Last night's game was the definition of a heartbreaker. There was no fairy tale happy ending at High Point Solutions Stadium. Rutgers was the servant boy who loved Cinderella all along, only to have the prince win her over and smash his dreams at the end. However, last night was also something else. For those that have felt the dark cloud over this program for the past 8 weeks, last night was a clearing of the skies. Sure, there were some bad plays made and frustrating calls, including the 4th down spike at the 50 yard line. Paul James had one carry all game after his 72 yard jaunt. The Rutgers defense gave up another last minute, game losing drive, including a 4th and long play. However, I choose to focus on the positives of this Rutgers performance, against one of the best college football teams of the past three years, who have won 31 of their last 34 games.
- Rutgers played to win, showing heart and desire that had not been previously seen so far this season. They played in a passionate way that made this team fun to watch, making you believe in this program again. The past eight weeks instilled zero confidence in pretty much everyone, that Rutgers was capable of taking on a top team. Last season, Rutgers lost 45-3 at Michigan State. Last night, they took the Spartans to the brink. If this team can play even close to the level they did last night, winning six games is not out of the question.
- The coaching staff had their best game with playcalling all season, by far. The defense had multiple blitz calls in almost every drive and were constantly changing up their looks. It's like defensive coordinator Joe Rossi finally had time to catch up during the bye to watch old tape of the Rutgers defenses of past years. It was about time! Ben McDaniels deserves credit as well, calling for deep balls in critical situations. He adapted during the game, after the first three drives were all three and outs. For the first time all season, the offense and defense were letting it all hang out. To say it was refreshing is a huge understatement for a fanbase starving for big plays to cheer for.
- Our best players played like our best players. This for me, was what made me so happy and stuck out to me. In a big game, with the season slipping away, the leaders and most talented players on the team responded. And quite frankly, that is all you can ask for. Look at the performances of our three team captains, all of whom made a huge impact on this game.
- Quentin Gause played like a senior captain, tying for the team lead with 10 tackles, including two for a loss. In addition, his energy and spirit was infectious with his teammates, leading the defense to play by far their best game of the season. Gause was also in on the blocked field goal on special teams. He turned in the type of performance that should make every supporter proud. In a season of terrible headlines, Gause is the most under appreciated guy in this program and leads this team with class and dignity. His career should be wildly celebrated at the end of this season.
- Leonte Carroo proved on a national stage that he is clearly the best receiver in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. He may have been laughed at before the game by other conference foes, but he put the fear of god in every Big Ten opponent we have left on the schedule. Carroo had seven catches for 134 yards and three touchdowns. It was the fourth game of his career with three touchdowns, with no other Rutgers player ever having more than one. He started practicing on Thursday, after 25 days away from the team. Think about that. He is a special talent and whatever your thoughts are on the incident he was involved in, it appears he is moving forward and will take advantage of every opportunity left for him this season.
- Paul James, the forgotten star who has struggled this season coming back from injury, changed the dynamic of the game with one play. Rutgers was down 7-0 and had three consecutive drives without a first down to start the game. I was thinking it was only a matter of time before our defense got tired and the game would get away from us, that our offense could not keep up. And then James sprinted through an open space, with credit to the offensive line for creating it, and ran 72 yards before getting tripped up at the 6 yard line of Michigan State. To see James, the oft injured former leading rusher, make that play and jump start this team, was extremely satisfying. He is by all accounts a great kid and after taking a back seat to Josh Hick and Robert Martin all season, James finally had his moment. It was the sixth rush of his career of 50 yards or more.
- Chris Laviano played the best game of his career on the biggest stage of his career so far. I know the critics are out in full force, using the 4th down spike as a punch line for Laviano's season, but it is unfair. Remember, he is only a redshirt sophomore who started only the fourth game of his career. He wasn't perfect but he made a lot of big plays too. His third down scramble inside the Rutgers 10 in the 4th quarter, started a game tying 91 yard drive and forced Michigan State to respond. His first touchdown pass to Carroo from 5 yards outside the goalline was a bullet and best throw of his career, in my opinion. I have been personally frustrated with Laviano looking listless on the field and the sideline, seeming overwhelmed. Last night he had a different look in his eyes and sure played like it. He needs to build off this performance because there were a lot of positives.
- True freshman Blessuan Austin stepped up in a huge way, tying with Gause for the team lead with 10 tackles. He asserted himself and played with a confidence that hadn't been seen previously. The bye week certainly helped Austin get more comfortable. He has a chance to be one of the best defensive backs to ever play at Rutgers.
- Stand up and applaud interim head coach Norries Wilson. He deserves a ton of credit for the way in which he managed an almost impossible situation. It has been so refreshing to see the head coach show emotion and give honest, detailed answers regarding players and situations. And I don't think he called for Laviano to spike it on 4th down, but he trying to take the bullet for a kid still learning. Wilson gets it, he holds his players accountable on the field, stopping them as they walk off after a mistake. He admits to the media when the team doesn't do a good job in a certain area. But when a player makes a mistake in the heat of the moment, he shows they are not alone and Wilson stood up, saying he should be blamed. His outpouring of emotion after a heartbreaking loss is what resonates with a fanbase. We don't want to hear stoic, vanilla answers. Rather, we want to see that the loss gutted you as much as it did us, and Wilson showed the past month he wears his heart on his sleeve. He is a class act and his press conferences will be missed.
At the end of the day, it was a loss that puts this team at 2-3 with a brutal stretch ahead. However, last night should breed hope that this program is not as far away as feared. They showed they are capable of playing at a high level, and if they continue to do that, then six wins is possible. For the first time all season, this team made Rutgers alums and fans proud!!! And that is something to celebrate!