Rutgers always thought it could build its football team into a national power. It never dreamed it could do anything like this. The 2006 football team produced 11 victories and the school’s first bowl victory. But it did so much more than that. It created a phenomenon that brought the campus, the alumni and the state together in support of the university like no other time in school history. The Star-Ledger’s award-winning photographers and writers captured the emotion of what truly was an amazing season in this beautiful hard-bound book. The book is available now, but in limited supply. So grab your copy before it's too late!
BY TOM LUICCI - STAR-LEDGER STAFF // It’s okay for Rutgers football fans to spend all day today pinching themselves. Hard as it may be for many of them to believe, this football season isn’t a dream.
But it is becoming a dream season.
Sprinkle in a little destiny with lots of Ray Rice and a defense that rates among the nation’s best, and what you get is what the biggest game in school history produced last night: Great theater and another Rutgers victory.
Given a second chance thanks to an offsides penalty against Louisville’s William Gay, Jeremy Ito took full advantage by making a 28-yard field goal with 13 seconds left to lift 15th-ranked Rutgers to a 28-25 victory over the No. 3-ranked Cardinals before a record crowd of 44,111 at Rutgers Stadium.
It was the first game-winner of Ito’s career and came after the junior initially misfired on a 33-yarder with 17 seconds left. Gay’s offsides penalty gave Ito, Rutgers’ career record-holder with 48 field goals, another chance to be a hero.
Rutgers extended its best start in 30 years to 9-0 and took control of the Big East race at 4-0.
“I was a little spooked on the penalty,” Ito said of his first miss. “I saw the guy jump offsides and that distracted me.”
The successful second try capped a rally in which the Knights came back from an early 25-7 deficit, setting off a celebration that saw the playing field engulfed by delirious Rutgers fans.
“The atmosphere out there ... you knew it would be (like that), you just didn’t know when,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “It was awesome.”
“The students were tremendous with the (white Rutgers) towels,” said quarterback Mike Teel, who finished 8-of-21 for 189 yards and did just enough with one TD pass. “The Louisville offense had to deal with them coming down on them all game.”
Schiano said he wasn’t sure right away that Ito had failed on his first attempt at the game-winner.
“I have the worst view on the field. I said, ‘Did we miss it?’ ” he said. “I knew (Gay was offsides). It was right in front of me. So I knew we’d get a second chance.”
Rutgers was able to roar back from an 18-point deficit because its defense — ranked in the top five nationally in six categories — completely shut down a Louisville offense ranked No. 2 in the country. The high-octane Cardinals, who dropped to 8-1 overall and 3-1 in the Big East, managed just 53 yards and two first downs while being shut out in the second half.
Rutgers sacked quarterback Brian Brohm five times and held him to a season-low 163 yards passing. The Cards, averaging nearly 500 yards of offense per game, finished with 266. “I thought we did a good job of adjusting (in the second half),” said Schiano. “We did some things pressure-wise in the second half (that) takes smart kids. It takes committed kids. It was good.”
Rice, meanwhile, rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, with his 4-yard run and the ensuing 2-point conversion getting Rutgers within 25-22 late in the third quarter. Ito’s 46-yard field goal pulled the Knights even at 25-25 with 10:13 to play.
“It’s a tough loss for us,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “I felt like we were in good shape at halftime and we came out in the second half and didn’t move the ball offensively. We weren’t able to generate anything.” The Cardinals had their way for most of the first half in racing to a 25-7 lead that included a 100-yard kickoff return by JaJuan Spillman.
Rutgers, though, chipped away at that with an 18-yard touchdown run by Rice – set up by a 67-yard pass from Teel to freshman Kenny Britt – to get within 25-14 with 4:59 in the first half.
The second half belonged to the Knights. “We stuck by our motto of ‘chop, chop, chop,’ ” defensive tackle Eric Foster said. “Brohm is a hell of a quarterback, he can expose a defense, but coach Schiano did a great job helping us out the whole game.”
Louisville is the highest-rated team Rutgers has ever beaten.
BY TOM LUICCI - STAR-LEDGER STAFF // There was every chance for Rutgers to lay a New Hampshire-sized egg on the way to the school’s best start in 25 years. But the Knights’ defense and special teams wouldn’t allow that to happen. Not this time.This is how good those two units were: It didn’t matter that quarterback Mike Teel threw three interceptions or that the offense produced just 17 points — none in the second half. Nor did it matter that Ohio started four drives in Rutgers territory.
Just as it did against Illinois a week earlier, the defense choked off the Bobcats at almost every turn after their first drive — even contributing a touchdown to the effort — as Rutgers improved to 3-0 with a 24-7 victory before a Homecoming crowd of 41,102 at Rutgers Stadium.
Pretty, it wasn’t. But the Knights are off to their best three-game start since 1981 and look to be well on their way to 4-0 for the first time since 1980 with 1-AA Howard paying a visit on Saturday.
“The defense got us out of a lot of stuff,” said tailback Ray Rice, who rushed for 190 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. “If the offense had a letdown, the defense and special teams were there to pick us up.”
That didn’t happen two years ago after Rutgers opened the season with the first signature victory of the Greg Schiano era by beating Michigan State. A week later, the Knights lost at home to 1-AA New Hampshire.
“I thought our guys did the things we had to do to win the football game,” Schiano said. “We’ve gotten off to a fast start and it’s very exciting, but we’re still a work in progress.”
Maybe not defensively. That unit answered any and all questions for the second straight week, holding Ohio (2-1) to 119 yards of total offense and to minus 6 yards rushing. The Bobcats scored on a 17-yard drive on their first possession after intercepting Teel for the first time, but couldn’t add to their scoring total for the final 55 minutes and 23 seconds.
“You can be frustrated with the way you played, but you can’t be frustrated with the outcome,” said Teel, who finished 6-of-16 for 83 yards and now has just one touchdown pass and four interceptions this season. “You have days like this. The most important thing is to get the `W.’”
If there’s a concern on this team after three games, it’s the play of Teel, who still doesn’t look comfortable — or confident. Schiano says the latter isn’t an issue, but he did make a point of stopping by Teel’s locker after the game.“I said, `Good win.’ He said, `Yeah, that’s about all it is — a win,’” Schiano said. “I’ve been around a lot of quarterbacks who have had days like that.”
The 17 points that Teel & Co. produced came off three drives that totaled 73 yards. The first touchdown, a 4-yard run by Rice midway through the first quarter, followed an interception by Ron Girault that allowed the offense to set up shop at the Ohio 31. Rutgers then added a 31-yard field goal by Jeremy Ito for a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter after James Townsend forced Ohio punter Matt Lasher into a fumble off a low snap, with Kordell Young recovering. A shanked punt by Lasher later gave Rutgers the ball at the Bobcats’ 38, where Teel engineered his longest drive of the game. It ended in four plays with another 4-yard touchdown run by Rice.
Then just before the half, Rutgers received a break and made the most of it when Ohio coach Frank Solich inexplicably called a pass on third down with his team at its 5-yard line. Linebacker Quintero Frierson hit quarterback Brad Bower and forced a fumble, with teammate Brandon Renkart recovering in the end zone for a Rutgers touchdown just 46 seconds before the half. That made it 24-7 and that’s how it stayed.
“We really found out a lot about our defense,” said safety Courtney Greene, who rebuffed an Ohio drive with an end zone interception, the first of his career. “We got put in a lot of tough situations and we came through.”
BY TOM LUICCI - STAR-LEDGER STAFF // HOUSTON — William Beckford was standing off to the side of the field, facing the end zone where several of his teammates had gathered on a makeshift podium to celebrate the first bowl victory in Rutgers history. A fifth-year senior whose first season produced a 1-11 record, the Knights’ starting defensive end just wanted to watch the scene.
He wanted to soak it all in as a group that included Brian Leonard, Shawn Tucker, Eric Foster, Ray Rice and Jeremy Zuttah basked in the moment before a sea of raucous fans wearing Rutgers red.
Texas Bowl officials were desperately trying to hand out the game’s championship trophy to the group and head coach Greg Schiano, but could barely be heard above the din.
“Being a fifth-year senior, coming in at 1-11 and going through that, you don’t realize how important and special a season like this is until you get to the end of it,” Beckford said. “I just want to stand here and enjoy it.”
The end, he said, was “perfect.” Not only to the Knights’ magical season, but to his career.
Rutgers manhandled Kansas State in a 37-10 romp before a crowd of 52,210 at Reliant Stadium in the inaugural Texas Bowl, showcasing all of the elements that made the 16th-ranked Knights’ season so special.
Dominant defense. Ray Rice’s running. And another solid, steady game from quarterback Mike Teel.
It capped an 11-2 season, one that tied a school record for victories.
“This is how it was all year for us,” said Zuttah, whose work at right tackle neutralized all-Big 12 defensive end Ian Campbell all game. “It felt like we did whatever we needed to do.”
The Knights’ 479 yards were a season high, with Rice rushing for 170 yards and one touchdown on 24 carries in earning game MVP honors. Teel balanced that with 268 passing yards (going 16-of-28 with no interceptions), with tight end Clark Harris and true freshman wide receiver Tim Brown both topping 100 yards receiving.
The defense did the rest.
K-State (7-6) was held to 162 yards of offense, with the Wildcats’ only touchdown coming on a 76-yard punt return by Yamon Figurs.
“It’s really a big night, a great night for our program,” Schiano said. “To win a bowl game after 137 years of playing the game ... to say we’re excited would be an understatement.”
Rutgers faced only one challenge all game after jumping out to a 14-0 lead on a pair of Teel touchdown tosses to Brown (four catches for 101 yards).
The Wildcats were able to close within 14-10, with Figurs’ punt return providing a spark, before the Knights settled for a 17-10 halftime lead.
But by the opening 3:19 of the second half, the game was essentially over.
Linebacker Quintero Frierson picked off a Josh Freeman pass, returning it 27 yards for a touchdown with Ramel Meekins as an escort, and Rice tacked on a 46-yard touchdown run on Rutgers’ next offensive series.
Suddenly, the Knights’ lead was 31-10.
“I wasn’t worried (at halftime),” said Harris, a fifth-year senior who had seven catches for 122 yards. “They made one great play (on the punt return), but I thought we were in control.”
The Knights were.
“Everything came together the way it’s supposed to when you have a group of seniors like we have and you want to send them out as winners,” Teel said. “They deserved this. This is about them.”
The 25 seniors — nine of them fifth-year guys — couldn’t seem to stop smiling as they milled on the field afterward.
“This is one of those feelings you never want to end,” said Meekins, a senior. “It’s a great feeling.”
Meekins was one of the leaders on a defense that forced Freeman, a freshman, into three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble), sacked him three times and held him to 129 passing yards. K-State rushed for just 31 yards on 21 carries.
“Just watching the older guys enjoy this the way they are now,” Teel said on the field in the immediate aftermath of the victory, “makes it all worthwhile.”