Two days after the debacle that was the 20-17 loss to Louisville, the defeat still stings and I still feel down about the game. It's not as bad as what it was on that night, where the dread just built up in the second half with every big gain by the Cardinals. It's not as bad as what it was on that night, where I literally stood staring at where Gary Nova threw that game breaking interception in utter shock from my seat in Section 109. It's not as bad as what it was on that night, where I just walked the long walk back to the car in stunned silence. But it still stings all the same.
It was the worst loss I ever saw in person, and that includes my beloved New Jersey Devils choking a one goal lead against Carolina within the final two minutes of Game 7 in a 2009 playoff series. After that game, I left the Rock screaming all kinds of expletives in anger among a crowd that was either doing the same or just seething. After Thursday's loss, I was angry but struggled to find the words. I was sad but couldn't find the tears. I was shocked but still realized what had happened. As with that loss, time made those strong, horrible feelings weaken.
With this game, time and a more sober look at what precisely happened in the 20-17 loss would assist. I have to hand it to the Louisville Cardinals. They played a better game, particularly in the second half. They had to chase the game and caught up to it with their superior passing attack. While the two big play touchdowns may have skewed the time of possession in the first half, Louisville had a significant advantage in controlling the ball. According to the boxscore at ESPN.com, the Cardinals had it for 42:11 to Rutgers' 17:49. They were superior in getting first downs, Louisville's 22 to Rutgers' 9. They were more successful on third down, Louisville went 8-for-19 whilst Rutgers only went 3-for-11. I'm not as knowledgeable about the underlying numbers in football to know what matters most, but I don't think teams win a lot of games on the wrong end of these differences.
I understand that Teddy Bridgewater was playing with a fracture in his non-throwing hand and had an injured left foot. I and the masses at the High Point Solutions stadium quickly saw that it didn't matter. Like the many hockey players who play through injury in the playoffs and just surprise you that they were hurt, Bridgewater was still able to perform to the best of his abilities. While Rutgers was able to get pressure and three sacks, Bridgewater - who wasn't all that mobile of a quarterback to begin with - simply got the ball out and/or stepped up in the pocket to make the throws he needed to make. Despite that he was killing and changing plays left and right, he had the power and accuracy to put the ball where only his receivers could get it. It's easy to get mad at the secondary for not doing a better job or the front seven for not getting more pressure; but Bridgewater's passes were just that good. Just look at his second touchdown pass, which was nigh-unstoppable. Bridgewater was able to turn the several third-and-long spots into first downs and made it look easy. The lone blotch on his record was a tipped ball that dropped into Lorenzo Waters' hands. He was simply brilliant in going 20-for-28 for 263 yards and two touchdowns. His quality shined and his injuries didn't matter. I'd go as far as to say he was the best quarterback Rutgers played all season, with Tyler Wilson being the only possible exception.
Speaking of Arkansas, Rutgers had to keep up with the Razorbacks in a pass-heavy game. On that fateful night, Gary Nova did just that by going 25-for-35, 394 yards, and five touchdowns. It was his best game of the season, and it was necessary as Wilson threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns. Against Louisville, the game similarly took to the air and Nova wasn't as successful. Both Louisville and Rutgers ran for less than 60 yards, so the game largely moved through the passing attack. While he racked up 284 yards, that's driven mostly by the two touchdowns where Brandon Coleman went 85 yards for a score and Mark Harrison did so for 68. Nova went 13-for-28. Early on, it didn't seem that his passes were particularly bad, but as the game went on, it degraded. There were drops by the receivers, such as Tim Wright and Quron Pratt. As time went on, Nova started forcing more balls into bad spots such as into coverage or checking down to a covered underneath man. Some of it was the playcalling; I don't think Dave Brock fully grasps that on third down there should be multiple receivers going to or just beyond the stick. But the decision making is up to Nova and that fell apart, capped off by one of the worst interceptions I've ever seen to kill the game. (His first was similar to Bridgewater's, off the receiver and into a defender.) One has to wonder "what if" he didn't assume there would be man that far down field as Rutgers still had a hope of tying or winning the game.
One could go on for a while with "what ifs" in this game. What if the defense was able to disrupt the Louisville passing attack more in the second half? What if Jeremy Deering didn't blown up by a perfect tackle that knocked the ball loose on the kick off after the Cardinals' first touchdown? What if they got a few more third down stops in the third and fourth quarter? What if Rutgers didn't punt the ball after the fake field goal touchdown was taken away? (I think it was a defensible decision, for what it's worth.) What if the refs didn't take back the fake field touchdown for an illegible player downfield? (I was focused on the pass, I didn't see a lineman too down field, was it true) What if Rutgers ran the ball more to Juwan Jamison than just 15 times and/or given Savon Huggins some touches? What if Rutgers got more points in the first half? What if Rutgers showed up against Pitt and would've made this game irrelevant? What if Rutgers played with a more open, passing attack all season such that? What if, what if, what if?
Sadly, it's not "what if" but "what could have been." If you were to tell me back when Kyle Flood was named the head coach that Rutgers would go 9-3 and have a share of the Big East championship, then I would have said, "That's very good." That's the situation now, but I certainly feel very good and maybe you don't either. Sure, the Scarlet Knights will likely go to their best bowl even. They may even win it. To the outside observer, losing to Louisville was a disappointment but the season was largely positive. To the fan, the bowl may make some of this pain go away but you'll still be left with the sting of thinking "what could have been." That will last a little longer, your mileage may vary.
And that stinging hurts a bit. To me, it hurts more considering the larger picture of this game. It hurts because the championship could have been solely in Rutgers' possession instead of shared with Louisville and at least one team Rutgers beat. It hurts because a BCS bowl was up for grabs and who knows if Rutgers will ever get to play on that level. It hurts because this was a national game where Rutgers could have made a big statement to all of the critics, the doubters, and the unaware that they deserve your attention. It hurts because a win like this could have turned quite a few people onto the college game in New Jersey and New York. It hurts because the possibility of a win sending 52,000+ fans into a state of football euphoria would have been the perfect response to the claims that there is no Rutgers fanbase or that college football doesn't matter here. It hurts because a championship would have certainly boosted Rutgers' standing in football from recruits to coaches to broadcasters. It hurts because this could have been a signature win, the sort where you begin stories with "I was there" with. It hurts because the crowd at High Point Solutions Stadium was absolutely electric from the get-go (sans casuals who don't feel they need to show up on time to watch a game of football for the first few minutes or so) to Nova's abysmal interception. It hurts because we all got to see a team have their chance at glory, they were in a great situation score-wise at halftime, and everything fell apart as the team faded away to a 20-17 loss. It hurts because we really don't know if Rutgers will be in this kind of situation ever again. I know that sounds melodramatic; however, history and the uncertainty of the future suggests otherwise.
But, really, it hurts because we care. That's the root of it. And most of us know this regardless of whether you just got emotionally invested this year or you've been there for your entire life. We may all deal with it differently and we may all have different perspectives. The common thread is that we care about the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team, we want to see them win, we yearn to see them succeed, we hope to be yelling for the players and coaches and not against them, and we desire to end yelling "On the Banks." I feel confident in using "we," even though I cannot claim to be the biggest Rutgers fan. I've only traveled once to see them play. I'm only a season ticket holder for the last few years. I've only started paying attention to Rutgers from the end of the 2005 season and onward (aside: I've only started paying attention to football a few years prior); I can't claim remembering the Terry Shea era or the older years. The Devils rank first in my heart and I will never deny that they are my passion. But my alma mater is important to me through their football team and so I have that fan's pain from such a massive loss via choking a lead in the biggest game of the year.
That's part of the deal of being a fan, and so is moving on and looking ahead. For the former, I can confirm the sun rose the next day and we'll all do what we need and want to do regularly, putting the loss further and further back in our minds. As concerned as I am about the future, rightly or wrongly, we truly don't know what will happen next. They'll play one more game, we have a new class of recruits entering the program, we'll have previously-redshirted players going into the depth chart, and we have more football to witness. The 20-17 loss to Louisville will be an unforgettable defeat, but the future gives a chance to ease that pain either through time or result. That's also because we care.