NEW YORK - DECEMBER 30: Jawan Jamison #23 and Paul Hamersma #13 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights celebrate a win over the Iowa State Cyclones in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on December 30, 2011 in the Bronx Borough of New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Rutgers swings through highs and lows in an up-and-down season, regroups past late turmoil, and easily dispatches an overmatched bowl opponent. The preceding sentence could have been written in most recent Rutgers football seasons. 2011 was practically the microcosm of Greg Schiano's tenure, a somewhat above average, perfectly middle of the road season if there ever was one. It was notable only for the unrealistically negative preseason predictions, and that pretty much held through the bowl as well. The prognosticators were tripped up by Iowa State's stunning upset over Oklahoma State, and didn't pay much heed to the other eleven games on their schedule. Ultimately, the Cyclones were exactly what they were all-year: a well coached, try hard outfit that did not have the personnel to compete with a far superior Rutgers squad.
As has been the story all year, Rutgers won this one with superior defense. RU's undersized defensive line may be vulnerable to gashings from power rushing attacks, but they more than make up for it with their relentless motors. Scott Vallone and Justin Francis lived in the Cyclone backfield all game long, augmented from every angle by a flurry incoming pass rushers. It may be the holidays, but there wasn't a snowflake or any speck of white dust in the guy, so Greg Schiano decided to manufacture his own blizzard with a relentless blitz. Iowa State simply had no answer for this kind of pressure, looking as shell-shocked as Kansas State did in Houston five years ago. Rutgers, quite simply, plays a very uncommon scheme that is very difficult to prepare for and scout. ISU's offensive coordinator was hand-picked by Urban Meyer to call plays for Ohio State next year, but heck if he had the faintest idea of how to keep his quarterbacks unhurried and upright.
Strong defense was a given, even if the Big East head coaches somehow did not think that any Rutgers defensive linemen were worthy of all-conference recognition. That's just the thing though. Rutgers doesn't just bring pressure, even if that's their trademark or calling card. By nature, a blitzing defense bending every so often is a given; the bet is that eventually they get a stop on third down, and force a punt or field goal attempt (which it has to be said, are far more interesting for the Scarlet Knights than they are for most teams.) All that blitzing would be for naught if the defense crumbled when an opponent was able to pick up the rush. The linebackers and defensive backs played very well too, with another standout coverage performance from Logan Ryan. If there was a defensive black eye in this game, it was with Khaseem Greene's ugly ankle injury. That looked bad on the field, but early reports suggest that he should be fine in a few weeks.
Schiano's defenses have such a consistent track record of strong performances that they are practically taken for granted at this point. You acknowledge their success, but what kept Rutgers from winning the Big East this season was an inconsistent offense. Defying all precedent, the Knights actually rotated Chas Dodd and Gary Nova in at quarterback throughout the game. Dodd has the better line, mainly owing to a long touchdown pass to Brandon Coleman (who the light has been starting to go on with), although Dodd also struggled on the drive following Scott Vallone's fumble recovery in the second quarter. If Rutgers was looking for answers under center yesterday, they did not find many. Considering the Louisville, West Virginia, and UConn losses, RU just has to be happy with limiting mistakes and turnovers on offense. Neither QB was great though, and that held Rutgers back in the second half from running up the score, and turning this one into a huge blowout.
In fairness, a lot of that was probably by design. Frank Cignetti certainly loves to take the occasional deep shot down the field, but that's coupled with an overall tendency towards a more conservative, ball-control style. Ordinarily, when Rutgers is struggling to move the chains, and the run game is getting stuffed on every down, all that really accomplishes is to keep the defense fresh. Not only is the offense essentially forfeiting downs, but they're giving opposing defenses no need to stay honest. Fortunately, the offensive line turned in may have been their finest performance of the season yesterday. Desmond Wynn slid over to left tackle, with Betim Bujari taking over at left guard. It was so impressive that many people have to be wondering why Wynn didn't get a crack at LT sooner. IIRC, he did get a look there last year before getting hurt. Was it all in the line play? You also have to take into account that Rutgers usually does well in bowls, and that Michael Burton is really coming on as a blocking fullback.
There isn't really much to complain about with the game itself. Rutgers should have won big, and they did. Jamison's emergence is very heartening at running back, even with Jeremy Deering and Savon Huggins unable to play due to injury. Multiple senior starters are graduating on the line, and there's still the matter of finding an experienced quarterback. Rutgers should be one of the early favorites in the Big East next season, and this lopsided result lets the team end the season on a high note as a prelude to 2012. On the other hand, the Pinstripe Bowl was essentially more of the same for a program that is seemingly stuck in place. They hammered Iowa State, but ISU really had no business being on the same field with RU. If only the Knights had actually taken care of business this year, and not stumbled in critical moments. They were only a handful of plays away from winning the league, and playing in a major BCS bowl.
By all accounts, that one remaining obstacle is the one metric by which every thing related to Rutgers football must be judged. Did this game get them closer to their white whale? It's arguable, as there were positive signs (see the preceding paragraph.) In not explicitly being for high stakes, it was certainly not a failure or regression; just another notable absence of progress. Any positive sentiment coming out of this should be quickly converted to determination for the future. With this season, and this game, Rutgers did more than enough to stem the bleeding, and put any naysayers at bay for the time being. Now, the time is nigh to move forward, and accomplish all of the tantalizing goals that have remained frustratingly out of the program's grasp up to this point. A minor, cold-weather bowl in a baseball stadium was a sufficient sendoff to 2011. Next year, the stakes will increase significantly, and there will be a shrinking number of excuses left if those expectations are not met.