This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
Today, On the Banks counts down five memorable moments in recent Rutgers football history.
5. Tim Brown throws up six for Jasper Howard.
In terms of the sheer "wow" factor, this play would be #1 on the list. However, it's docked in terms of total impact. While Brown's catch and run did help save a season teetering on the brink, the fantastical play barely registered on the national radar, and Rutgers was on its way to another merely above-average season.
That day in East Hartford Rutgers had jumped ahead to a big early lead on the Huskies. The game eventually turned into a defensive stalemate, with the Rutgers running game stuck in the mud, and Zach Frazer getting repeatedly abused by a stout Rutgers defense. Eventually that unit began to falter, exhausted by the offense's failure to put together sustained drives. UConn marched down the field late in the fourth quarter and all hope looked lost. That's when Tim Brown decided to take matters into his own hands.
With slightly over thirty seconds left on the clock, a leaping Brown caught Tom Savage's strike twenty or so yards downfield. The UConn safety shadowing the play then takes a bad angle at Brown, but who wouldn't have trying to tackle a sub 5'8 mite with blazing speed? As soon as Brown ran past that safety and crossed midfield, no Husky had chance to catch up. This just might be the most brutally effective playcalling shot to the solar plexus that you will ever see.
Not only a spectacular highlight, the story behind this one was almost too incredible to be believed. UConn corner Jasper Howard died in a senseless stabbing right after UConn's victory over Louisville. The Huskies proceeded to lose a heartbreaker the following week against West Virginia, and returned to Storrs with heavy hearts for their first home game since the tragedy.
The dominant media narrative in the week leading up to the game understandably centered around on the need to win a game to honor Howard's memory. It wouldn't be that simple though, because Howard actually grew up best friends with Rutgers receiver Tim Brown in Miami. The game actually was won for Jasper Howard, but not quite in the way that UConn would have hoped.
4. Brian Leonard runs for daylight.
At the time, the 2004 home opener against Michigan State was the biggest game in Rutgers football history. Rutgers had seen steady attendance growth throughout a resurgent 2003. While they did lose winnable games against BC and UConn, a season-ending upset over Syracuse caused excitement to build to a fever pitch over the following summer. Rutgers beat Syracuse because they wanted the win that much more (see: Rutgers/Syracuse, 2009 for when the shoe was on the other foot), and the same plan was in effect for the Spartans.
Michigan State may have just been another Big Ten opponent du jour, wondering why those crazies in New Jersey were building them up so much, but the plan worked. Michigan State would supposedly be the springboard towards a bowl run for the Rutgers program. They had absolutely no idea what was about to hit them. Least of which the Spartan coach John L. Smith, who spent the summer climbing mountains instead of doing adequate prep work. MSU also didn't have Drew Stanton, who was injured in special teams duty (a personnel move I still can't understand at all six years later).
I still have a fairly good recollection of that Saturday. It was the largest crowd (a reported 42,612) that I had ever seen at Rutgers Stadium, and that number wasn't inflated in the slightest. All the hungover College Avenue students actually woke up before noon in order to take the shuttle over to Piscataway, showing up in force. It was an extremely hot day, and all the sunlight was burning up the turf. Michigan State didn't really prepare for that factor, as they frequently cramped up throughout the contest.
Brian Leonard wasn't yet BRIAN LEONARD before MSU. Sure, he looked extremely promising the previous fall, but he was merely part of a sophomore triumvirate with Shawn Tucker (who lost his career to injuries) and Justise Hairston (a very promising back who fell into Schiano's doghouse with poor ball security). Leonard was one of several reasons for optimism on the season, but there wasn't the slightest hint yet of what was to come either that very day or during the rest of his career.
There was growing buzz in late summer that Rutgers could actually score the upset, but every fan's anxiety went through the roof as they walked up to their seats that day and anticipated kickoff. Certainly it wouldn't be out of character for Rutgers to choke away any lingering promise (unfortunately, that occurrence was only a week away). It was really important to set the tone for the game off on the right foot, and that's exactly what happened. MSU kicked off for a touchback. Leonard then broke loose to the tune of 57 yards on the very first play from scrimmage. A round of Tex Avery-style eye bulging would have been an appropriate response given the impact.
Even so, the game quickly settled into a defensive struggle, with Rutgers stalling in the red zone and Jeremy Ito missing the very first field goal attempt of his career. The Scarlet Knights by and large dominated on the day, but a late MSU score made it interesting. Yes, Ryan Neill's interception return for a touchdown was the critical turning point that sealed the victory, but that one single run only hinted at the hurdles and leaps that were to come for Leonard. More importantly, it quickly established that, yes, Rutgers had all intentions of showing up that afternoon, planting fertile seeds for that day's victory and many more in the future.
3. DeVraun Thompson's goal line stand.
Let's briefly go over an important terminology distinction. Brian Leonard's trademark hurdle was colloquially dubbed the "Leonard Leap". No one, to my knowledge, has actually gone back through the 2003-2006 game film and categorized every single hurdle, but I'd like to imagine that each individual effort is unique and precious in its own particular way. Leap X? That was the one against Louisville, where nothing went right after Rutgers inadvertently stomped on the Cardinal. XVII was the gratuitous, completely unnecessary (but totally awesome) one initiated solely to humiliate Syracuse in the last regular season game in 2006. There's a set number of leaps that should always be referred to in this manner.
There's a crucial difference between leaps I through XXII (one must always use Roman Numerals when categorizing Leonard's hurdles, I believe this goes all the way back to APA guidelines), and The Leap. That phrase in fact refers to an entirely different performance in the 2006 opener against North Carolina. To my knowledge it only ever occurred but once in a game situation. That would be the critical moment when middle linebacker DeVraun Thompson went airborne on a fourth and one to stuff a conversion attempt, and force a turnover on downs.
Ray Rice starred on the day, firmly establishing his Heisman candidacy in the season opener in Chapel Hill. Rutgers shot out to a 14-10 lead by halftime, and led by 11 until there only five minutes left in the game. Rutgers's undersized front seven had absolutely no answer to the bruising Tar Heel tailback Ronnie McGill. Harkening back to a 2005 season buttressed by late road collapses against BCS conference opponents in Illinois and Arizona State, one could figuratively feel the game slipping away as the fourth quarter progressed, and the defense started to tire out yet again.
A horrific performance by UNC quarterback Joe Dailey saved the day, no doubt attributable to the ferocious Scarlet Knight pass rush. Cornerback Joey Porter intercepted Dailey's two point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter. oe Radigan punted the ball back to UNC at their 27 yard line after the Rutgers offense failed to convert a third and 3. The Heel offense suddenly woke up to the tune of three straight first downs to cross midfield, and Rutgers fans started to feel that familiar unease in the pit of their stomaches when Dailey suddenly remembered that he was the same player that tortured Nebraska fans for years, sealing the game with a brutal interception right into the hands of Manny Collins.
2. Ray Rice crushes Pittsburgh.
Neither Rutgers nor Pitt managed to score a touchdown until the seconds were ticking away to the end of the third quarter. Rice and Leonard kept plugging away, and finally Teel connected with Ti Underwood in the endzone for six. The Panthers matched that score only two minutes later, and once again it looked like this one would go down right to the finish.
That is, until Ray Rice was given a say in the matter. His performance against USF may have been better on the merits, but what proceeded to follow here was immensely more satisfying. Pitt had just scored, and tackled Windmill Willie Foster at the Rutgers ten yard line after a booming kickoff. At that point it wasn't too hard to imagine a quick three and out, followed by a punt, and a surging Pitt pushing forward for a quick go-ahead score.
Then, on the very first play from scrimmage, Raymell Rice plucked every whisker off the dismayed Wannstache. Mike Teel handed off to Rice, who just happened to scamper for 63 yards for a first down deep into Panther territory. Actually, this play happened to create considerable doubts about Rice's long distance speed, because it was very surprising that a Pitt defender was able to catch up to him and prevent a touchdown. Then, like clockwork, it was Leonard for three, Rice for a demoralizing 21, a facemask penalty, and a subsequent Rice touchdown. You could feel the life deflating out of the home crowd throughout that entire sequence, but it was all gravy for the smatterings of Rutgers faithful in attendance (those guys with the firemen hats who could always find a camera).
1. Jeremy Ito points into history.
That night the favored, unbeaten Cardinals rocketed to a 25-7 lead behind a scintillating 100-yard JaJuan Spillman kickoff return. Rice nudged the scored to 25-14, but all the halftime concession line conversations were resigned to failure. "Well, our guys tried", the home faithful consoled ourselves. We were proud of them. Proud for the journey, and happy to be there. Shouldn't be long into the third quarter before the bandwagoners start heading for the exits. Since Rutgers is already playing with house money, they had nothing left to lose, so maybe something could start to click in the second half if our guys made one last stand.
That turned out to be precisely what happened. Coach Schiano went after Brian Brohm for three straight quarters, pummeling the Cardinal OL with waves and waves of blitzers, and they finally started to falter. Brohm became gun-shy and timid after taking a few too many hits, and starting hearing footsteps and speeding up his internal clock. The timing and rhythm of their precision passing game disrupted into anarchy. The incompletes, deflections, quarterback hits, and punts started to pile up. That was the setting when Kenny Britt finally decided to make his presence felt.
Britt, an elite freshman receiver prospect from Bayonne, had hardly contributed up to that point in the season. He didn't make it through the NCAA Clearinghouse until halfway through fall training camp, and all the natural physical gifts in the world couldn't make up for that early deficit. Britt caught up to speed in practice while Rutgers continued to ride Ray Rice to victory, but that could only continue for so far. The book was starting to come out on Rutgers. Stack the box, make an inexperienced Mike Teel beat you. One by one, the receiver depth chart was thinned by a glut of injuries. As they were, there was no conceivable way that the upstart Scarlet Knights could dream of taking out Bobby Petrino and his stacked Louisville squad.
Rutgers needed a trump card, and that ultimately proved to be Britt, keenly foreshadowing his sustained brilliance during 2007 and 2008. Kenny as a freshman hadn't even seen the field as a potential redshirt until Pittsburgh, not catching his first pass until UConn. Sure, he was a physical specimen that defenses would always have to account for in theory, but who could have imagined that he was poised to put up 400 receiving yards over the regular season's last four games?
In the first highlight of a brilliant career on the banks that was chock full of them, Britt hauled in a Teel pass along the sidelines for 64 yards. His inexperience was then exposed by defender William Gay, who forced out the ball at the five yard line. Fortunately, Britt recovered it, and Rice promptly punched in the ball for a score on the very next play, which was followed by a two point conversion to Dennis Campbell. All of a sudden folks, hold your horses, this may actually be a game after all. Meekins and Amobi Okoye traded sacks on the two subsequent drives, and then Rice started to gain steam against a tiring UL defense, setting up a tying Ito field goal. The scoreboard read 25-25 as a packed to the gills stadium absolutely lost all concept of rational thought.
Determined to solve the Rutgers pass rush, Petrino and Brohm adjusted, content to dink and dunk across midfield. The Cards punted, pinning the RU offense at the 9, where they had to get right back at it. Rice ran harder than ever. On a crucial third and four though, it was Brian Leonard who got the call, as if calling any number other than twenty three was ever a consideration in that situation. How, how do you EVER let that guy free on third down is beyond my comprehension. Rice then got Rutgers within field goal range, and the moment of truth had arrived.
There's been endless myth-making and revisionism about Jeremy Ito's final field goal that night, so here's the way I remember it from sitting in the south endzone. Yes, Ito pooched the initial attempt wide. What's not in dispute is that Louisville defender William Gay was offsides, Louisville was penalized five yards, with the first attempt erased entirely from the brooks. I contend that Gay was specifically not the goat on that play. He jumped offsides so early that it either completely unnerved Ito with jitters, or the kick was deliberately blown with the foreknowledge of a closer attempt.
We all know how it goes from this point though. Chip shot, and that cocky bastard points right to the camera in what is still the most indelible image and moment in Rutgers football history.
There were actually still thirteen seconds left on the clock at that point, not that it was any concern to the jubilant crowd that began flooding onto the field. The PA Joe Nolan had to frantically plead for every field rusher to corral back into the stands. Ito boomed the resulting kickoff, which was returned by the ever-dangerous Spillman to near midfield. There would be one more play of frantic nail-biting and high anxiety. Louisville would have one final shot, but Schiano was ever-aggressive to the final while, and an unblocked DeVraun Thompson drilled Brohm to the turf.
Every Rutgers fan in attendance proceeded to cry out in joy, and there would be no stopping the fence jumping this time, which started as soon as Brohm went down. School personnel quickly took down the goalposts as Kool & the Gang blared from the speakers. At least for one night there was sheer pandemonium in Piscataway.