Rutgers Football: Scarlet Knights Program at a Crossroads

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Rutgers Football: Scarlet Knights Program at a Crossroads
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Greg Schiano has yet to deliver a Big East Championship

The year was 2000.  Gasoline was $1.26 a gallon. Tiger Woods, still nine years away from wrapping his Escalade around a tree in his upscale South Florida neighborhood, had just become the youngest player to win a Grand Slam in golf.  The unemployment rate was a shade under four percent, and Savon Huggins, the highest-rated recruit ever to commit to play football for the State University of New Jersey, had just begun second grade.

In December of that year, a press conference was held to introduce the new coach of the Scarlet Knights, Greg Schiano.  A defensive coordinator for the always intimidating Hurricanes of Miami, few gave him much chance of turning around 130-plus years of football ineptness.

The rest of the story is now familiar to even the most casual of college football fans.  After struggling through a less than stellar 12-34 record in his first four years, including a 3-24 Big East mark, Rutgers broke through with a winning season in 2005, capped off by a visit to Tempe, Arizona for the Insight Bowl.  Although the Knights lost that game to Arizona State 45-40, it appeared they were being built for the long haul, and not a short stay in the top half of the college football world.

Long suffering scarlet-clad supporters were rewarded for their patience, which rivaled that of even the most diehard Cubs fan, with a first-ever bowl victory in 2006, a record 11-win season and a visit to the top 10.  Coach Schiano, it seemed, had begun to fulfill his promise of being competitive in the Big East, bringing bowl championships to The Banks and building a team that all of New Jersey could be proud of.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Chas Dodd will be a major part of Rutgers return to prominence.

Three more winning seasons, and three more bowl victories followed.  The Scarlet Knights posted back to back 8-5 seasons in 2007 and 2008, and finished 9-4 in 2009.  Big East championship near misses occurred in 2006 and 2008 when Rutgers finished 5-2 in conference.

Then the bottom fell out.

In the 2010 season, the Knights finished 4-8.  Included in that season to forget was a six-game season-ending losing streak, and a complete implosion of the defense over that same period.  The bandwagon’s load was quickly lightened.

Many point to the horrific injury sustained by Eric LeGrand as the catalyst to the meltdown which took place, but the truth of the matter is that Rutgers never quite got going during the 2010 season.  The opener was a much closer than it appeared 31-0 victory over MEAC opponent Norfolk State.  A six-point halftime lead may have been only three if not for a controversial call which gave the Knights a second chance at a last-second field goal.

A loss to a suspension-depleted North Carolina team, and an inexplicable disaster on Homecoming against Tulane, kept the team reeling and the fans hoping it was 2008 all over again, when the team rallied from a miserable start to finish with seven straight wins and a victory over NC State in the Papa John’s Bowl.

A nationally televised win against Connecticut, and the successful coming-out party of quarterback Chas Dodd, had the faithful breathing a sigh of relief.  And, although closer than expected, the Army win seemed to show the Knights could pull out a victory, even on an off day, and in the face of tragedy.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
The cannon fired far too few times in 2010.

In the first game after the injury to Eric LeGrand, the team kept pace with Pittsburgh for a half, going into the locker room knotted at 14 with the Panthers.  Emotional fatigue seemed to set in during the final 30 minutes, however, as the Knights were out-scored by 20 points.  It was a game they were not expected to win, against the preseason conference favorite and under a great deal of duress.

Two painfully close losses followed: a one-point setback to USF in Tampa, and a three-point home loss to a surging Syracuse squad.  At 4-5, it was getting close to panic button time.

Somewhere between the final gun of the Syracuse game, and the opening kickoff at Cincinnati, the wheels completely fell off of what had been an increasingly rickety wagon.

Over the final three games of the season, the Knights would yield an average of 48 points in losses to Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia. 

Even more disturbing was the manner in which Rutgers was losing.  The defense seemed completely lost at times.  Missed assignments, poor tackling and a nonexistent pass rush became the norm.  It was as if the team had stumbled into a time machine, and found themselves deposited back in the late 1990s, when teams like West Virginia, Miami and Virginia Tech used games against Rutgers as mere scrimmages.

Was the magic completely gone?  Was the rainbow painted by Greg Schiano during the 2006 season simply a mirage, fading into the inglorious annals of Rutgers football?

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The 2011 season will tell.

The Scarlet Knights have a very narrow channel in which to steer their now listing ship.  They do not have a history to fall back on during difficult times, like the Cornhuskers of Nebraska and the Longhorns of Texas.  They won’t be given a 20-year pass a la Notre Dame, floating around in mediocrity while staying on the front page of every preseason college football publication as a favorite to be invited to the BCS party.

No, the Knights have to right the ship, and do it quickly.  The Metropolitan sports fans are part of a fickle bunch, and have too many other diversions to take their attention away from college sports.  They’re not going to wait too many autumns for Rutgers to get back into contention.

The Scarlet Knights are truly at a crossroads.

So far, it seems like all the right moves are being made.  Greg Schiano wasted no time in picking up the pieces when Pittsburgh’s coaching staff was dismantled following the forced resignation of Dave Wannstedt, ushering in the implementation of new philosophies on both sides of the ball.  The defection of a few blue chip prospects to Rutgers from Pitt seemed to validate the new hiring’s almost immediately.

Time will tell if the move back to a pro-style offense will benefit the Knights, but it certainly can’t hurt.  Rutgers gave up a mind-numbing 61 sacks in 2010.  As a point of reference, they yielded eight in 2006. Eight.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Mark Harrison is one of many quality returning receivers at Rutgers

The new offense should lead to less complicated blocking schemes, and will hopefully employ a fairly even ratio of run and pass plays.  With Kyle Flood focusing solely on his offensive line coaching duties, the hope is that Chas Dodd will be given enough time in an upright manner to recreate some of his pinball machine stats from high school.

Most important, however, may be the fact that Rutgers was able to keep its strong recruiting class intact despite such a poor showing on the field.  In fact, the strength of this year’s class increased after the merciful ending to the season, with the inclusion of talented players such as Miles Schuler and Savon Huggins.

Rutgers must now use the spring to create optimism for the fall.  There are playmakers on both sides of the field, and an infusion of talent is just months away from reaching campus.  The crossroads have been reached.

There is, however, a conundrum associated with crossroads.  They offer several roads, but only one will lead to the desired destination.

Rutgers fans are hopeful that Greg Schiano chooses his team’s path wisely.

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