Tuesday, I covered the first half of ten games of what I believe to be the worst losses for Rutgers football in this century. Click here for Part I. I am a firm believer in embracing the heartbreaks that happen today, as they make the success of tomorrow that much more sweeter. Cherishing the journey with its ups and downs, on the way to glory. We are still waiting.
When I think of tough losses, the context in which the game is played is very important. There have been a lot of contenders for the top five mentioned in the comments of Part I, including the 2005 bowl loss to Arizona State, the 2007 loss to Maryland, 2009 losses to Cincinnati and West Virginia, the bowl losses to Virginia Tech in 2012 and Notre Dame in 2013, as well as last season's loss to Michigan State. All good candidates, but none that I thought fell in the five worst of this century, based on the context of those games. We were underdogs in all three bowl losses and frankly, Rutgers was just thrilled to get to the Insight Bowl in 2005. The Notre Dame game we were lucky to even be at a bowl game, although I agree it's never fun to lose to the Irish. The Maryland loss did hurt because we were ranked #15 at the time, but that team fell short too many times that season for that one loss to be the difference in its final destination. So without further ado, here are what I consider the five worst losses this century.
5) 2012 Kent State 35 Rutgers 24
It's easy to forget how well the Kyle Flood era began due to how terrible it ended last season. In Flood's first season as head coach, Rutgers started with a 7-0 record and ranked #18 in the AP poll and #15 in the BCS rankings. It was homecoming against 6-1 Kent State, who featured Dri Archer and was coached by former Rutgers assistant Darell Hazell. In addition, Archer's position group coach is current wide receivers coach Jafar Williams, who surely sees some similarities between Janarion Grant and his former Kent State star.
This game raised the first red flag of Flood's tenure, as the team was simply not ready to play this game. It certainly seemed they came in to the Homecoming game against a MAC opponent too overconfident and lacked the intensity that got them to 7-0. Gary Nova played one of the worst games of his career, throwing for 6 interceptions, killing multiple drives that stalled a potential comeback. For the first time of what turned out to be a calling card of Flood's coaching style at Rutgers, he stuck with his starting quarterback in a game too long. Kent State came out hungry and popped Rutgers in the mouth, jumping out to a 21-3 lead in the 2nd quarter. Despite Rutgers outgaining Kent State in total offense by 54 yards, they committed 7 turnovers and lost the time of possession battle by almost 15 minutes. It was an ugly, disappointing loss that put a serious stain on a tremendous start to the season. It was a sign of things to come, as the team went 2-3 the rest of the season despite having arguably the best defense in school history.
4) 2014 Penn State 13 Rutgers 10
There was so much hope and excitement that preceded this game, both in kicking off the Big Ten era of Rutgers football and a long awaited matchup with Penn State. The Big Ten Network's studio show was on campus and the game was in primetime. In my opinion, it was one of the best pregame environments for a Rutgers football game ever. You could feel the buzz and anxiousness around the stadium, with a good number of Penn State fans tailgating.
Once the game started, it was a hard fought, close first half, highlighted by Gary Nova's gutsy touchdown run. The atmosphere in the Stadium that night was electric. Penn State fans can say they don't care about Rutgers, but the tension was palpable between both fan bases that night. It truly felt like a big game, despite only being September. Nova had the worst game of his senior season, throwing for 5 interceptions, although at least two were not his fault. The last drive by Penn State felt like torture with the outcome hanging in the balance. The realist in me expected Penn State to score, and they did with a Bill Benton touchdown scamper with less than a minute to play. The roar of the Penn State fans and the silence of the home crowd was a stark contrast in sounds, the rest of the next hour was a blur to me. Although Rutgers ended up finishing ahead in the standings of Penn State in 2014, this loss was the most upsetting in an otherwise stellar Big Ten debut season.
3) 2011 UConn 40 Rutgers 22
The final three games on this list all had conference championship implications. This matchup against UCONN also turned out to be the last regular season game that Greg Schiano coached at Rutgers. With a chance for a share of the Big East title, and possible BCS Orange Bowl berth depending on tiebreakers, Rutgers was totally outclassed by the 3-6 Huskies. This game was another example of a matchup Rutgers was the heavy favorite in and laid a smelly egg instead. The final score was not indicative of how much Rutgers got demolished in this game. UConn jumped out to a...wait for it...21-3 lead and at one point led 40-10.
I remember being legitimately angry from almost kickoff on, more so than most bad games. You could tell almost immediately Rutgers was not ready. Our guys looked like they were playing in slow motion and I couldn't believe how unprepared Schiano had this team, in a rivalry game no less. Rutgers ran for -9 yards on 26 carries in this game and lost three fumbles. Nova and Chas Dodd combined for 482 yards passing, but also threw three interceptions. Again, way too many mistakes buried Rutgers in this game, despite outgaining UConn by 140 total yards on offense.
2) 2012 Louisville 20 Rutgers 17
Despite the disappointing loss on homecoming to Kent State, Rutgers was able to match the 2006 team with a 9-1 start. Then they got blown out at Pitt 27-6. Still, with Louisville coming to Piscataway for another Thursday night classic, it was the de facto Big East Championship game, with the winner headed to a BCS bowl game. Louisville's star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had a broken wrist and a sore ankle, making him a game time decision. He didn't start the game and Nova threw two 60+ yard touchdowns to Brandon Coleman and Mark Harrison. Rutgers was leading at the half 14-3.
During the break, my good friend starting carrying on about how Rutgers was going to the Sugar Bowl and how crazy that would be and should we stay in the French Quarter, blah, blah, blah. I was incensed and demanded he stop talking immediately and then walked away. My friends still laugh at the rage I unleashed on him. I've seen too much over the years to think Rutgers will win until the final whistle ultimately blows.
Then the second half started and Flood called a brilliant fake field goal that hold J.T. Tartacoff executed perfectly, finding tight end D.C. Jefferson for the touchdown. Except it wasn't, as one of the offensive lineman was called for an illegal man downfield penalty, taking the score off the board. It was a questionable call at best, and it changed the fate of the game.
Louisville responded with a 90 yard touchdown drive and then took the lead after Rutgers fumbled the subsequent kickoff return. Despite the collapse, Rutgers tied it with a field goal midway through the 4th quarter. With the game tied, Rutgers was driving towards midfield when a Nova pass was right on the money to receiver Tim Wright. Unfortunately he didn't catch it and it was deflected into a Louisville defender's hands, setting up the game winning field goal for the Cardinals. Rutgers had one last chance, but there was a terrible miscommunication between Nova and the receiver, as almost 50,000 fans watched in horror as he threw a floater in the air. There was only a Louisville defensive back near it, hauling in the interception over his shoulder and officially crushing our hopes and dreams to finally break through and win a Big East title and gain a BCS berth. It was like watching an accident happen in slow motion.
The fact that we lost to Louisville was salt in the wound, as they got their revenge for 2006. The fact that their star quarterback essentially beat us on one leg and could only take snaps from the shotgun because of his broken wrist was infuriating. Granted, Bridgewater is well on his way to a great NFL career. But the 2012 defense was one of the best in Rutgers history and has five players currently on an NFL roster. They did rise to the occasion in the Russell Athletic Bowl game against Virginia Tech, with the Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene scoring the only touchdown for Rutgers in that game. The offense was terrible and Rutgers ended a once promising season with a disappointing 9-4 record. As Kyle Flood liked to say, they were Big East co-champions that season, but for those that remembered the ending to that season, it felt nothing like winning a title. Falling short that season will haunt Rutgers fans forever.
1) 2006 West Virginia 41 Rutgers 39 OT
So how was the 2012 Louisville game not #1? Because of our longtime nemesis West Virginia, who sullied our greatest season in decades. I think this loss was more important than 2012 for several reasons. It was our best team since 1976 and the first time a Rutgers football team was relevant on the national stage. As I wrote earlier this week, the 2006 team changed everything in so many positive ways for Rutgers moving forward. It was Schiano's best team on the banks. And although this team positively changed the future, winning the Big East and going to a BCS game would have elevated the program and Schiano's legacy to greater heights. Rutgers failed to knock off its final obstacle at the top of the mountain in West Virginia, an annual factor that held back the program under Schiano. There is no better example of that than 2006.
After Rutgers made its first modern day bowl game the season before, Rutgers shocked the college football world by starting 9-0 after a stunning upset at home against #3 Louisville. The following week's loss at Cincinnati made #6 on our list for worst losses this century. With the glass slipper shattered by the Bearcats, Rutgers responded by blowing out Syracuse and was in first place of the Big East with one game to play. They went to Morgantown needing to win to capture their first conference championship and capture a BCS berth. West Virginia was sitting their star quarterback Pat White because of a bum ankle. The game was for the taking, despite playing in a hostile environment with so much on the line.
Rutgers was sharp, committing only two penalties all game and not committing any turnovers in a triple overtime game. After leading 10-6 at the half, West Virginia scored two touchdowns in the 3rd quarter and took a 20-10 lead. Rutgers responded with a 72 yard touchdown on a Mike Teel to Tim Brown special. After a Jeremy Ito field goal, the game was tied late in the 4th quarter. Rutgers was again deep in West Virginia territory, and it was 3rd and 7 from the 14 yard line with 3:55 to play. Teel threw a perfect pass to receiver James Townsend in the end zone, but he dropped it and Rutgers settled for a field goal. That play will forever live in infamy in Rutgers' fans minds as the ultimate "what could have been" moment.
West Virginia tied it and Rutgers had the ball with 2:55 to play in the game. Teel got the ball to the West Virginia 35 yard line and Ito came on to attempt a 52 yard field goal with 6 seconds left on the clock. The Judge could not deliver justice, missing and the game went to overtime. After trading field goals and then a touchdown each, the game was tied at 33 and headed into triple overtime. The rule was each team needed to attempt a two point conversion from the third overtime on after a touchdown was scored. West Virginia had the ball first, scoring a touchdown and converting the two points. Rutgers responded with a Ray Rice touchdown and needed the two point conversion to tie up the game and force a fourth overtime. Teel rolled right and threw to Rice, but the pass was deflected and the dream was over.
This was an epic game and one that felt like multiple games rolled into one. From the fourth quarter on, it felt like an entire season of Game of Thrones, with so many ups and downs and what could have been's. Every loss hurts, every loss on this list still hurts, but this one will never die.