Over a week ago, I wrote about what I considered to be the ten worst losses for Rutgers football this century. Click here for Part I and here for Part II. I believe in 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. They weren't necessarily the most dramatic or exciting games individually, although many were. It was not easy to cut the list down to just ten, but it had to be done.
Click here for Part I, which featured the bottom half of the ten biggest wins in program history this century. As for the top five, each game marked an accomplishment for the Rutgers football program that either had not been achieved before, or it signified a major step forward. Here are what I consider to be the top five.
5) 2007 Rutgers 30 USF 27
This game was the highlight of the 2007 season in what was otherwise a major disappointment following the breakout 2006 season. Rutgers started the season ranked #16th in the country, but faltered in back to back home losses to Maryland and Cincinnati. After thumping Syracuse on the road, Rutgers came home for another big Thursday night affair. South Florida was 6-0 and #2 in the country as they came to Piscataway in late October. ESPN was hoping to replicate the magic of the Louisville game a season before and Rutgers did not disappoint.
There were a bunch of big performances that night. Jeremy Ito hit a career long 51 yard field goal and executed a fake punt to perfection, with a 36 yard pass play to James Townsend. Devin McCourty blocked a field goal attempt in the second half. Holder Andrew DePaola got the call late in the 3rd quarter on a fake field goal and delivered a touchdown pass to Kevin Brock that put Rutgers up 27-17. The offensive line stopped the nation's sack leader George Selvie, who never got to quarterback Mike Teel. And Ray Rice put on a clinic, rushing for 181 yards on 39 carries, the first time South Florida allowed an 100+ yard rusher in 14 games. This game still stands as the highest ranked opponent Rutgers has ever beaten.
4) 2014 Rutgers 41 Maryland 38
This game makes the list for several reasons. It featured the largest comeback in program history, with Rutgers overcoming a 35-10 deficit in the first half (record was tied in 2015 in win over Indiana). It clinched an overall winning record for the season, the first that Rutgers was in the Big Ten. And most importantly, it clinched finishing ahead of Penn State and Michigan in the Big Ten East division. These were all significant accomplishments in Year One, when no one gave Rutgers much of a chance. As we know, that still seems to be the case, but 2014 proved Rutgers can succeed in the Big Ten.
From a pure game standpoint, this was easily one of the most satisfying victories I can remember. Falling behind so far in the first half gave the most optimistic of Rutgers fans little reason to believe they would comeback. Gary Nova had another great game in a season in which he finished third in the Big Ten in passing yards, touchdown passes, and in quarterback rating, behind only J.T. Barrett of Ohio State and Connor Cook of Michigan State. He was nearly flawless from the late second quarter on in this game.
It was an inspiring effort by Rutgers to beat fellow new conference member Maryland, who was 7-4 entering this game and most thought would grab their eighth victory on the last day of the regular season. It was also special for Rutgers to win this game for former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who was a major reason Nova had such a stellar senior season. This video of him talking to the team after their historic win gets me every time.
3)2005 Rutgers 44 Cincinnati 9
Entering the 2005 season, there was sincere hope among the Rutgers faithful that this would finally be the season that Greg Schiano would lead the program to it's first winning season since 1992 and take them to their first modern day bowl game. This win clinched both, with Rutgers guaranteeing a winning season with the victory and claiming a bowl berth to the Insight Bowl after the game. With bowl reps in attendance, Rutgers thrashed Big East rival Cincinnati in front of a delighted home crowd. The win also clinched Rutgers first winning record in Big East conference play since 1992 as well.
It's easy to forget how big of a win this game was now, but Rutgers came in on a two game losing streak and to finish the regular season with another loss would have put a damper on their bowl hopes and good vibes created this year. They had just gotten embarrassed on a Friday night on ESPN against Louisville on the road, losing 56-5 after the team huddled at midfield on the Cardinal logo before the game started. It angered Louisville and they took it out on Rutgers, who got demolished.
Instead, Rutgers rebounded in a big way, as they crushed Cincinnati on the ground and their defense was unrelenting. Ray Rice rushed for 195 yards and 2 touchdowns. Brian Leonard rushed for 79 yards and 2 touchdowns, while also having 6 catches for 53 yards. Tight End Clark Harris had 61 receiving yards and a score. The defense was on a mission, holding Cincinnati to -23 yards rushing and sacked quarterback Dustin Grutza 9 times. It was a great win that sent Rutgers to the Insight Bowl to play Arizona State. Although they fell short in what was a thrilling, high scoring affair, this 2005 team made a big leap for the program and set the tone for the 2006 season that followed.
2) 2006 Rutgers 37 Kansas State 10
This game is so high on the list because it was the first bowl victory in program history. After losing in triple overtime to West Virginia with the Big East title and BCS bowl bid on the line, there was certainly some disappointed that such a landmark season for Rutgers only resulted into the Texas Bowl. However, there was no letdown from this team and they came out and dominated Kansas State. Their offense was led by quarterback Josh Freeman and wide receiver Jordy Nelson. Entering the game as the seventh ranked unit in the nation, the Rutgers defense frustrated Freeman and held him to 10 for 21 in the air, with just 129 passing yards and 2 interceptions.
Ray Rice completed a season for the ages with his tenth 100+ yard rushing game, finishing with 170 yards on the ground and a touchdown. After his performance in the bowl game, Rice finished second in the nation that season in rushing yards with 1794. He would top it the following season, finishing third with 2012 rushing yards. This game also highlighted a breakout performance from freshman wide receiver Tim Brown, who had 4 receptions for 101 yards and 2 touchdowns. Big plays from Brown became a staple of his career on the banks.
It was the defense that changed the momentum of this game though, something they did fairly often throughout that 2006 season. With Rutgers leading 17-10 at the start of the second half and Kansas State starting with the ball, linebacker Quintero Frierson caught a wounded duck in the air thrown by Freeman and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown. It was the first play from scrimmage in the second frame and set the tone for the rest of the game. Kansas State didn't score the rest of the way and Rutgers celebrated its first bowl win in 137 seasons. Rutgers finished ranked #12 in the country in both the AP and Coaches Polls, their highest ranked finish in school history.
1) 2006 Rutgers 28 Louisville 25
It was the greatest Rutgers football game any of us who attended has ever seen. I sat on the first row of the second deck and there were several times during the game where either I or someone next to me could have easily fallen off the railing during multiple raucous celebrations during the game. The comeback from being down 25-7 in the second quarter was simply exhilarating. The atmosphere in the stadium that night was electric.
There were so many big plays and performances in this game. Ray Rice rushed for 131 yards and 2 touchdowns, thrusting himself into the Heisman trophy conversation. Kenny Britt had a huge 67 yard catch that set up a Rice touchdown. Jeremy Ito hit a 46 yard field goal to tie the game with 10:17 remaining in the game. Of course, he won the game with a 28 yard field goal with less than a minute to play, which our own Jim Hoffman referred to as the most important play for Rutgers football this century.
The defense, which played a level never seen at Rutgers before that season, raised their game even more so in the second half. Led by Rameel Meekins and Eric Foster, the pass rush was relentless on Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm. The Rutgers defense held the high powered offense of Louisville scoreless in the second half.
But for me, of all the amazing plays and images during this game, Brian Leonard's catch out of the flat, scampering down the sideline for 26 yards to put Rutgers into Louisville territory as the clock was winding down still stands out many years later. There is no overstating what he meant to the rebirth of the Rutgers football program. In a season that Rutgers reached heights never seen before, Leonard was selfless and sacrificed personal triumph to do what was best for the team. As important as Ray Rice and the defense was to the success of the 2006 team, Leonard set the tone and was the truest of leaders.
This game is when things really started to feel different about Rutgers football. They would have found so many different ways to lose this game in the past, and it looked that way again early on. But the spirit and fight of this team would never die, and they fed off a crowd starving for this kind of victory. Rutgers was 9-0 after this win and ranked #7 in the country in both the AP and Coaches Polls, their highest ranking ever. They were legitimate contenders for the national championship in November. It was truly a remarkable time to be a Rutgers fan, and the whole aftermath of that game felt surreal. I think every last Rutgers fan floated out of the stadium that night. It was pure bedlam on the field and outside the stadium. Pure joy. This wasn't just the biggest win for Rutgers this century, this was the greatest victory in Rutgers history, period.