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Rutgers Football Faces Its Darkest Hour

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This team heads to Happy Valley this Saturday facing the most adversity in program history. How will they respond?

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night, I walked out of the stadium in an all too familiar malaise, contemplating another winnable game that fell apart at the bitter end.  It was a bad loss and raised several red flags for this season.  Questions about the in-game coaching arose again, the lack of pass rush, how quickly will the secondary improve, and the unexpected struggles on offense.  It was a sinking feeling, one I've had too many times to count since I first started going to Rutgers games thirty years ago as a child.  Today, I sadly yearn to return to just those feelings from Saturday night, and not the continuing soap opera that is now Rutgers football.  A season that started with hope and promise, morphed into a bad dream, then a full fledged nightmare, and has eclipsed to the point that it makes an episode of Twin Peaks seem simple and mundane.

We don't know exactly what happened with Leonte Carroo outside the stadium Saturday night after the game.  Details will eventually come out and hopefully it's not as bad as we fear.  Perhaps coach Kyle Flood suspended Carroo indefinitely based on zero tolerance for being involved in any type of incident.  I don't want to speculate, we will know soon enough.  The bottom line is this team is reeling with the loss of their captain and best player, with his potential return unknown. (UPDATE: Carroo was arrested for domestic violence on Monday.)

You can click here to read about the impact the loss of Carroo has on the depth chart at wide receiver.  What I want to examine is how this team will respond, now that the unimaginable has become a dark reality.  In one month this team is now enduring four separate investigations involving robbery, assault, emails resulting in improper conduct, and now the Carroo incident.  There have been suspensions, arrests and dismissals.  I don't think you can call Flood an embattled coach anymore, he is more like under siege.  And I don't write that to absolve him from blame, just stating reality.  His future is unknown and cloudy at best, and hopefully the outcome of the investigation will be announced this week.  For better or for worse, we need a resolution.

The sentiment of the fan base has intensified from a slow grumble to a fever pitch, for multiple issues both on and off the field.  A football program that gave Rutgers alumni and fans a sense of pride and hope, has morphed into a national embarrassment that may take years to overcome.  It's unsettling, beyond disappointing and crushing for anyone who truly cares about the university.

The big picture regarding this program will play out in due time.  What I am focused on is how this team will respond. Today, tomorrow, and Saturday night in Happy Valley, against our hated rival that looks at us like a little brother not worth paying attention to. Do not misunderstand me, a potential win this weekend will not come close to repairing all the damage, heartbreak and pain this season has already brought.  But what I think is important is to focus on the players that deserve our respect and support, that are worth still rooting for.  The players on this team that can instill pride in the face of darkness.

Players like our fallen captain, Darius Hamilton.  We saw how much his impact on the field was missed against Washington State.  I sat eight rows behind the bench and I have never seen an injured player pleading and attempting to will his teammates to victory the way he did.  He was constantly in their ears, rallying for them to rise above.  It didn't work, but that doesn't mean his effort isn't worth acknowledging. We can only hope his return is imminent.

Quentin Gause, another captain, but one who is rarely in the spotlight, might be the most valuable player on the defense.  A player who goes about his business and gives maximum effort every time he steps on the field.

How about Anthony Cioffi?  He played his heart out on Saturday and has evolved into a valuable part of the defense. A guy who came to Rutgers as a skinny, undersized hard hitter with potential, has grown into a leader and steady hand in the secondary.  It was obvious he left it all out on the field and he looked absolutely gutted at the end of the game.  Keith Lumpkin is a monster on the field but by all accounts a gentle giant off it, who speaks to adults with "yes sir" and "yes ma'am".  A player that could have taken his chances in the NFL but chose to return to lead the offensive line.

Players like Paul James, who has represented our program and university in a first class way his entire career.  A former walk-on turned star, who is coming off two injury shortened seasons.  A leader who told the team after the bowl win last season that 8-5 wasn't good enough, that they needed to get better.  He was knicked up Saturday and wasn't himself the rest of the game.  We will learn today when the injury report is released how bad it is.  Let's hope it's not serious and he has the opportunity to keep fighting in his last season.  We need him more than ever now.

I am optimistic by nature and was very positive about this team headed into the season. Where we are now is shocking and beyond upsetting.  There is a sentiment out there that this season is already over, that it's only going to get worse and just put this team out of it's misery.  In times of adversity, I focus on any positive that exists.  Expectations have changed for sure, a winning season seems like an admirable goal with all that this team now faces.  This team has players and men that deserve our support and respect.  They have been let down by their teammates and perhaps even their coach.  As fans, supporters and alumni, let's not let them down too.  I can only imagine how they are feeling in the middle of this storm.  How much support do they feel from their own athletic department?  Their backs were against the wall heading into Saturday.  Now their backs are connected to the wall, and it will be a heavy and unfair load to carry the rest of the way.

And now they must prepare for Penn State and head into Happy Valley a wounded team. Believe it or not, this season is not over.  There are ten games left and there is no time like the present.  This team has unprecedented opportunity, to unite support in the program's darkest hour ever.   Call me naive, delusional or even dumb, but I believe the majority of the players on this team care about this university, this fan base and our support.  They know we are wounded as much as they are.  They can either let this adversity rip them apart and watch the season spiral into disaster, or they can unite and keep chopping until they find the light on the other side.

No matter what news comes out today, tomorrow or the next day, there is a game to play Saturday night.  This team has nothing to lose now and hopefully takes on the mindset of a wounded animal.  That would make them very dangerous on the field.  Perhaps it makes sense of who our opponent is this weekend.  For a few hours on Saturday, I hope for a retreat from this maddening reality off the field, and to root for a team that makes me proud against our rival, whether the other side agrees or not.  There is only one quote that our team needs to know, and that is from loyal son of Rutgers Jim Valvano.  "Don't give up, don't ever give up!"  As a fan base and alumni, we owe this team that remains the same attitude.  Let's come together and let's beat Penn State.