If any school understands Temple’s football anguish, it’s Rutgers. Not only next-door neighbors in terms of location, the Scarlet Knights often found themselves next to Temple in the bottom of the Big East Conference standings. This season, however, instead of playing “whipping boy,” Rutgers is whipping on its competition.
By defeating Navy, 31-21, this past Saturday, Rutgers will finish above .500 for the first time since 1992. The Scarlet Knights are second in the Big East standings, and are poised to play in their first bowl game since the 1978 Garden State Bowl, the school’s lone bowl appearance.
The success comes after recent years of futility. From 1999 to 2003, Rutgers lost 25 straight conference games. Their record in the conference was 18-75-1 from 1991-2004, and they’ve only had three winning seasons since 1984. The first three seasons under current coach Greg Schiano were an abysmal 3-20.
But Schiano, who was previously a defensive coordinator at Miami, used his Florida ties and recruited heavily from the Southeast, a hotbed of football talent. Rutgers has 23 players from the state of Florida on its roster, and six more coming in next year. Only South Florida and Louisville have more players from the state among Big East teams.
The players from the south are making the difference. Senior Tres Moses, from Delray Beach, Fla., is third in the conference in receiving and became the Knights’ career receptions leader this season. Senior quarterback Ryan Hart, from Coral Springs, Fla., is the school’s all-time leader in passing yards.
Another reason for Rutgers’ success is their improved depth. Hart has split time with freshman quarterback Mike Teel, who led the Knights to two road wins at Syracuse and Connecticut this season. Conference road wins have been scarce for the Scarlet Knights, who before the two wins this season were 4-41-1, with three of the wins coming against – guess who? – Temple.
With Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati remaining on the schedule, it seems the Knights are lined up to reach seven or eight wins, and land a spot in the Insight.com Bowl.
But keep in mind that just being bowl eligible does not guarantee a bowl berth. The folks in New Brunswick know this all too well. The last time the Knights were eligible, their 7-4 record was not good enough to earn a bowl invite. Even a perfect 11-0 season and a No. 17 ranking in 1976 (when bids were far less plentiful) could not earn Rutgers a bowl appearance.
For a school that had, until recently, not been competitive in a long time, the win on Saturday was the Knights’ biggest win in more than a decade. At the end of the contest, many of the 41,716 on hand – the second largest crowd in school history – rushed the field. Coach Schiano was carried off the field, arms raised in triumph.
Once Temple’s natural rival, Rutgers will not play Temple in the foreseeable future. A representative from Temple Sports Media Relations said Rutgers had no openings in its football schedule until 2008. After spending more than a quarter century out of the bowl picture, Rutgers hopes that its new chapter can be a successful one.
Greg Otto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.