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Rutgers football hurts so good

An unexpected game left a wide range of emotions in its aftermath but signaled things are different now.

Rutgers v Michigan Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

I was wrong. I didn’t think Rutgers would be able to compete for four quarters in its Big Ten opener on Saturday. While I never doubted this team would fight until the end, I never thought they’d have a chance to win. Again, I was wrong and I’m so happy that I was.

Not only was Rutgers competitive on Saturday against No. 19 Michigan in the Big House, they turned the homecoming crowd of 90,000 plus into a silent congregation pleading to the college football gods in hopes of a victory. The Scarlet Knights gave the mighty Wolverines all they could handle in a 20-13 loss. In fact, if we are being honest, they let them off the hook.

Rutgers had the ball three times in the fourth quarter with a chance to either tie the game or to win it. Based on the aggressive, albeit risky, play calling that they employed throughout the day, it probably was the latter. However, we will never know. It was the first chance midway through the fourth quarter that will haunt us all for a long time. First down at the Michigan 11, RU ran it twice, committed a costly penalty, threw a corner route out of bounds and then missed a 29 yard field goal. Gutted.

Ultimately, the offense couldn’t come through. After that missed field goal from short range after the drive stalled in the red zone, a failed fourth down conversion followed before the first turnover of the season ended all hope for the Scarlet Knights. Heartbreak resulted for a team that showed more fight in a Rutgers uniform on the gridiron in a very long time.

This was a game, to quote Ron Burgundy, that was “trapped in a glass case of emotion.” A disappointing opening half performance was followed by a spirited effort on both sides of the ball. A dominating defensive performance was complimented by the gutty play from the offense that ended up out gaining the top rushing team in the nation. A game that was lost early became unexpectedly there for the taking, only to be lost all over again.

The game was a microcosm of recent history with Rutgers football. The turnaround on this day itself was symbolic of the turnaround that is taking place for the long term in such a short time span.

In the program’s last visit to the Big House, two years ago this weekend, they were utterly embarrassed in a 52-0 throttling that finally put an end to joyless football otherwise known as the Chris Ash Era. On Saturday, Rutgers was dead in the water at the half and their backs were against the wall. Instead of falling apart, they played a way that is what Rutgers football has become once again under head coach Greg Schiano. They kept chopping and did so with many of the same players that were part of that brutal loss two years prior.

Rutgers didn’t just make it respectable. Rather, they thoroughly outplayed Michigan in the second half. The once raucous Big House became the Big Chill. Watching nervous fans dressed in maize and blue was a sight to behold. It wasn’t just about never quitting, it was about bellying up and beating Michigan in the trenches. They put the Fighting Harbaughs on the ropes after getting knocked down at the start of the game. That shouldn’t be dismissed, even in defeat.

After scoring four times in five drives in the first half, the Michigan offense went three and out in its first four drives of the second half. Making it all the more impressive was the fact that the Rutgers defense was without two of its three best performers this season. Max Melton was out serving a suspension after being arrested earlier in the week and Julius Turner was ejected at the end of the first half on a questionable targeting call.

No one could have expected or even believed that the RU defense would have been able to respond the way they did. Shutting Michigan out by holding them to 42 yards and 2 first downs in the second half was nothing short of incredible. Only throwing for 7 yards is something that Rutgers did too many times to want to remember in recent seasons but on this day, they did it to Michigan and against a quarterback who carved them last season for 260 yards and four touchdowns.

Right before kickoff, Rutgers announced that Reggie Sutton, who had started 12 games in a row and all three this season at right guard, was out for the season with a knee injury that occurred during practice on Wednesday. For an offensive line that has struggled early on and was the biggest question mark coming into the season, losing Sutton was devastating. Freshman Troy Rainey, all of two career games under his belt after flipping from Bowling Green to Rutgers in the eleventh hour of his recruitment, started in his place. The line was shuffled around once again. And yet, they only surrendered one sack in the game and Rutgers rushed for 196 yards on 4.7 yards per carry against Michigan. Rainey did have a crucial penalty near the goal line in the second half, but overall he played pretty well by normal standards and remarkable considering he only had one practice as the starter.

The performances of quarterback Noah Vedral and running back Isaih Pacheco were far from perfect, but they were inspiring. Both had some key mistakes, but also brought Rutgers back in the second half. If they can build off of their performances, it will be huge for this team the rest of the way.

The play calling was both aggressive and questionable throughout the game. Comments popped up on social media and elsewhere during the action about Schiano’s game management ability being an issue, something that was a polarizing subject in his first tenure at Rutgers. There were multiple calls on fourth down in particular that didn’t work out as RU only converted one of four chances. Schiano admitted to being at fault after the game in his postgame press conference.

“I didn’t help pour team enough today,” he said. “I could have helped our team more. Disappointed in myself. It’s something that I have to examine.”

Credit to Schiano for taking accountability and what he said next reaffirmed why this game is an important step forward for the program, even in defeat.

“I tell you all that and I’m not the martyr here. I think every guy in the locker room feels that way, every coach and every player. That’s what good teams do. They stand up willing to look at what things go right and how can they get “other things” right.”

We are now one third into year two of Schiano 2.0. While Rutgers lost a game on Saturday that going into it they weren’t expected to leave the victors, the circumstances ended up presenting a golden opportunity to earn a signature win for the program. It painfully slipped away. But to judge the state of this team, this coaching staff and this program on the final score would be a mistake.

Rutgers continues to prove to Big Ten opponents that they are no longer the league laughingstock and that if you don’t prepare for a dogfight against them, they will get the last laugh. That in and of itself is a major step. We all want progress to move quickly and consistently, but that’s not life and certainly isn’t football. Perspective is needed in realizing how far this program has come in such a short period of time. It doesn’t mean accepting losses but rather raising expectations when they occur in the way they did on Saturday.

“I really love our football team,” said Schiano after the game. “These guys really strain incredibly hard. As a coach that’s all you can ask for. They never let up, kept believing, they didn’t judge. It could have gotten ugly there at 20-3 and they kept playing. We certainly had our opportunity to win the game. That’s what hurts. Nobody is here for moral victories.”

In the five seasons before his return, Rutgers fans had little to cheer for and even less to be proud of. In a very short period of time, Schiano and his coaching staff have dramatically changed the reality around the program. Yes, they made some questionable decisions with certain play calls, but the current state of this program is in a much better place because of this coaching staff. Just like the players, they’ll learn from this.

Today was both a reminder that Rutgers is not where they need to be, but also that they might be a lot closer to getting there than most of us expected heading into this season. That includes myself. I was wrong about how much progress could be made this fall. After today, why can’t this team make a bowl game?

I was right about one thing though. The agony of defeat sure as hell beats indifference. Saturday’s game was a roller coaster of emotions and not just for Rutgers fans, but Michigan fans too. Progress can be judged in many ways, but Rutgers proving they are a legitimate Big Ten program now that is capable of going toe to toe with any conference foe on any given day is something worth appreciating.

Losing by one score in back to back years to Michigan is a hard pill to swallow. However, the pain of those defeats are part of the rebuilding process that has helped to restore pride within and around the program. When Rutgers is back to winning bowl games and has ascended into the top half of the Big Ten in the future, it will be days like this that will make it all the more satisfying.