It has not been an ideal start to the season for Rutgers football. However, for those of you that know better, it could be a lot worse. We could be completely irrelevant in the college football world. Because we were, for many, many, many years. I remember going to see Rutgers play Colgate as a child in the mid-eighties. It was a minor miracle when we gained entry into the Big East, but we still struggled. I graduated from Rutgers College in 2000 and the football team's record in my four years on the banks was 8-36. This period included a zero win season and a one win season (we beat Syracuse my senior year, so it was a glorious one win).
The first time real hope and real expectations were placed on the Rutgers football program in the modern era was 2004. Greg Schiano was entering his fourth season as head coach and was coming off a 5-7 season the year before. Rutgers had equaled five wins just three times in the previous fifteen seasons, and eclipsed that win total only once. Chop nation was in full "drinking the kool-aid" mode with Schiano. At this point, expectations heading into the 2004 season were that we would finally make a bowl game. I repeat, MAKE A BOWL GAME! That was like making the Super Bowl for Rutgers football back then. Which was only a decade ago, before Rutgers went to nine bowl games in the last ten seasons.
I was personally through the roof with hope and excitement. I was living in Boston at the time and came home specifically for the season opener against Michigan State. The Spartans were coming off an 8-5 year in head coach John L Smith's first season. Here was Rutgers hosting a Big Ten school to kick off a season with real hope to make a bowl game. Times were changing for the better and they did not disappoint. More importantly, leaders of the 2006 team emerged on this day, laying a foundation for the program to make real progress in the near future.
The rising star was sophomore Brian Leonard, who announced himself to the college football world that day with a stellar performance. He rushed for 150 yards for 6 yards per carry, and had six catches for 40 yards. Leonard set the tone with a wild 56 yard run on the first play from scrimmage in the game. He went on to produce 1,250 yards of total offense along with 9 touchdowns that season. The next season he produced over 1,300 yards and a whopping 17 touchdowns. His senior season, Leonard showed he was the ultimate team player, yielding to rising star Ray Rice, and complimenting him instead of being the lead back. It led to the best season in Rutgers football history and set an example for every player that was a part of this program moving forward.
Another key player from the 2006 team made his debut in the Michigan State game. Jeremy "The Judge" Ito had as much of a roller coaster ride for a college debut as I can remember. Ito had seven field goal attempts against Michigan State, a school record, with five attempts coming on the first five possessions of the game. Ito missed from 29 yards and then 56 yards in his first two college attempts. Schiano never wavered in his confidence in Ito and kept sending him out. I remember being terrified every time Ito came out for a field goal attempt that game. Unfairly that feeling has stuck with me for every kicker Rutgers has fielded since.
Ito then connected on a 23 yard field goal before having a 24 yard field goal blocked. A 1-4 start had the crowd grumbling early on, worried wasted opportunities would bury our chances of beating the Spartans. But Ito responded, hitting from 47 yards before the half, 23 yards right after the half and from 42 yards late in the 3rd quarter. Ito went 4-7 for the day and went on to become the best kicker in Rutgers history. Aside from the four field goals, defensive end Ryan Neill, returning from a season ending injury the year before, intercepted a pass and ran back for a touchdown, the only touchdown Rutgers scored in the game.
For Schiano, he got his first signature win at Rutgers. It would still take time for him to elevate Rutgers into a consistent winner, as the team suffered a bad loss to New Hampshire the following week. The 2004 team ultimately disappointed, finishing 4-7, losing the last five games straight to end the season.. However, the tough losses led to next season's breakthrough, with Rutgers finishing 7-5 and making a bowl game for only the second time in program history. 2006 followed and Rutgers was the feel good story of college football. Schiano won national coach of the year awards and Brian Leonard won the Campbell Trophy, the academic heisman. The 11-2 record was the most wins in school history and the team finished ranked 12th in the national polls. 8-9 win seasons became the norm and expectations increased. Ultimately, it led to Rutgers becoming a member of the Big Ten conference. It all started against Michigan State back in 2004. Hopefully another winning season and bowl berth can be kick started against the same Michigan State this weekend.