It's not a case of the how, but the why. There is no shame in losing to this year's Louisville team, especially in a 20-17 game. There is shame in losing to this year's Pittsburgh team, and even this year's Kent State team, but not this Louisville team. If you would have polled anyone before the game about a 20-17 loss, the general sentiment would have been disappointment, tempered by acceptance. Failing to show up like the team did last week is unacceptable. In a good spirited contest, somebody has to lose, and maybe that will become clearer in time once this one doesn't sting as hard any more. I'm not as furious as I was for bungling the previous game, that could have locked up an Orange Bowl bid against a subpar opponent, but it was the specific matter of facts from the game with Louisville that make it still so painful to recall and write about days later.
Rutgers opened up with guns blazing on offense, effectively. Brandon Coleman turned a sidelines pass into a touchdown thanks to breaking a few tackles, and then Rutgers went up 14-3 following a similar pass to Mark Harrison. Last year's bad hands goats were suddenly redeemed. When all of a sudden in the third quarter, Rutgers successfully converted a fake field goal touchdown and looked to be up 21-3, the entire stadium was in a collective state of euphoria. Fans were frantically looking up Sugar Bowl travel packages on their cell phones (this was before Kent State lost last night.) Then, all of a sudden, heartbreak. It had no effect on the play, but Devon Watkis had sprinted downfield. To add insult to injury, now Rutgers was out of punting range, and punter Justin Doerner has been cold as the arctic in November.
Louisville proceeded to march down the field and score a touchdown. Fine, they had to be expected to do that at some point with Teddy Bridgewater gutting out a tough performance. The first real punch in the gut was on the proceeding kickoff, where Jeremy Deering coughed off a fumble. Bridgewater lasered in another score minutes later, and everyone was left shell shocked by such a wild swing. We had gone from potentially a 21-3 lead to trailing 17-14 in a manner of minutes. The ghosts of 2006, 2008, and 2011 were getting restless, and with good reason. Normally Tim Wright is as sure-handed as receivers get, but Rutgers could have charged right back into the game had he not dropping would have been another likely long touchdown (sparking shades of all of the infamous 2011 drops.) Then Wright coughed up a deflected pass over the middle into the arms of a waiting Louisville defender, allowing them to grab the go-ahead score to go up by three. Rutgers was still in it then, and Gary Nova was marching everybody down the field, but one route miscommunication later and all of the team's BCS bids had evaporated, going into hiding yet again for another calendar year.
Again, it's the stomach punch nature of how this all transpired that really gets you. You can't get on Rutgers for losing to a good team. In fact, as anyone could expect, the very fact that Rutgers was facing a good team meant that Kyle Flood and Dave Brock actually conjured up a functional offense on the night, instead of the usual pile of trash that's par for the course when they don't respect an opponent. If you give your best and it's not enough then, really, you can live with that. As bad as the ending was, I'm much, much angrier over the other myriad screwups this season than this one specific game. The history factor of coming just short yet again is the bigger blow obviously, along with the feeling that a golden opportunity like this only comes along every so often. It's true that there is only one year left with the Big East, and that Michigan and Ohio State have a good shot at locking up the Big Ten's BCS bids most seasons, but stranger things have happened. On this point, it's ultimately a case of small sample size. With more opportunities eventually the ball will bounce the other way.
Let's hit some specific points:
- Gary Nova was pretty good overall. Did anyone ever say whether he or the WR screwed up on the last play?
- How good Bridgewater looked can't be emphasized enough. As mad as we are, he won it as much as Rutgers lost it.
- Some stops on third down sure would have been nice though. Rutgers was able to completely bottle up the UL running game on first and second down, but then the freaky stuff started happening. Their walk-on backup QB breaking tackles in option runs, and Bridgewater willing his receivers to make really impressive catches (while Rutgers was comparatively dropping easy ones.)
- In a way, the offense was almost a victim of its own success in that the big plays didn't allow them to run the ball a bit more to keep Bridgewater off the field, and give the defense more of a breather. Coupled with UL's long drives early, and the Rutgers defense really looked like it needed a breather in the fourth quarter.
- I'll defend Gary Nova to the ends of the earth. He showed a ton this year overall and in terms of growth. He's the undisputed guy moving forward, and has a good shot to break all the school records and be the guy to take Rutgers to a championship. Still, watching Bridgewater, I can't help but rue Rutgers blowing its shot at its own transcendent QB. Don't forget, if Savage had stayed, Rutgers easily wins a few more games last season and wins the conference. Now, this could be Savage putting together his own standout senior campaign. Kirk Ciarrocca is still haunting the program from beyond the coaching grave. And to think we just missed at Devin Fuller (who UCLA switched from QB like two seconds after he got to campus) stings even more. Having a true, transcendent franchise guy under center can fix a lot of other problems, and that's even taking into account that quite a number of them end up busting.
- The defense got some pressure on Louisville, more than they did on Rutgers, but edge rushing has been an issue for most of the year. There's probably a good case that the defense is in transition away from Greg Schiano's scheme to more of a traditional look up front, but you sure as hell expect more when there's a holy terror like Scott Vallone wreaking havoc. He can't be expected to do it all against the pass.
- Yeah, there were a few bad calls. Khaseem Greene got flagged for another ridiculous penalty on the hit out of bounds. There's no way at all that he could have realistically seen the Louisville player tiptoe out of bounds, especially considering that the UL guy kept moving like he didn't. Another mishap was overturned fumble, which just left me speechless.
- You would have liked to see more punt block attempts.
- It wasn't the greatest game for the special teams. Besides the afore-mentioned mishaps, there was one play where a returner should have let a Louisville kickoff out of bounds. There was another punt return that careened off a Rutgers player, and could have been a disaster if we didn't recover. Not some great decisions on punt returns either. Obviously, Doerner is the big goat here. Kickoffs were quite bad too. Nick Borgese as a field goal kicker has been surprisingly good though in Kyle Federico's absence. You don't necessarily need a guy with a big leg. I'd almost rather take an Art Carmody type with limited range but an accurate leg.
As a closing note, if you want to vent, go ahead, it's your right as a fan. Rutgers blew it, both the game and the season. There are definitely a lot of question marks moving forward, about the play calling, personnel, about whether Kyle Flood can keep it up as he starts to put more of his finger prints on the roster. if you want to feel sorry for yourself and your precious tortured existence as a Rutgers fan though, you're on the wrong site. The whole point here isn't to wallow in self-pity, it's to look for and find the way forward. Going to Orlando against Virginia Tech isn't the end we had in mind, but as consolation prize connoisseurs if there ever were such a thing, it surely is better than our past consolation prizes. All hail the new world order, for it is good, righteous, and just.
If you think this is the same old Rutgers, then you clearly have had your head in the sand for the past month, if not the past decade. Two steps forward with one step back is still moving in the right direction, even if it's not as fast as you would like or fairly should have expected. Rutgers athletics doesn't have a history of falling just short because of any other reason than spending decades as a mom and pop shop that wasn't hustling to take advantage of every possible opportunity. Needless to say, that has changed for the better, and not a moment too soon. Whether it takes ten years, or a millennium cloaked in darkness, Rutgers isn't going to give up even if it means winning the Intergalactic Beings and Cockroach conference (naturally, headed by Jim Delany) in the year three thousand. We're going to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and take it to those god forsaken engineers with no quarter. It's all Rutgers football knows, so there sure isn't any point in stopping now.