The last regular season game for Rutgers football felt like a three act play. The first half had little action only to evolve into a full blown shootout in the second half. Maryland was missing several key starters and the Scarlet Knights made a quarterback change midway through the game. There were several dramatic moments late in the game and overtime was needed. Through it all, Rutgers kept chopping towards a 27-24 overtime victory that saw them finish the regular season with a surprising 3-5 record.
The unexpected news before kickoff was that Maryland announced they were without four key players citing medical reasons. They included starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and starting linebacker Chance Campbell, the Terps leading tackler, as well as linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II and cornerback Jakorian Bennett. In addition, Maryland defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and special teams coordinator/inside linebackers coach George Helow were also not coaching this game.
The first half was slow going on both sides and the Rutgers offense continued to struggle. They had seven possessions of the three and out variety and the only scoring chance they had resulted in a 35 yard field goal attempt that Valentino Ambrosio missed wide left. Maryland connected on a 38 yard field goal with less than a minute before halftime to take a 3-0 lead into the locker room.
It was a disappointing half for the Scarlet Knights as Najee Jones and Christian Izien both had interceptions, but the offense was unable to capitalize, taking over on their own 47 yard line for one of them. The offense looked like 2019 all over again and had less than 100 total yards at the half.
The second half was far different and it started with Bo Melton taking a reverse pitch on the run for an electric 44 yard touchdown to give Rutgers a 7-3 lead on just the fourth play from scrimmage after the break.
After both teams traded punts, Maryland answered with 44 yard touchdown run of their own by lead running back Jake Funk.
Head coach Greg Schiano and offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson replaced starting quarterback Noah Vedral with backup Artur Sitkowski in the third quarter. It was the right call after Vedral was just that 8 of 18 for 55 yards and Maryland was not fooled by anything he was doing. However, it was necessary as well, as Vedral was seen on crutches later in the game after leaving due to a dirty hit. Vedral did rush for 34 yards on eight carries and was effective on a few QB draw plays.
After the game, Schiano said “Noah couldn’t return. You never know what it will be like in a day.”
The decision paid dividends right away, as Sitkowski led RU down the field on 3 of 3 passing, including a 20 yard touchdown toss to Isaih Pacheco. Rutgers led 14-10 just over a minute remaining in the third quarter.
Third string quarterback Eric Najarian led the Terps back in front with a 23 yard touchdown pass just 22 seconds into the fourth quarter. Another three and out from Rutgers put pressure on the defense, but they answered the bell and forced Maryland into their own three and out.
On the next RU possession, Melton turned another carry into a touchdown, this time from 18 yards. Rutgers benefitted from two Maryland penalties on the drive and led 21-17 with 7:59 left to play. It was his ninth touchdown of the season in what has been a breakout campaign for the fourth year player.
The back and forth continued, as the Terps quickly answered with 52 yard touchdown pass from Najarian to Cobbs to regain the lead at 24-21 with just under 6 minutes left in the game.
After Rutgers failed to convert on a fourth down attempt, the defense stepped up again to force another Maryland three and out. The offense took over with 2:30 to play and a chance to win the game.
On the final drive of the game, it was initially ruled that Avery Young had made a catch and fumbled it away. However, after review it was correctly called he never had possession and it was ruled incomplete. The Scarlet Knights regrouped and Sitkowski was 4 of 5 through the air as it set up Ambrosio with a chance to tie on the last play of regulation. The former Rutgers soccer player came through, connecting from 39 yards away to tie it up at 24 and send the game into overtime.
After Rutgers began the extra session with the ball on the Terps 25 yard lines, the possession was marred by incompletions and a 15 yard penalty. They gained zero yards, but Ambrosio came up big again with a 42 yard yard field goals to give the Scarlet Knights a 27-24 lead. Maryland took over with a chance to win the game with a touchdown. The defense was disruptive and Mike Tverdov delivered a clutch sack on third and long to force Maryland into a 50 yard field goal attempt. It sailed wide abs Rutgers was victorious!
This was no masterpiece by any means. Rutgers had five fumbles in the game, two each from Vedral and Sitkowski, but were extremely fortunate not to lose any of them. The offense line allows five sacks. The offense was just 7 of 21 on third down conversions, although they were 1 of 2 on fourth down, including the lone conversion on the last drive of regulation that helped tie the game.
The offense was stagnant the entire first half, but credit to Sitkowski for coming in and changing the game. He was an efficient 13 of 18 passing for 94 yards and a touchdown. He injected life into the offense that was led by a banner day from Bo Melton. The receiver finished with 6 catches for 59 yards and 2 touchdown runs totaling 62 yards. Pacheco also was productive with 82 yards rushing on 18 carries, as well as five catches for 40 yards and a touchdown.
The defense bent but never broke and was able to survive. They allowed 460 yards, but only three touchdowns. Rutgers caught a break with Terps starting QB Taulia Tagovailoa missing the game, but credit this team for finding a way regardless.
The toll that play eight Big Ten games in eight consecutive weeks was evident in this game, as multiple players appeared to suffer injuries throughout the day. This team’s resolve and never say die attitude was on full display once again on Saturday. Rutgers finished the regular season with three Big Ten wins, which ties a program best from 2014 and 2017. In Schiano’s first season on the banks, it’s clear expectations have been exceeded.