In many ways, December 28, 2006 is the most important date in the history of Rutgers Football. It was the conclusion of a long, thirty-year journey from Rutgers' first Division-1 football game in 1977, culminating in its first-ever postseason bowl victory.
For the dedicated alumni and fans of the team, 2006 was a magical year for Rutgers, punctuated by heartache at the hands of a familiar nemesis before redemption and a never-before-seen victory.
In 2006, movies like "Cars" and "Night at the Museum" were entertaining Americans at the theaters, "American Idol" ruled the airwaves on television and the Nintendo Wii got video game enthusiasts off their couches and hopping around the living room. The Miami Heat were kings of the NBA, and the St. Louis Cardinals were on their way to winning the World Series.
But also in college football in 2006, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights were loaded with NFL-ready talent. The starting backfield consisted of quarterback Mike Teel, fullback Brian Leonard and a sophomore halfback by the name of Ray Rice. After the running game softened up opposing defenses, Teel would shoot passes to NFL-bound Kenny Britt or Tiquan Underwood.
In many ways, the Rutgers football program not only matured in 2006, it hit its decided high-water mark. The Scarlet Knights rolled through their schedule in 2006, and were 10-1 and going into a showdown with West Virginia in the final week of the regular season. It was the game that would decide the Big East title. It took triple overtime, but the Mountaineers defeated Greg Schiano's team, just as they had done every year prior, dashing the dream of a bid to a BCS bowl game.
For their efforts, the Number 16-ranked Scarlet Knights received an invitation to the inaugural Texas Bowl against the Kansas State Wildcats.
From the outset of the game, Rutgers dictated the rhythm of the game. Mike Teel handed to Ray Rice on the first play from scrimmage, and he sprinted for 16 yards. Rice would eventually carry the ball 24 times in the game for 170 yards and a touchdown.
The first score of the game came from an unlikely place, as Tim Brown—who only had four catches all season coming into the game—caught a 14-yard touchdown pass to give the Scarlet Knights the early 7-0 lead. Shortly thereafter, Teel (16-for-28 for 268 yards and 2 touchdowns) connected with the speedy Brown again, this time from 49 yards, and Rutgers had a 14-0 lead in the first twelve minutes of the game.
The Wildcats, led by freshman Josh Freeman (who is now Greg Schiano's starting quarterback at Tampa Bay), were unable to muster an offensive touchdown in the game, but closed the gap at 14-10 with a Jeff Snodgrass field goal and a punt return by Yamon Figurs. Rutgers added a field goal from kicker Jeremy Ito and the half ended with the game close at 17-10.
The Rutgers defense dominated the game, with Freeman (10-for-21 for 129 yards and two interceptions) unable to move the Wildcats, and their running game gaining a mere 31 total yards in the game. Early in the second half, Rutgers linebacker Quintero Frierson intercepted a pass and ran 27 yards to put the Scarlet Knights up 24-10. It was one of three turnovers collected by the Scarlet Knights in the game.
"The defensive play there was critical," said Kansas State coach Ron Prince. "To have the opportunity to come out and tie the game at the start of the second half and the worst thing that could happen would be a turnover and a touchdown, and that's what occurred."
From that point, the game became a Rutgers postseason party, when Ray Rice ran for a 46-yard touchdown and Jeremy Ito added two field goals on the way to a 37-10 victory.
"It certainly hurt quite a bit after the West Virginia game," Schiano reflected afterward, discussing the need to get his team motivated for the game against Kansas State. "The chance to win eleven games, that's something our seniors will carry forever."
"I think they were really hungry because they felt like they got left out of a BCS game," said Josh Freeman after the game. "They were out there to prove something and we weren't able to respond."
While the defense dominated, the Rutgers offense also tore through the Kansas State defense. Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris (whom Greg Schiano recently replaced as the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) saw the Scarlet Knights exploit his schemes for 21 first-downs and 479 total yards.
Rutgers' players openly admitted that after being so close to a BCS bowl berth, settling for the Texas Bowl was a disappointment. But the game took on greater significance than they realized at the time, as it was the University's third appearance in a bowl game, but more importantly, their first-ever victory. Rutgers football had finally matured after thirty years of Division 1 competition. The Knights finished 11-2 for the season, and were ranked 12th in the nation by year's end.
"We've tasted it, tasted the water and it's a great feeling," declared the game's most valuable player, Ray Rice. Since that victory, the Scarlet Knights have not lost a postseason bowl in the last five contests.