Rutgers football left no question after Saturday’s 27-24 overtime victory over Maryland. Expectations for this season had been firmly exceeded.
The win marked only the second time since joining the Big Ten that Rutgers won a game it trailed in the fourth quarter. The Scarlet Knights tied a program best three Big Ten wins, which was previously done in 2014 and 2017. It was also the first time they won three conference road games since 2012 when RU played in the Big East.
“I am proud of our guys. They believe in each other,” head coach Greg Schiano said after the win. “They play for each other, they love each other and that’s what fuels their passion to play for each other.”
The most important thing for Schiano and his staff to accomplish this season was to cement a strong foundation that the program could build on long term from a culture and player development standpoint. Whether wins actually came this season or not shouldn’t have been the ultimate measuring stick. However, a 3-5 record with two last second defeats confirms that not only was the ultimate goal achieved, this team accomplished more than reasonably seemed possible.
Taking over the worst power five program in college football is a daunting task in any circumstance. Doing so three months before a global pandemic began and producing the results that Schiano and his staff have this season with an offseason like no other is nothing short of remarkable.
Aside from the victories, the fact that Rutgers was able to play all eight games of the scheduled regular season should be remembered as nothing short of a miracle. Cancellations are rampant. And even if they are played, teams are severely short handed, like Maryland and Minnesota were this week.
It’s also the first time the program ever had to play eight Big Ten games in eight consecutive weeks. Yet somehow Rutgers won two of its last three, both with different backup quarterbacks leading the way.
“When we started this week, this was a really fatigued team and I don’t just mean physically fatigued,” Schiano said. “But emotionally, not seeing their families. Like our whole country is experiencing right now as things get worse and worse, there’s fear. And we actually had three of our players lose loved ones this week, two of them to COVID. So it’s been a tough week for all these kids and they came out and did what we asked them to do. Just keep fighting.”
It’s easy as fans to simplify a team and players performance based on what we see on the field. Student-athletes are always dealing with more than meets the eye, but this season has been extraordinary in regard to the sacrifices they’ve had to make. Not only were they unable to see their families during this season, they were doing so for a new coaching staff they didn’t know well in the middle of the scariest health crisis of their lifetimes.
Schiano explained, “As a head coach in college, you’re a father to a lot of kids. Parents entrust you with their sons. A lot of these guys, most of them, I didn’t recruit and I’ve done my best to get to know their parents. But that’s not easy, either. As a head coach, that’s something that I see as my responsibility, and when kids are hurting, just like my own kids, when your kids are hurting, you need to be there and you need to help them through it.”
If there was ever a doubt remaining that Schiano wasn’t the right coach for Rutgers, may those doubts now “Rest In Peace”. Many of us remembered how Schiano handled tragic life situations with grace and compassion during his first tenure. The way in which he has not only gotten these current players to trust him and his staff, commit to sacrificing in ways never asked before and then above else...perform in way that not only produced victories but inspired not only a fan base but long time national broadcasters, writers and pundits, has been shocking.
Schiano summed up what is most important, stating “That’s what a family is about. We’re there to hold each other up and it was in every way possible, we needed each other this week. It was one of those tremendous efforts that was more than just a 3 1/2-hour football game.”
He continued, “I was just so proud of the way our guys kept swinging. I don’t know if I have ever been out on the field as many times as today with kids who were down. They would go down, they’d come back.”
Rutgers kept having players get hurt, limp off the field, and the team never faltered.
“That’s all we kept saying all week. It was going to take every single guy on this trip for us to be able to win the game. You look at Joe Lisardi, a freshman walk-on, who is out there playing safety and did a heck of a job at the end,” Schiano said. “That to me is what you call a family.”
Wins over Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland were as satisfying as this longtime Rutgers football fan can remember based on the past few seasons and circumstances of this one. It wasn’t just how this team refused to quit and kept chopping, it was what this team actually chopped through. No matter what happens in Champions Week next Saturday (opponent TBD), Rutgers has earned it’s greatest victory this season. The life lessons learned by the players, the culture established within this program and the massive short term turnaround that can now be built off of for long term success will alway be what this team is most remembered for.