetting over on the H bus back to College Avenue to catch the game and simultaneously drown my sorrows at missing the game of the millennium, but fate ended up intervening in multiple ways.
Most campus faculty gave a quick once over to the logistics and canceled all Thursday afternoon classes. One notable exception would be an affable professor, who'll remain anonymous here, that decided to hold steady to the scheduled late afternoon class time as planned. He wouldn't budge, in spite of all warnings to the contrary that the students wouldn't bother showing up.. At the very same time, I was rescued by an extremely nice person who decided to gift me a ticket at the very last moment. Since my class was on Busch, I ended up making a decision that looks very bone-headed in retrospect: show up to lecture, and then make a quick dart over to the stadium right before kickoff.
This plan was not by any means well thought out. There had been traffic for games before, but this would be on a different level entirely. Rutgers-Louisville dominated New York City metropolitan area sports headlines throughout the preceding week. The Empire State Building lit up red during the game in solidarity. The irascible, emotive duo of Mike Francesa and Chris Russo broadcast their WFAN afternoon radio show from right outside the stadium. There's no doubt, none whatsoever, that Rutgers could have easily sold 70,000 tickets that night if capacity had permitted. I'm sure, in time, that you won't be able to find a Rutgers alumnus who doesn't claim to have been in attendance. I was there, man, and this is the absolutely true story of how I made it past the gate with only moments to spare.
I planned ahead to leave for Busch with a two hour cushion to spare before class started. It still proved to be insufficient, being stuck for three hours as Route 18 in Piscataway turned into a parking lot. After crossing the Raritan river, I walked my skinny legs all the way past the A.R.C. to my classroom. Finally staggering in with only moments left in the period, the professor greeted me with a shrug and motioned towards the blackboard. Of all the things - there wouldn't even be a point to taking notes, because the lesson was going to be repeated the following Tuesday. Hardly anyone had bothered to show up.
My quest for a ticket was about as frustrating. The atmosphere on campus that day was festive and boisterous. In addition to being stuck in traffic, another confounding matter was with my cell carrier Sprint PCS. At least at the time, it was nearly impossible to get a Sprint signal along most stretches of the campus, with the notable exception of Rutgers Stadium. I'm much happier now with Verizon, by the way, if they have any inclinations to sponsor any future posts. Anyway, I kept trying to arrange a meeting to pick up the ticket, but the conversation kept getting garbled and lost in translation, and for a while it was looking pretty bleak.
I eventually did make it in, novelty white towel in hand, to watch Rutgers prevail over the Ville, 28-25. The unbeaten 9-0 Scarlet Knights were then facing a date with history, but the dream was soon derailed by letdown loss at Cincinnati. All pain was momentarily forgotten with a frantic 38-7 beatdown of Syracuse the following week, which secured RU's first double digit win season in three decades. Brian Leonard literally took the mascot's sword and conducted the band after that glorified scrimmage, which was more of a giant, collective party, easily the most festive atmosphere ever seen at the stadium. (One could argue Navy 2005, but that felt more like jubilation at the collective weight being lifted from everybody's shoulders.)
Unfortunately, the 2006 regular season was to end on another down note, that being a wild triple overtime loss to the Mountaineers in Morgantown. Reserve receiver James Townsend dropped what would have been a winning touchdown pass near the end of the fourth quarter. Rutgers had to settle for a field goal, which WVU then matched to force overtime. The teams traded a pair of field goals and touchdowns, but Rutgers saw its dreams playing in the Orange Bowl, and its first ever BCS bid slip away in a failed two point conversion (with an assist from considerable uncalled pass interference).
That was a kick in the groin, but the ultimate ignominy was with what happened next. The Big East's bowl bids were decimated by the 2003 ACC raid. Not only did the conference lose a solid second-tier game in the Insight Bowl, but league leadership had bungled negotiations for its replacement. They lost a chance to replace Insight with the Memphis-based Liberty Bowl at the 11th hour, when Conference USA agreed to the SEC's conditions forbidding cross-state teams from meeting at the bowl.
The Continental Tire/Meineke Bowl, ostensibly the Big East's #4 bowl, had signed a deal with the Naval Academy in the meantime, agreeing unconditionally to take the Midshipmen in 2006 in lieu of a Big East team. When negotiations with the Liberty fell through, the Big East was forced to come crawling back to Charlotte as a venue for its third best team, but even that couldn't happen in 2006 thanks to the Navy contract. The Big East's third best team would instead be banished all the way to Reliant Stadium in Houston, to play a Big XII also-ran. That's sort of developed into a pattern over time, which is why Rutgers fans hold the league leadership in Providence in such utter contempt.
This proved to be an awful turn of events considering that the Big East produced three BCS-caliber teams that year in Louisville, West Virginia, and Rutgers. RU and West Virginia tied in league standings at 5-2. The Mountaineers won the tiebreaker with their victory and were off to play Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl, while Rutgers had to settle and slum off to play 7-5 Kansas State. Hrmph. That was some great reward, while bigger conferences also-rans played in better bowls.
In the end, Rutgers made the most of their unfair relegation. The Scarlet Knight faithful showed up to Houston in relatively large numbers, only to face a week of second-class treatment by Texas Bowl organizers more interested in K-State's larger traveling contingent. RU got its revenge de-clawing the Wildcats 37-10, in a blowout largely over after Tim Brown scored on two long first quarter touchdowns. Rutgers received a glass trophy and a ten gallon hat for Rice as their triumph, and will have to be content with those middling rewards while awaiting their next big season.