Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
23 Oct 2006
by Russell Levine
Walter Seward is 110 years old, having celebrated the milestone near his West Orange, N.J. home yesterday. Surrounded by family and friends, Mr. Seward greeted party attendees at a table that held two items: his birthday cake and a Rutgers hat.
Mr. Seward, a 1917 graduate of Rutgers and the school's oldest living alumnus, has seen a lot of Rutgers football -- a full 90 seasons having passed since he earned his degree. It's also quite possible that he has never seen a Rutgers team better than the 2006 edition.
That's not an entirely bold statement given Rutgers' checkered history in the sport it helped pioneer. Though Rutgers played Princeton in the first college football game in 1869, it is better known for futility. From 1999-2002, for example, the Scarlet Knights went 1-27 in Big East conference play.
Rutgers did enjoy a brief period of success in the mid-1970s, compiling nine straight winning seasons from 1972-1980, including a perfect 11-0 mark in 1976. But that team, which finished 17th in the AP poll, beat only four programs that currently compete in Division IA, and the Scarlet Knights
were not invited to did not play in a bowl.
Thirty years later, Rutgers stands 7-0 following its best win of the season, a 20-10 pounding of Pitt on the Panthers' home field. The win, along with a 34-0 rout at Navy last week, served notice that Rutgers intends to be more than an afterthought in the Big East, previously believed to be a two-team conference with Louisville and West Virginia both ranked in the top 10.
The win over Pitt moved Rutgers to no. 16 in both the AP and coaches polls, helping to shiny up the Knights' resume as they prepare to spend the next few weeks in the national spotlight. Rutgers gets one more tune-up for the key Big East battles ahead when it takes on Connecticut on Sunday night in a game televised on ESPN, which will also air the Knights' next contest: a home-date against Louisville on Thursday, November 9.
In another sign that things are changing in New Brunswick, both the Louisville contest and the November 25 game against Syracuse are already sold out at Rutgers Stadium.
It appears that the significant investment the school has made in its football program is finally paying dividends on the field. Rutgers joined the Big East as a charter member in football for the 1991 season and found some immediate success, going 7-4 and 4-2 in conference play in 1992. But Rutgers wouldn't win more than two conference games in a season again until last year, when coach Greg Schiano led the Knights to a 7-5 mark and an Insight Bowl bid in his fifth season.
Many teams struggle following a breakthrough campaign, but Rutgers has only built on the success of last year. It is led by an outstanding power-running game and a run-stuffing defense. Against Pittsburgh, sophomore Ray Rice carried 39 times for 225 punishing yards, and the defense limited a powerful Pitt offense to just 236 yards while piling up five sacks of Tyler Palko.
What's more, this Rutgers team has shown the ability to withstand adversity and win close games. Case in point: It appeared Pitt had seized the momentum by scoring a touchdown to pull within 13-10 early in the fourth quarter and then bottling Rutgers up at its own 10-yard line on the subsequent kickoff. But Rice immediately got the Knights out of trouble, ripping off a 63-yard carry on the first play of a drive he would eventually cap with a two-yard touchdown to salt the game away.
Rutgers has now won three close games on the road this season after earlier beating North Carolina and South Florida. In each of those contests, Rutgers looked like it might surrender a late lead before coming up with a big play to ultimately decide the matter.
Schiano's success at Rutgers, which is beginning to rival the work of Bill Snyder at Kansas State in terms of an all-time reclamation project, has not gone unnoticed. Miami, where Schiano served as the defensive coordinator before getting the Rutgers job, is having a down year and is likely to be looking for a new coach in the off-season. Schiano's name has already surfaced in the rumor mill, and he's very likely to be a target if the Hurricanes do indeed fire Larry Coker.
Still, just because Miami comes calling, there is no guarantee Schiano would bite. Rutgers was patient with him during his early struggles -- a 3-20 mark his first two years -- while it worked to improve facilities and increase the football budget. Schiano rewarded that patience by producing five, four, and seven wins the next three seasons.
Schiano's biggest coup has been in recruiting. New Jersey has long been a top producer of college-bound talent, but most of it went to Penn State, Notre Dame, or other far-flung institutions. Many a Rutgers coach arrived promising to keep the New Jersey kids home, but Schiano opted for a different approach. With his recruiting ties to Florida, he began raiding the Sunshine State for some of its leftovers. The plan was to use outsiders to build up the program, then come for the New Jersey kids once the team turned the corner.
So far, so good. The roster is still dotted with Floridians, but quarterback Mike Teel is a New Jersey product, as is impact defensive linemen Ramel Meekins. Rice and backfield mate Brian Leonard are both from nearby New York and were kept away from Syracuse by Schiano.
Rutgers has already equaled its win total from a season ago and will go to another bowl. Rutgers will be a significant underdog against both Louisville and West Virginia in the coming weeks, but Louisville has appeared vulnerable against lesser Big East teams of late, and West Virginia's run-based offense would appear to be a good matchup for Rutgers' stout run defense.
Merely a split in those two games might stamp this as the greatest season in program history.
Even Mr. Seward might agree.
Before we get to this week's JLS Trophy, we offer sincere congratulations to the man himself for Michigan State's remarkable 41-38 win over Northwestern Saturday. It was right around the time that Northwestern made the score 38-3 in the third quarter that yours truly proclaimed that "nobody quits quite as spectacularly as Michigan State" -- or words to that effect -- on the Seventh Day Adventure discussion thread. Umm, guess not. As bad as Michigan State has been since its collapse against Notre Dame, and then to fall behind Northwestern by five touchdowns on the road, it's incredibly impressive that the Spartans were able to muster the effort come back. Good for JLS. He can put that one on his resume when he's looking for a job this winter.
Now to this week's winner, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan. His Cornhuskers played a terrific game against Texas, taking the lead late on a brilliant halfback option pass that completely fooled the Longhorns. Nebraska appeared to be about to run out the clock when Terrence Nunn fumbled to give Texas the ball back, down 20-19, with just under two minutes to play.
That is always a tough spot for a coach. Nebraska had all three of its timeouts remaining, but Callahan was caught between wanting to preserve time for his offense if Texas took the lead, and not wanting to give the Longhorns (who were out of timeouts) additional time to score. I don't disagree with Callahan waiting until the final 30 seconds to take his first timeout. It's what he did with the next two that earned him the JLS Trophy.
Facing a likely field goal and a two-point deficit, Callahan burned a timeout with the clock stopped to ice walk-on kicker Ryan Bailey, who was about to attempt his first collegiate kick. The mind games are great, but you cannot take a timeout with the clock stopped in the final 30 seconds of a game you're going to have a chance to win with a field goal yourselves.
Callahan then compounded the error by not having his offense ready to take the field after the ensuing kickoff. Yes, college football's silly timing rules call for the clock to start following the ball being marked ready for play, but there was no reason Callahan couldn't have had his unit standing over the ball, ready to snap it the second the clock wound. Instead, the Huskers burned their final timeout before the first down play, leaving them with nothing but hopes of a Hail Mary.
It was clock management worthy of Herm Edwards, and certainly worthy of the JLS Trophy for this week.
One last note on clock management and the new rules. Reader Chris Heinonen points out that teams trying to conserve time should have figured out by this point in the season that timeouts should not be called immediately following a change of possession, but rather after the first-down play to save the maximum amount of time.
As Chris points out, if you take a timeout before the first down play, the maximum amount of time saved is 25 seconds -- the length of the play clock. But by waiting until after first down, you can save closer to 40 seconds -- the play clock plus the time it takes the officials to spot the ball.
In addition to earning the JLS Trophy last week for his fraidy-cat punt against USC, Arizona State's Dirk Koetter also blew this strategy on USC's final possession.
Rankings which may require further explanation include:
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun
34 comments, Last at 25 Oct 2006, 5:11pm by zlionsfan