Recently on NJ.com, Dan Duggan did a pair of pieces (here and here) that listed the top players in the Millennium for Rutgers football. That is one of those things that create all kinds of second-guessing, but overall, I think Dan did a good job. I could quibble with one or two, but on the whole, I think he got it right. But it got me thinking: beyond players, what were the top plays in Rutgers history?
I decided to make it even tougher for myself, and only pick the top five of modern teams. Also, these plays had to be against (what are now called) Power 5 teams as well. A play against Morgan State or Villanova will always look like a lesser play, just based upon whom it was scored.
I decided to pick from 2000 to the present. The teams prior to then are not to be ignored, as they were the foundation for the program we have today. It was just a place to pick as a starting point, and the last 15 years seems to be a good place to fit the bill.
So, the most important plays are:
5. Nate Jones opening kickoff return for touchdown against Tennessee- 2002
This is a game that needs to be put in context. At the time of kickoff, Rutgers had won exactly TWO games against Power 5 teams since 1995! In those seven years, they were on their third coach (Doug Graber, Terry Shea, Greg Schiano) and were considered the laughingstock of (what was then called) DI-A college football. Jones’s opening kickoff return for a touchdown silenced (for a while) the 100,000+ fans in Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. While the game is listed in the record books as an L, it was a glimmer of hope that perhaps we had a future at the highest level of college football.
4. Nova to Carroo opening play touchdown against Washington State- 2014
The first offensive play as the newest member of the Big Ten, on the road on the opposite side of the country. Rutgers was coming off a horrific 18 month period that had more drama off the field than on, with misstep after misstep as the school prepared to enter their new home. Rutgers began the opening series at the 22 yard line, and QB Gary Nova let loose a bomb to Leonte Carroo that resulted in a 78 yard score, and put Rutgers on the board. In a see-saw battle that wasn’t determined until literally the final series, Rutgers’ ultimate win was a bright spot in what looked at the time as a horrible opening weekend for the Big Ten.
3. Brian Leonard touchdown run against Illinois- 2005
In a play that was ESPN’s Game Day Top Play, Brian Leonard demonstrated to the nation the "Leonard Leap" in a 79 yard touchdown run that gave Rutgers a 27-7 third quarter lead over Illinois. The broadcasters exclamation, "Oh baby look at that!" made it obvious to all watching the game that Brian Leonard was a special player. Even now, watching that play makes everyone who watches it shake their head and concur with the follow-up statement of "…are you kidding me?" Many have pointed to this game as a pivotal game in the evolution of Rutgers into a "real" team. Despite that Rutgers lost 33-30 in that game, the team responded by winning seven of the next 11 games, and securing only the second bowl berth in school history, playing in the Insight Bowl against Arizona State. As the caption on the bottom of the ESPN Game Day Top Play clip said, must be the Jersey Juice!
2. Kemoko Turay blocks kick to secure win against Michigan- 2014
Our second-ever home Big Ten Conference game against a struggling Michigan squad, it was our first-ever "blackout" game in the conference, and a game that see-sawed back and forth through the first half. In the second half, Rutgers held the lead the entire game, but with 3:33 left in the game, Michigan attempted a field goal that would have given them a 27-26 lead. It was starting to look like a replay of the previous month’s game against Penn State, where Rutgers held the lead until Penn State took the lead (and the game) with less than two minutes left. However, this night Kemoko Turay, "the Kemoko Dragon" literally rose above everyone and blocked the Michigan attempt to secure the school’s first-ever Big Ten football win, as well as his place in Rutgers history forever. Turay was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week, and the picture of his vertical leap is enshrined forever. To see his leap, go to 7:15 of the you tube clip.
1. Jeremy Ito’s field goal against Louisville- 2006
Could there be any other chosen for #1? It is a game that has become the touchstone of Rutgers history, the biggest-ever win in Scarlet Knight football, and was the beginning of a run of Rutgers seasons and bowl games that led to our November 2012 invite to the B1G. For those who weren’t there, or don’t remember, Louisville had a 25-7 lead in the first half, and things looked pretty grim. However, from that point, everything seemed to bounce the right way for Rutgers, literally, even having a ball stripped from Kenny Britt that bounced right back into his arms at the Louisville four yard line. Ito actually missed the critical field goal, but thanks to an off-side call against # 3 Louisville, he got a second chance and nailed it down the middle on the second attempt with only 00:13 left on the clock. Moments later, the game ended, and "The Judge" Jeremy Ito had his place in history kicking the biggest field goal ever in Rutgers history and giving Rutgers a 28-25 win.
As the Associated Press wrote the next day, "Ray Rice, Brian Leonard and the Scarlet Knights had just pulled off the greatest victory in Rutgers history, and it looked as if all 44,111 fans had left the stands to join them on the field. Yes, Rutgers has arrived. Just ask Louisville, which got kicked right of the title scramble by the Scarlet Knights. The program that once set the standard for futility jumped into that title picture Thursday night by rallying from a big deficit for a 28-25 victory over the third-ranked Cardinals."
So there you have it. My top picks for the most important plays of the last 15 years. Agree? Disagree? Let me know!