It was late on the night of November 9th, 2006, 3 days before I was born and almost 17 years ago now, when Jeremy Ito lined up for a 33-yard field goal. With the weight of Rutgers and all of New Jersey on his shoulders, The Judge delivered his verdict. The kick was perfect, lifting the Scarlet Knights to an 18-15 victory over Louisville, and all this time later, Rutgers is still vying to return to the heights that those mid-2000s took them to.
However, despite the wins and success of those years, it wasn’t even a decade later that Rutgers returned to the irrelevancy and incompetence that engulfed it before Schiano. From the scandal that ran Kyle Flood out of town, to the dark ages of Chris Ash, and even into the second Schiano era and the attempted revival of a competent football program, success has been hard to come by.
All that aside, the Scarlet Knights are 4-1 to start a season for the first time since 2014, their first year in the Big Ten, which begs the question: Are the tides finally changing in Piscataway?
I believe they are.
Schiano has proved before that he can win at Rutgers, and even though the modern Big Ten isn’t the same level of competition that he faced in the Big East of the 2000s, his teams have shown flashes over the past few seasons.
Moreover, Schiano’s second rebuild is right on schedule, as it wasn’t till year 5 of his first stint at Rutgers that he found enough success to make a bowl game, finishing 8-5 with a loss to Arizona State in the Insight Bowl. The following year brought an 11-2 record, a stint in the top 10 of the AP poll, and that unforgettable victory over Louisville.
It’s only year 4 of the Schiano 2.0 campaign, and the Scarlet Knights already have the chance to shatter everyone’s expectations over the next two months. Even if you pencil in losses to Ohio State and Penn State, that still leaves 5 more games that are—to some degree—winnable for Rutgers.
The key for Greg Schiano's teams has always been to run the ball and play good defense, and that hasn’t changed his second time around in New Jersey. Junior Kyle Monangai is currently top 20 in the nation in rushing yards, and between him, QB Gavin Wimsatt, and the rest of the backfield, Rutgers has combined for 15 touchdowns on the ground through 5 games.
Defensively, the Scarlet Knights are tied with Texas for 12th in the nation in points per game, as opponents are scoring under 13 a game this season, showing just how strong this group is. Rutgers also ranks 10th nationally in total defense, giving up under 270 yards a game.
Undoubtedly though, the biggest difference between this year’s team and the teams of the past decade is the play of Gavin Wimsatt. The quarterback has done everything right to start the season and then some for the Scarlet Knights. He’s not lighting the stat sheet up with 300-yard passing games, but that’s not what Rutgers needed. They needed a competent quarterback who could complete routine throws, make good decisions, and take care of the ball, and Wimsatt has flourished.
He’s thrown just one interception on the season and has 9 total touchdowns. Wimsatt’s managed the offense well and has made good decisions across the board, leading to Rutgers’ best offense since the days of Gary Nova.
Thinking back to that Louisville game and all of 2006, Rutgers won off the back of running back Ray Rice and a classic Schiano defense. I’d argue that what we’re seeing of Wimsatt is better than Mike Teel in ‘06 (remember, he didn’t have more TDs than INTs until 2007), and while no one on this team is Ray Rice, the committee of Scarlet Knight running backs is as effective as one we’ve seen since those days.
The Scarlet Knights still have a long way to go to reach the peak of the Schiano era at Rutgers, but this season is a breath of fresh air for fans and players alike. This team offers a challenge to the status quo of Rutgers football that everyone has come to expect and could be the revitalization of Greg Schiano and the Scarlet Knights.