No player has endured more scrutiny from the previous two seasons of losing that Rutgers football experienced than former starting quarterback Artur Sitkowski. He led college football in interceptions as a true freshman and was accused by some of quitting on the team after deciding to redshirt midway through last season after former head coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator John McNulty were fired.
For a second straight season opener, Sitkowski, the former 4-star prospect, watched a transfer quarterback lead Rutgers to victory while he remained on the sidelines. While he won the job back quickly last season, that hasn’t been the case this season. His highly anticipated college career has not gone as planned.
The only significant action that Sitkowski has seen this season was when he started for injured starter Noah Vedral against Purdue two weeks ago. While he started strong with two touchdown passes on the first two drives, he didn’t see much action in the second half once Johnny Langan began grounding the Boilermakers into submission. He played an important role, but it wasn’t the decisive one.
Saturday’s call to action was even more unexpected, as Sitkowski’s number was called once Vedral left the game in the third quarter after taking what appeared to be a dirty hit. Rutgers trailed 10-7 with 3:49 left in the third quarter. His first pass was a 20 yard touchdown to Isaih Pacheco while avoiding a pass rusher and it gave Rutgers a lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Two possessions later and Maryland leading 21-17, Sitkowski led a nine play, 60 yard drive in which he completed 2 of 3 passes and made a key 14 yard run on a 3rd and 7 to keep the drive alive in Terps territory. Bo Melton scored ran for an 18 yard touchdown three plays later.
The last drive of regulation began on the Rutgers 18 yard line with Maryland leading by 3 points. Sitkowski led RU down the field by completing 4 of 5 passes and running for a critical 3 yards on a third and long to get Valentino Ambrosio close enough to convert a 39 yard field goal attempt to send the game to overtime.
In the extra period, Sitkowski had a key 10 yard completion to Isaih Pacheco to get Rutgers to the Maryland 9 yard line. A penalty soon after pushed them back, but it was enough for Ambrosio to deliver once again with what became a game winning 42 yard field goal.
Sitkowski finished the game having completed 12 of 19 passes for 90 yards and one touchdown. However, it was his calm and control of the offense after being thrust into a tough spot that stood out in the 27-24 OT victory.
After the game, head coach Greg Schiano said “I was really proud of Art the way he came in. He did a really good job. He ran the offense. He threw the ball well. He ran the ball well. He led us to victory. When you are the quarterback who gets us to overtime and then wins the game, it’s a really good job.”
The performance of Sitkowski was symbolic of this Rutgers football team. Counted out many times and low expectations for the future, this team and quarterback continues to fight. It has resulted in three unexpected victories this season. Sitkowski being the one to help lead the Scarlet Knights to this last one was especially sweet for the third year signal caller. In his only previous meeting against Maryland as a freshman in 2018, Sitkowski had his worst performance in completing just 2 of 16 passes for 8 yards.
“It’s been a crazy process. Everyone has their highs and lows in their career and I just had to stay focused,” said Sitkowski. “I love this team. I love Rutgers. I love my teammates. It was a great team effort and everyone was chopping their job and chopping the moment. It was great to get out there and have the opportunity to play.”
It’s no secret that Sitkowski isn’t the ideal fit for offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson’s spread offense, but that hasn’t prevented him from embracing the challenge. His team first attitude has played a key role in the most important position room on the team. And that unselfishness was rewarded on Saturday.
“Noah was with me every single step of the way when I was in there. He was telling me coverages and what to look for,” said Sitkowski. “That’s what I think exemplifies our quarterback room led by coach Gleeson and coach Schiano. It’s not a matter of who is in the game, it’s all of us. It’s not just one guy. We are always constantly helping each other out through the game. Coach Gleeson does a great job preparing all of us. We are prepared inside and out. Our tests are long and hard. He gets us ready to go. Great job by coach Gleeson and all the quarterbacks.”
Schiano explained after the game that it was an especially difficult week for the team and that the grind this season with eight games in eight weeks while navigating through a global pandemic is taking its toll.
Sitkowski explained how difficult it has been for the players this season, stating “Its been really hard. I don’t think people understand that what every single college football player is doing right now and realize the sacrifices they are making for this game,” he said. “Not seeing your family, not doing normal college stuff that you would do during the season. You go from the facility back home and that’s it. That’s all you can really do and you have to stay away from people because you don’t know what they are doing. You can’t deal with people from the outside. It’s football and school and that’s it. It’s a sacrifice and anyone who has played college football, in fact any sport, during this pandemic, kudos to them. It’s a tremendous sacrifice and we are so proud of our team and everyone has made a huge sacrifice to play at Rutgers. It’s amazing.”
As for what this moment meant, earning three Big Ten victories on the season after entering the season on a 21 game conference losing streak, Sitkowski was emotional discussing it. “It’s huge. For the guys that have been here through all the ups and downs. Guys who have been here when it was ugly when no one gave us a fighting chance. When everyone kept doubting us. We just kept going.”
Sitkowski continued, “It’s amazing to see those guys that have been here for three or four years that have stayed through the process and kept believing in what coach Schiano was bringing to us. We kept believing. It’s crazy. It’s a great feeling, but we have one more and we have to go get it. There is an opportunity to get four Big Ten wins and that’s what we want.”
Regardless of who is under center for Rutgers next week, Sitkowski will do everything possible to help lead them to victory. His performance in doing just that against Maryland on Saturday should be remembered as one of the highlights of the season.