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Rutgers survives USF 20-17

The 2011 Rutgers football season was hanging on by a thread last night through three and a half quarters. Starting receiver Mark Harrison missed the game with a head injury, and left tackle Andre Civil struggled to contain edge rushers Ryne Giddens and Julius Forte (before Civil was benched for senior Desmond Stapleton.) The climate for freshman quarterback Gary Nova wasn't favorable to start out with, and he can hardly be blamed for a USF defense that was seemingly in the backfield on every play. Nova had no time to throw on most downs, which was a direct consequence of USF forcing Rutgers into being one-dimensional with stout run defense. Throw in USF steadily pounding the undersized Rutgers defense up the middle with back Darrell Scott, and the Bulls were steadily pulling away in what had been a defensive struggle.

About halfway through the fourth quarter, things were starting to look hopeless. The fans already stayed home in droves in protest of last week's collapse against West Virginia, and they were starting to head for the exits on the cold November night. Then, explosive kick returner Jeremy Deering changed everything with a 98-yard return for a score. Rutgers suddenly had life, the defense looked reinvigorated after seeming to tire, and sophomore quarterback Chas Dodd reemerged in relief of Gary Nova under center. Dodd's first drive stalled, but with three and a half minutes left on the clock, he stuck with what was familiar. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti spread out the field, and with the game on the line, repeatedly called the number of security blanket Mohamed Sanu. Sanu proceeded to put the team on his back in the manner of Ray Rice or Kenny Britt, refusing to concede defeat with a spectacular fourth-and-nine catch.

Sanu caught a few more passes, which has to be considered routine at this point, but then something truly special happened. Maligned receiver Brandon Coleman has struggled with drops all season long, but found some redemption with superb end zone grab to tie everything up. Chas Dodd was zipping balls all over the field, and USF was reeling. After a preposterous sequence where they threw three straight passes instead of running down the clock (Rutgers was out of timeouts), and then proceeded to shank a punt, everything seemed to be turning Rutgers; or so it seemed momentarily. Dodd proceeds to rocket a pass downfield into the waiting arms of a defender, which shouldn't be a killer, only USF then sprints downfield in two easy plays. The Bulls are back in field goal range, and it's looking like Rutgers might well snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Rutgers had blown it once again, as they had all too often throughout the years. If Rutgers was once again playing its familiar role on the wrong side of a loss, they earned a reprieve in another bit of history, being USF's long-gestating urge to self-immolate against Rutgers. 2010 had been the exception, with Rutgers fumbling away a winnable game, but that was then, and now the world makes sense again. With a game on the line against Rutgers, USF can be counted on to make a critical mistake, and the most incredible thing was that there was still plenty more futility and heartbreak left in store for the Bulls even after Maikon Bonani mangled what should have been a chip shot from 27 yards out with only two seconds left. Rutgers had new life, and still had time to save their season.

The media perception with B.J. Daniels has finally started to catch up with reality. He is a fantastic runner, but nothing to write home about in the air, and makes his fair share of crippling mistakes. To Daniels's credit, he was awesome on the ground last night, in spite of his repeated struggles in passing. USF was missing top receiver Sterling Griffin after all, and Daniels hurt his hand near the end of regulation. There were extenuating circumstances, and the problems weren't entirely his fault (that sound you hear is of Gary Nova nodding in agreement), but Daniels sealed the victory for Rutgers with an ill-timed pick right into the waiting arms of Duron Harmon. Rutgers summarily ran Jamison for three straight rushes, and trotted out San San Te for the winning field goal. Te, the maddening king of inconsistency (he's basically the Gary Nova or B.J. Daniels of quarterbacks) was on in a game that Bonani wasn't, and nailed the winning kick to secure the victory.

Additional thoughts:

  • USF's front seven just looked awesome, although some of the Rutgers linemen looked overwhelmed at times. You can't get on them too much - the pass protection has been better this year, and really, the fundamental problem is run blocking. If you can't run, then you become one dimensional, and opposing pass rushes become a lot stronger.
  • The referees largely were not calling pass interference on either side.
  • USF's big backs were a bad matchup for the speedy Rutgers defense, although having so many injuries up front didn't help. Credit the defense for a solid bounce back game though. Justin Francis is a franchise player at defensive tackle. Logan Ryan looks like the best pure cover corner in the Big East. Sigh, does Rutgers really have to play the triple option AGAIN? Putting Army aside, that's basically going to obliterate any chances for upsetting Cincinnati in two weeks.
  • With Chas Dodd and Gary Nova, there certainly wasn't anything definitive. Dodd did more than Nova all game on his long drive, but had two other duds. Again, there were extenuating circumstances last night. I think it might be time to give Dodd another look, but not because Nova played poorly against USF. Dodd deserves a chance for two reasons: he was rattled against Syracuse, and Nova makes too many mistakes right now. Sitting on the bench gave Dodd a chance to clear his head and not hear footsteps in the pockets.
  • Nova won the Syracuse game, and had his moments against Navy, but you wonder what happens with Dodd the past few weeks. That doesn't mean Rutgers would have won, or even that Dodd would have been an upgrade, but the coaching staff's unerring public support of Nova was counterproductive in that it only fed public curiosity. After all, unless Andrew Luck is under the center, the most popular player on any team is usually the backup QB.
  • Watching Nova the past month, you see why the coaching staff is so excited about him, but his inexperienced was getting exposed and exploited. The future is still bright with Nova. As soon as next fall, he has a chance to be something. Here's an idea: what about bringing back Mike Teel as a graduate assistant, tasked essentially a personal tutor for Nova? Teel went through the same issues from being thrown into the mix too early, which would make him an ideal mentor.
  • That's an awful break if Savon Huggins is out for the season.
Ok - the bowl eligibility monkey is off the team's back, and everyone can finally step off the ledge now after last week, right? Next week should offer the first of two trips this season to Rutgers North in the Bronx, so let's make the most of it.