Earlier this week, I wrote about what I consider to be the ten worst losses for Rutgers football this century. Click here for Part I and here for Part II. I believe leading with bad news first and several readers asked for a follow up with the biggest wins this century. I am a man of the people and felt obligated to deliver. As I emphasized with the worst losses of the century, I believe context is so important in how these games are ranked. All of the wins featured on this list were significant to the overall history of the program. It was not easy to cut the list down to just ten, but it had to be done. Let's start off with the bottom half of the top ten biggest wins for Rutgers football this century.
10) 2012 Rutgers 35 Arkansas 26
In one of the best games of Gary Nova's career, Rutgers stormed into SEC country and stunned Arkansas, who started the season ranked #8 in the country. However, Arkansas saw their star quarterback Tyler Wilson suffer a concussion against FCS school Louisiana-Monroe. They ultimately lost that game in overtime and then got walloped at home by #1 Alabama the week after. Enter Rutgers the following week, who came in with a 3-0 record, but were still heavy underdogs on the road. Not many outside of our fanbase gave Rutgers a chance against an SEC team. Arkansas took a 10-0 lead and it looked like it would be a blow out for the home team. Instead, Nova woke up and threw for 397 yards and five touchdowns.
After Rutgers led 28-13 entering the 4th quarter, Arkansas stormed back and cut the lead to 2 points with 8:19 to play. The defense stopped Arkansas on their 2 point conversion attempt, but Rutgers needed a big play to stop the Razorbacks momentum. Nova delivered on the second play of the drive, throwing a 60 yard bomb to Mark Harrison that clinched the win.It was part of a surprising 7-0 start to the season for Rutgers. It was also a big statement for Rutgers to win on the road against an SEC opponent, and they completed the series sweep the following season with a 28-24 comeback win over Arkansas. The defensive coordinator for the Razorbacks in 2013 was now Rutgers head coach Chris Ash. It was a big accomplishment for the program to sweep an SEC program and was something we could point to when Big Ten fans grumbled about our entrance into their conference the following season.
9) 2011 Rutgers 27 Iowa State 13
This game makes the list for several reasons. It was the fifth consecutive bowl win for the program, a major feat for a school that had a 0-2 bowl record all-time before the magical 2006 season began. Accomplishing that feat was a major step in Rutgers becoming a legitimate football program. This season also followed the disaster that was 2010, when Eric LeGrand was paralyzed and the team finished with a 4-8 record. LeGrand was at this bowl game and the team dedicated the win to him. This was still early in his recovery and he hadn't been around the team as much as he is today, so it was a special moment for him to celebrate on the field and in the locker room with the team. Rutgers beating Iowa State at Yankee Stadium secured a 9-4 record, their third season in a six year period with at least that many wins. It also turned out to be the last game with Greg Schiano as head coach, who left for the NFL a month later. It was the end of an era, but the win solidified the continued progression of the program.
8) 2004 Rutgers 19 Michigan State 14
I wrote at length about this game back in the fall and how it marked the beginning of the modern era of Rutgers football. It was the first signature win of Greg Schiano's tenure at Rutgers and showed progress was being made. Now Michigan State wasn't nearly as good back then as they are today, but they were still a Big Ten school coming to Rutgers as heavy favorites. This game featured one of the best games of Brian Leonard's career, as he tallied 190 yards of total offense and averaged 6 yards per carry. His 57 yard run on the first play from scrimmage put the home crowd into a frenzy and set the tone for the game. This game also was the debut of arguably the best kicker in Rutgers history, Jeremy "The Judge" Ito, who hit on 4 of 7 field goals in this roller coaster of a game. It was a memorable home game and although Rutgers lost to New Hampshire the following week, the program was close to breaking out. It ultimately happened the following season, but this win will always be remembered as proof the program was moving in the right direction. The way I and many Rutgers fans felt leaving the stadium that day was one of true hope that better days were ahead. And they were.
7) 2008 Rutgers 54 Pitt 34
Following the historic 2006 season with an 11-2 record and #12 national ranking, Rutgers had a somewhat disappointing 2007 season, finishing 8-5 after starting the season 3-0 and ranked #15. Entering 2008, most college football fans started to believe Rutgers was fading back into irrelevance, as the team started an unthinkable 1-5. Rutgers had been embarrassed at home to Fresno State and North Carolina, as well as losing on the road to Navy. After close conference losses to West Virginia and Cincinnati, the season seemed doomed for sure. The following week, Rutgers hosted upstart rival UConn, who entered the game with a 5-1 record. The Huskies missed three field goals, including hitting the uprights on what would have been a game winning kick.Instead, Rutgers escaped with an ugly 12-10 win, their first over a FBS team that season.
At 2-5, Rutgers traveled to Pittsburgh, who entered the game ranked #17 in the country with a 5-1 record and 2-0 mark in the Big East. They already had wins against Iowa, #10 South Florida, and had just beaten Navy by three touchdowns the week before. Rutgers was a heavy underdog in the game and were in danger of seeing their season collapse for good. Senior quarterback Mike Teel entered this game against the 10th best passing defense in the country at the time, having thrown just three touchdowns and seven interceptions all season. Instead, Teel turned the season around, throwing at the time a program record six touchdown passes. He threw a 60 yard touchdown to Tim Brown and a 79 yard touchdown to Kenny Britt on the first two possessions of the game. Pitt stayed in it behind Heisman candidate LeSean McCoy, who ran for 126 yards and four touchdowns. However, Rutgers pulled away in the second half and the win gave the team confidence that carried through the rest of the season, culminating in a seven game win streak to end the season. This game was also Rutgers' first win over a ranked opponent on the road since they stunned #15 Penn State in Happy Valley in 1988.
Rutgers followed this win by blowing out South Florida, Syracuse, and Army before embarrassing Louisville at home on senior night, when Teel broke his own program record and set the Big East record for seven touchdown passes in a game. They ended the season with a come from behind win over Russell Wilson and N.C. State in the Papa John's Bowl, securing at least 8 wins in a season for three straight years. It was one of the strangest seasons in program history, but ended by solidifying the Schiano era and set the team up for another successful season in 2009. Rutgers was not going to fade away after all!
6) 2014 Rutgers 26 Michigan 24
The first win for Rutgers as a member of the Big Ten conference came against the winningest college football team of all-time, the Michigan Wolverines. This game came on the heels of the disappointing home loss to Penn State, less than a month before this matchup. Michigan came in struggling with a 2-3 record and by losing to Rutgers, started 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1967. It was a tense, up and down game that was clinched when Kemoko Turay leaped in the air and blocked a Michigan field goal attempt that would have given them the lead with less than 4 minutes to play.
I remember standing in my seat in disbelief that the kick was blocked and literally praying Rutgers could close it out. After a clock killing drive they did just that, and High Point Solutions became a huge party scene with the students rushing the field. This game was another gem by Gary Nova, who threw for 404 yards and three touchdowns. Rutgers was now 5-1 in their first season in the conference and Kyle Flood seemed to be turning the corner of his tenure as coach. I know it may surprise some that this game isn't ranked higher on the list, but I consider another win later that season to be even bigger in the history of Rutgers football. Still, it was a huge win and one that Michigan fans have conveniently seem to have forgotten. We will never let them forget! Here is what the staff of OTB had to say after this historic win.
Part II featuring the top five wins for Rutgers this century to follow later this weekend....