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Rutgers Football: Best and Worst of the Decade

Last ten years filled with some ups along with all the downs.

Louisville v Rutgers
This play was “the play” that defined a decade.
Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images

There was no template here, just thought I would jot down some moments that stood out as memorable from the last decade of Rutgers Football. Let us know some of your favorites in the comments below. You are welcome to invent categories, just keep it clean and not too offensive. Happy New Decade!

Game of the decade: Louisville 20, Rutgers 17 (2012)

Well this should have been it. The unofficial Big East title game as whichever team won would be the conference champion and representative in a BCS bowl game. Rutgers was 5-1 in conference, Louisville 4-2.

It should have been the game that Rutgers finally got to at worst the Orange Bowl, avenging the loss to West Virginia in 2006. It would have also also avenged a 16-14 loss to Louisville in 2011 that would have given Rutgers a shot at the title as well. The Scarlet faithful on the Thursday after Thanksgiving (since it was early that year), were absolutely bonkers in front of an ESPN audience. I recall this was the first game I ever streamed at the office, since I was on the West Coast and had a work emergency in the first half.

Louisville had an emergency of their own early on since Teddy Bridgewater had a badly sprained ankle and a broken wrist, but word was he would play. Backup Will Stein started and the Cardinals quickly found themselves down 14-3 on the strength of two long catch and runs by Rutgers from Brandon Coleman and Mark Harrison (making amends for his drop that blew the game in 2011). Rutgers got the ball into the end zone again or so it appeared to make it 20-3 on a fake field goal toss by J.T. Tartacoff, but the play was called back for a questionable ineligible man downfield penalty. Since kicker Kyle Federico was injured, Rutgers did not go for the longer field goal attempt and fans wondered if the home team was scared to attempt any field goals.

In the second half, Louisville scored two touchdowns on some surgical precision by a limping Bridgewater as neither team could run the ball at all. Rutgers could not sustain drives and ended up running just 45 plays the entire game on a paltry nine first downs. The Scarlet Knights did manage to tie the game at 17 on a Nick Borgese 38 yarder with 7:48 to play and the fans ignited a defensive stop on a sack by Kevin Snyder near midfield to keep the game tied and get RU the ball back with only a 4:30 left in the game. One long scoring drive would be it, and an outright Big East title for the Knights.

On 3rd and 8 from their own 27 yard line, Gary Nova hurled a good pass to future Super Bowl champion Tim Wright near midfield for what should have been an easy first down, momentum boost, and RU would have been in business. Instead it hit him in the chest and bounced right into the arms of current New York Jet James Burgess. Not even a personal foul on Louisville could stop the momentum and the Cardinals hit the go ahead field goal with 1:41 to go. Rutgers again got the ball to their own 48 yard line for a fresh set of downs with 1:06 to play, but Nova made a terrible throw that was intercepted when he should have simply thrown the ball into the stands. After all that, RU ended up laying an egg in the Russell Athletic Bowl as a consolation prize. A share of the conference title meant nothing to us at the time.

Instead, Louisville goes to the Sugar Bowl, pounds Florida, and Bridgewater becomes a true legend. It’s probably for the best I watched this second half alone.

Win of the decade: Rutgers 26, Michigan 24 (2014)

Since RU came up short in the game of the decade, this has to be it. Forget that Michigan ended up 5-7, because they would have made a bowl game had it not been for their humbling defeat at RU. The Wolverines entered the game at 2-3 compared to RU’s 4-1 mark, but come on, the visitors had superior talent at every position other than quarterback (rarely do I say that).

RU trailed 10-6 before an amazing 80 yard touchdown from Nova to Andre Turzilli and then closed the half on an insane play by Nova to stiff arm all-conference defensive end Frank Clark and find a sliding John Tsimis in the end zone. The 19-17 lead was padded by Turzilli’s second TD of the game, a 14 yard strike that was shorter than his typical deep routes. Michigan closed the gap in the 4th on a quarterback touchdown scramble by Devin Gardner and we all held our breath as RU tried to run out the clock.

Despite the amazing performance by the Scarlet Knights (476 total yards to just 336), Michigan still had a chance for a game winning field goal. Lucky for us, Kemoko Turay blocked the kick with an unbelievable leap and the rest is history. This, particularly Nova’s 404 yards in the game, made amends for the loss to Penn State two weeks before. Rutgers had their first Big Ten win faster than most expected, and was on their way to a surprising 8-5 season.

Missed opportunity of the decade: Penn State 13, Rutgers 10 (2014)

Of course the game of the decade could be considered in this spot, but the Penn State loss in 2014 was such a gut punch. Remember the Michigan game came two weeks after the Scarlet Knights first Big Ten game at home against the Nittany Lions. Naturally, Rutgers had an insane crowd that spurred the team to a 10-0 halftime lead.

The Rutgers offense was sputtering as Nova went just 15-30 with FIVE interceptions on the day, but the Scarlet defense simply outwilled the Nittany Lion offense to the point it didn’t look like that would matter. A field goal from current Jet Sam Ficken finally got PSU on the board with 3:45 left in the 3rd quarter. Ficken tacked on three more points to narrow the deficit to 10-6 and 13 minutes left to go in the game.

Rutgers had a chance to ice it as they faced a 3rd and 6 at the PSU 44 with 3:10 to play. A first down would allow RU to all but run out the clock. Nova had two receivers open on out routes to the left sideline, but his pass to Tyler Kroft was off the mark and RU had to punt. PSU took over at their own 20 and Christian Hackenberg orchestrated the game winning march, most of which came on a 53 yard catch and run to Geno Lewis on the very first play of the drive. A Bill Belton TD with 1:13 to go was it as Nova threw a desperation interception on RU’s final 4th down try to ice the win for the Nittany Lions.

Rutgers still hasn’t beaten Penn State since 1988 despite the now annual division matchup.

Honorable mention: A) 2016 v Iowa, B) 2016 v Minnesota, C) 2011 v Uconn

Shootout of the decade: Rutgers 55, SMU 52. (2013)

Well, there weren’t many. I was tempted to put the Fresno State game to open the 2013 season since I was there in 100 degree heat with my wife who was not pleased, but the happy recap will have to do against SMU. A few weeks after the OT affair in Southern California, Rutgers traveled to Dallas for their ONE meeting with Southern Methodist during the ONE year in the AAC. My best friend from high school, Tim, scheduled his wedding on the week of an away game and the reception was timed perfectly so all the RU fans (many young alumni package-folk) in attendance could catch the exciting end if necessary at the restaurant but RU just beat Arkansas the week before, we got this! Good plan until the game was broadcast on ESPNNews and the bar didn’t have that channel! (For you youngsters out there, we couldn’t stream the ESPN app like we can now.)

Things were so confusing as we tried to follow the games on our Blackberries or early versions of the iPhone after Rutgers squandered a 21-0 lead. Plays were being called back, there were long delays due to the early days of referee reviews, and neither team could stop a nose bleed. Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert, son of Gale Gilbert who suited up for five straight Super Bowl losers, shredded an RU secondary that was awful all season to tie the game 35-35 with 1:19 to go. In the first two overtimes Gilbert ran the ball for two scores, matched by Leonte Carroo hauling in two of his own from Nova. In the third OT, all SMU could manage was a field goal and RU won on a Justin Goodwin 17 yard rush to end things. Lots of pumpkin beer was consumed as we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Honorable mention: A) 2013 loss to Fresno State, B) 2014 win at Washington State, C) either 2019 win

Surprising win of the decade: Rutgers 35, Arkansas 26 (2012)

Rutgers was coming off a rugged Thursday night win over South Florida and though 3-0 on the campaign had not exactly impressed with closer than expected wins over Tulane and Howard. Even though Arkansas had been embarrassed by UL-Monroe two weeks earlier and destroyed 52-0 by #1 Alabama the week prior, they got quarterback Tyler Wilson from injury plus hope back for this one. And SEC teams not named Vanderbilt don’t lose at home to Big East teams, right? So I went with my wife and in-laws as RU trailed 10-0 to the Lagunitas Brewery, which I strongly recommend.

From there, Rutgers went on a 28-3 run to take a 28-13 lead into the 4th quarter on the road. The Razorbacks wouldn’t give in as Cobi Hamilton (10 catches, 303 yards) quickly caught his second and third touchdowns of the game. The ensuing two point try was batted away and RU maintained a 28-26 lead with more than 8 minutes to go. Rutgers answered with a 60 yard TD from Nova to Mark Harrison to go up 35-26 and that’s all she wrote. If you think I was excited, my wife lost her car key and has been using the spare ever since.

Almost: B1G West Champion Northwestern 18, Rutgers 15 (2018)

Surprising loss of the decade: Eastern Michigan 16, Rutgers 13. (2017)

Paying roaming charges on my phone in Vancouver, Canada to follow the gamecast where RU blew multiple chances to avoid embarrassment to a directional Michigan. On the plus side, Vancouver is a lovely city and no one was there to laugh in my face.

Bounce Back Season of the decade: 2011

When the 2010 season kicked off, Rutgers looked poised to punch a ticket to their 6th straight bowl game. They were one of the more talented teams in the Big East and had the best QB-WR combination by far with Tom Savage and Mohamed Sanu. Unfortunately, the offensive line allowed an NCAA leading 61 sacks, Sanu was injured, and Savage left for Arizona. Oh and by the way Eric LeGrand was paralyzed in a narrow win at Giants Stadium against Army. The emotionally exhausted team would not win another game after the 4-2 start.

So when 2011 kicked off with defensive end Andre Civil at left tackle and true freshman Kaleb Johnson at the right, things didn’t look very good. Instead behind Sanu’s record setting 115 receptions and Big East defensive player Khaseem Greene who moved from safety to linebacker, RU returned to form and was 8-3 heading into the season finale. Instead of claiming a share of the Big East title like they should have, they laid an egg at Uconn. A nice bounce back Pinstripe Bowl win against Iowa State despite Greene breaking his ankle punctuated a surprising 9-4 year, Greg Schiano’s final on the banks ... or so we thought.

Honorable mention: A) 2017. B) 2013.

Offensive improvisation of the decade: Ralph Friedgen v. Maryland (2014)

This category seemed more fitting than the offensive game plan of the decade because it showed a willingness to make in game adjustments. The “Fridge” who was fired at Maryland in 2010 after a 9-4 season got his revenge despite RU falling into a 35-10 hole in the second quarter. After the Knights were bailed out by a roughing the punter penalty, their two-minute offense punched in a TD to make it 35-17 at half, but so what? So with the in-laws I went to a winery on the Washington state side of the Columbia River.

After watching how potent the hurry-up offense was, in the locker room at intermission offensive coordinator Friedgen told his players the only way to win this one was to open things up through the air despite the team’s preference to run the ball. The change of plans called for as many deep crossing routes as possible. It worked as “Good Gary Nova” returned behind good blocking up front and spread the ball around to the tune of three receivers with 100 yard receiving days (Carroo, Janarion Grant, Andre Patton). It worked so well that RU took a 41-38 lead with more than six minutes to go in the game leaving a lot of time on the clock. Luckily, Maryland’s all conference kicker missed one field goal and Rutgers had a dramatic 4th down stand on the final drive to ice it.

It would turn out to be the largest comeback in school history (matched a year later at Indiana). Rutgers’s bowl destination was already determined, but it gave RU the leg up on their “rival” Maryland, for one year anyway before the favor was returned. It would be Friedgen’s final regular season game as a coach.

Defensive game plan of the decade: Jay Niemann v. Purdue (2017)

Niemann was quietly let go after three seasons, but his doozy against the high powered offense of Purdue was just amazing. Rutgers had just two (both on the road) Big Ten victories since the 2014 comeback over Maryland, the second of which came the week before this game at lowly Illinois. And the Scarlet Knights had already lost to Eastern Michigan (above). Purdue was a surprising 3-3 in Jeff Brohm’s first year at the helm on the strength of their passing attack, grounded only by #7 Wisconsin the week before.

Niemann and/or Chris Ash must have picked up something from the game film because Rutgers played a game plan almost like the Giants did in the Super Bowl XXV upset win over Buffalo. The Scarlet Knights played just three defensive linemen, sending a linebacker or DB as the fourth rusher at times. Others, Rutgers was content to let Purdue run the ball for five yards pretty much whenever they wanted before reaching the red zone. The plan worked like a charm against now Detroit Lions QB David Blough as Rutgers clung to a 14-6 lead before the Boilermakers finally punched in a TD in the final minute.

The Rutgers defense held on after an absolute melee on the two point conversion attempt for the shocking 14-12 triumph.

Blowout win of the decade: 2014 Quick Lane Bowl, RU 40, North Carolina 21

The final score is not representative at all of how much RU destroyed the school better known on the hardwood. Rutgers entered the game at 7-5 to UNC’s 6-6, but the Tar Heels had a strong running quarterback and recently demolished rival Duke who had been ranked #25. The Scarlet Knights could not be stopped in the air or on the ground, leading 23-0 at half and 40-7 early in the 4th quarter.

Freshmen running backs Josh Hicks (202 yards, TD) and Robert Martin (100 yards, 2 TD) each cracked the century mark in their bowl debuts. Safety Lorenzo Waters ended his career with 14 tackles (10 solo), two fumble recoveries, and blocked a field goal. The primary motivation was to win one for Drew, as in graduate transfer Andrew Turzilli who had never reached a bowl game during his days at Kansas ...

Blowout loss of the decade: 2018 at Kansas.

That’s all I have to say, about that.

Team of the decade: 2012 Big East Co-champions

Worst game plan of the decade: Kyle Flood at Pittsburgh (2012)

Since they started so hot (7-0, 9-1), this team had two chances to win the Big East title outright and failed before laying an egg in the bowl game. Worth noting though is that the Louisville game should not have even mattered. On Thanksgiving weekend, Rutgers took a 5-0 conference record to Pittsburgh. Turns out, the Cardinals were upset by Uconn in 3OT earlier that day, so if RU could have just beaten the mediocre Panthers, a BCS bowl bid would be secured. Kyle Flood was content to just run the ball with Savon Huggins a zillion times like he did to squeak out a win over Cincinnati the week before (Jawan Jamison wmison was injured) and not get anybody hurt regardless of the outcome because a win against Louisville would still be enough. That plan backfired and we are all left wondering what could have been.

You could argue the 2011 and 2014 teams were better, but only one squad brought home the hardware, officially the program’s only conference champion in the 150 year history. So they have to get the nod.

Individual performance of the decade (single season): Khaseem Greene 2012.

The only other contender here was Greene’s 2011 campaign. He won the Big East defensive player of the year in both with ridiculous numbers AND impact on the game. If you go back and watch the highlights, he was simply all over the place before being drafted in the third round by the Chicago Bears where he started as a rookie ... and then the bottom fell out. 2012 gets the edge from me since Rutgers had more team success, opponents had plenty of film on Khaseem, and he was coming off a broken ankle sustained in the 2011 bowl game!

2011: 141 tackles (74 solo). 14.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 pass defended, 2 forced fumbles

2012: 136 tackles (70 solo). 12 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble return TD

Individual performance of the decade (single game): Leonte Carroo v. #4 Michigan State (2015)

Carroo lit up a few teams (Tulane, Fresno State, Norfolk State) with three touchdown days, but #4 Michigan State’s no-fly zone was shredded by Leonte getting passes from ... Chris Laviano. The Spartans came into this game ranked 4th in the country, overconfident after having beaten RU 45-3 the previous year and with Rutgers coach Kyle Flood still suspended. My friend Tim and I were at a wedding in Bellingham, Washington more focused on the Mets Game 2 (Utley slide incident) against the Dodgers figuring RU would get smoked. Carroo himself was coming off a suspension, having not played since the Washington State game (more on that later).

Instead, Sparty got all he bargained for as Carroo was simply unguardable, scoring his second TD of the game on a 39 yard pass in just the second quarter to give the Knights a 14-7 lead. With time running down in the 3rd quarter, Leonte got loose again, this time for a 28 yard score to cut the deficit to 24-21 (yes he had all three RU TDs on the day). Leonte also had a key catch on the drive that tied the game at 24. Laviano completed just 15 passes all day (looks like a lot for RU these days), but seven went to Carroo, including 134 of the team’s 208 yards.

Rutgers would lose the game (more on that later), but the national audience on a Saturday night came away thinking Carroo was one of the best in the country.

Honorable mention: A) Carroo 3 TD v Indiana the following week. B) Gary Nova 404 yards v Michigan (above) C) Josh Hicks and Lorenzo Waters in 2014 Quick Lane Bowl (above)

Individual performance of the decade (single play): Janarion Grant 55 yard Punt Return TD v Washington State (2015)

Grant already was on his way to the NCAA return touchdown record and almost singlehandedly kept RU in the game against a Washington State team that lost to an FCS team the week prior. Janarion had delivered a key 4th down reception when RU was down 20-6, had a huge run on a jet sweep, and already had returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score in this game.

And yet Rutgers found themselves down by three with 1:45 left in the game. After almost blocking the punt, Grant put on a series of moves never before even seen in a video game. He simply would not be denied en route to a 55 yard punt return TD shaking, juking, sidestepping, outsmarting, and outrunning defenders to give RU a four point lead after the extra point. Just 91 seconds left in the game, we got this right? Wrong, all the magic of 2014 was gone right after this play.

Just watching this gives me goosebumps. I was standing in the bleachers in a poncho right above the corner of the end zone this play ended up in. It was the biggest momentum swing on a single play I can remember in my RU fandom (unless you count replay on NJN of Chris Brantley) And in typical RU fashion, all that emotion was for naught as Mike Leach’s offense took it the length of the field in less than a minute and a half.

Janarion could also deserve some other honors for sure, but this was his crowning moment.

Honorable Mention: A) Jawan Jamison spin move v. Tulane. B) Nova stiff arms Clark. C) Several Brandon Coleman catch and runs

Recruiting class of the decade: 2012

This seems pretty obvious and more detail in their thank you post can be found here. Ranked #23 in the country by the 247 composite at the time, these guys stayed together just hours after Greg Schiano bolted for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They stayed true to Kyle Flood luckily for him and us. Had they not ... who knows how much worse things may have been the last few years. At least we got one glimmer of hope in the 2014 Big Ten season that was primarily on the shoulders of guys like Leonte Carroo, Steve Longa, Darius Hamilton, and several offensive linemen in this class.

Best position group of the decade / worst tweet: 2015 Running Backs, Ryan Dunleavy

There are several contenders here, but this one has to be it if Heisman contender Saquon Barkley had to decommit, right?

Most blown out of proportion moment of the decade: The 4th down spike (2015)

Chris Laviano can thank Mark Sanchez for the butt fumble occupying so many blooper reels even three years after it happened to not have gotten more national attention. On the flip side, had there not been a documentary on the Colorado 5th down, maybe we could have snuck by. Laviano’s spike on 4th down came with three seconds left at midfield. Had he not spiked it, Rutgers had a chance for a Hail Mary where 7 defenders would have been on Leonte Carroo assuming no one committed an offensive penalty that would have resulted in a 10 second runoff to end the game anyway. Even if somehow the ball was caught in the end zone by the Knights, then they would have likely gone for a two point conversion since they wouldn’t have won it in overtime. Rutgers had chances to win the game on the previous MSU drive, like the third and long from the shadow of their own goalpost that the #4 Spartans converted with surgical precision. It was more the entire game under interim coach Norries Wilson that was a missed opportunity to break the streak of knocking off ranked opponents still growing today.

Honorable mentions: A) Mike Maietti punches Art Sitkowski after TD v Boston College (it even won a 2019 award from our friends at off tackle empire.), B) 78-0.

Least blown out of proportion moment of the decade: 2-17, 8 yards, 5 INT @ Maryland 2018

This avoided more embarrassment since the final score was only 34-7, Isaih Pacheco willed the entire team to the TD. Rutgers threw for less than 100 yards a lot. They threw for under 50, a lot. Even in the 78-0 loss listed above, they were just 2-18 for FIVE yards (zero INT though). But nothing compares to the game against a team that was in major turmoil and Rutgers had beaten the year before! More than double the number of balls in the air out of the hands of RU QBs were hauled in by the defense than the offense. The nail in the coffin was so early after Mike Tverdov had a strip sack and subsequent recovery to put RU in the red zone with RU still in a two possession game. Art Sitkowski’s pass on the very next play was tipped and picked off. Then later, one of the few times Chris Ash heard the fans clamoring for Giovanni Rescigno to save us from the madness, Gio threw a pick on his only throw of the contest.

Honorable mentions: A) The loss to Pittsburgh in 2012 above B) Davon Jacobs’s dropped INT after Grant’s punt return against Washington State C) Janarion Grant injury 2016

This was long after Andy’s comment ...

OTB comment of the decade: Andy Egan, 2016 midseason roundtable

“On a side note and looking backward, how much unwatchable crap football did Carroo and Grant cover up the last few years? Wow.”

Andy, a former regular contributor to this site, is definitely a prophet because that was before two terribly long conference losing streaks. This quote came after the Illinois game in Chris Ash’s first year when Rescigno went from scout team to starter in about a week. Gio finally broke the team’s point touchdown scoring drought in that game snapping the streak of futility that came primarily from Janarion Grant’s season-ending injury. We saw a lot more shutouts since.

ESPN shot at Rutgers of the decade: Becky Lynch “Push”

Honorable mention: SVP declares he will never pick Rutgers in Winners again

Gif of the decade:

Forget recency bias, this had me laughing all day Friday in reply to the news that Brandon White had committed to Rutgers, though a close second has to be this one.

Let’s see that again.

Now that I have at least purged so much pent up emotion, there you have it folks. Cheers (if you are over 21) into what will hopefully be another roaring 20s for Rutgers Football! Someone please find the next Homer Hazel!