Another One Bites The Dust
PISCATAWAY, NJ - Rutgers has developed a reputation for spoiling the hopes of national champions to be, and Thursday night, the Scarlet Knights upheld that reputation in front of the whole nation. In front of 44,267 screaming fans, the largest crowd ever assembled at Rutgers Stadium, the Scarlet Knights played an uncharacteristically brilliant defensive game to put out the flame of the red-hot South Florida Bulls, handing the nation's No. 2 team their first loss of the season, 30-27, and dashing their title hopes on the largest stage imaginable for these two Big East powers. With special teams stealing the show, it was a wild ride, but Rutgers relied on old faithful running back Ray Rice to burn the stout USF defense for 181 yards rushing and in a back-and-forth battle of trickery and out-of-nowhere skill showcases, Rutgers was left standing as the giant in the Big East.
Far and away the most surprising (and disappointing) aspect of the game was USF's defense. Coming into the game, USF had the nation's 11th-ranked total and scoring defense, holding opponents to just 15.7 points per game. George Selvie, the nation's leader in sacks, didn't get one in all night, and Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel had all day in the pocket. He may have been hurried once or twice, but the speedy, in-your-face characteristic USF defense was nowhere to be found in Piscataway. Teel finished the game 11-of-29 not because he was pressured in the pocket, but because a good number of his throws were simply off target.
Even more telling, no one had rushed for more than 100 yards against this Bulls unit since Rice himself did so last year, but it took the junior just over two quarters of play to eclipse the century mark.
"They stop them with speed, so we did a lot of power runs," Rice said. "I just kept getting stronger as the game went on. That's how I felt."
That's how he looked, too, quickly becoming the team's work horse all night long. Rice finished the game with 181 yards on 39 carries, for a game-high average of 4.6 yards per carry.
"I thought our defense played hard," USF head coach Jim Leavitt said after the game, as he complimented Rice's prowess as a runner. "I think you've got to give Rutgers credit. Rutgers did a great job tonight."
That they did, both offensively and, surprisingly, defensively. Rutgers came into the game with the nation's 45th-ranked run defense, so a heavy dose of keepers from dual-threat quarterback Matt Grothe was expected to fall out of USF's playbook. Grothe did his job on the rushing front, gaining 118 yards on 18 carries with a touchdown in there, but not so well on the throwing front. Grothe finished the game 17-for-34 for 247 yards, a touchdown, an interception and an astonishing seven sacks, accounting for 60 yards lost (which are applied to his rushing statistics, making his day running the ball look a whole lot more ordinary than it was).
"We didn't protect real good," Leavitt said. "Matt probably hung on to the ball too much instead of just getting rid of the ball, but they were getting through there. We all saw the same thing, so you've got to be a little disappointed possibly in your defensive line, but I've got to look at a lot of factors that go in there."
The blame for a few of those seven sacks lies with Grothe, as he needs to learn how to throw the ball away before being dragged down for a big loss, but the offensive line was nowhere to be found on Thursday night, bullied by the Scarlet Knights' defensive front all night long.
"I thought the defense, all night they played hard," Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano said. "They made some mistakes, which against a good team like South Florida they're going to find those mistakes immediately. But they made a great effort. To get Matt Grothe on the ground seven times is a tremendous effort. I think he is a spectacular football player. We haven't played a guy that really makes you fear like that. He really is special."
Rutgers is certainly not known for its defense, but the defensive unit was the calling card of this game, holding USF to 2-of-14 on third down conversions.
"We're young, we've got a couple of older guys on the defense and then a bunch of young guys," Schiano said. "I think we're growing up."
"What you saw out there was guys making plays that they probably haven't made all season but they made them tonight," Rice said. "It's Thursday night football and the whole nation is watching us, so you go out there and have fun."
Perhaps the most telling part of this game is the turnover battle. USF was 10th in the nation in turnover margin coming into this game, while Rutgers was 73rd. The two teams will stay in those respective places, as Rutgers finished the game with three fumbles and USF gave up only one interception, but the Bulls' defense did not force a turnover until four minutes remained in the game, and at that point, the offensive line was too beaten and battered to give Grothe any time in the pocket to save the game. Rutgers, despite bobbling or fumbling nearly every punt and kickoff return, was able to overcome its miscues and pick off Grothe's last-ditch effort to win the game, sealing the win for the Knights.
"It's a game of inches when two good teams are playing," Schiano said. And on Thursday, all the inches seemed to go Rutgers' way.
The glitter on this game was clearly in the play of the special teams, as Rutgers executed to perfection a fake punt, which turned into a 36-yard pass play by kicker Jeremy Ito, and a fake field goal, which turned into a 15-yard touchdown pass by holder Andrew DePaola.
"Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't," Schiano said of his arsenal of trick plays. "We called things that we thought we might be able to hit. Ito, for his first pass, not bad."
If by "not bad" you mean Top 10 plays of the week material, then yes, that play was "not bad." But the holder-thrown touchdown pass was a thing of beauty.
Despite the implications of the outcome for either team's national title hopes, for a conference once known as the Big Least, tonight's game went a long way toward earning some respect for a truly respectable brand of football.
"This is Big East football," Leavitt said. "You better be locked in. If people out there saw this game, I would think they'd thought it was an unbelievable game. For a fan watching this, it's unbelievable. For a coach watching this, it's a little bit of a strain."
It was certainly a strain for USF fans. But for Schiano, not so much.
"It was a fun game to be a part of," Schiano said.
Player of the Game: This one is easy. Rutgers RB Ray Rice had a field day against one of the nation's best defenses, burning USF for 181 yards. He's already got more than his fair share of school records, but this performance might be good enough to put him back into the Heisman discussion (after all, no one else seems to want the trophy). Kicker Jeremy Ito is a close second here, as he hit a 51-yard field goal to give Rutgers a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter to go along with his 40-yarder just before halftime and that beautiful first pass of his career, a 36-yard completion on a fake punt in the first quarter.
Play of the Game: In the second quarter, that crazy blocked punt by USF that led to a score that was then called back turned into a 10-point swing, one that may very well have sent the game the other way. The play went something like this: A Rutgers field goal attempt in the second quarter was blocked by Tyrone McKenzie. Mike Jenkins picked up the ball but fumbled it as he was tackled around midfield. McKenzie, who originally blocked the punt, scooped up the bouncing ball and ran with it before he too was brought down, coughing up the ball again. This fumble was ruled an illegal forward pass, negating the third part of the return, Trae Williams' scoop-and-run into the end zone for a score. The Bulls were called for an illegal forward pass, and their drive ended with a field goal attempt that sailed wide, giving the ball back to Rutgers, who was able to pull to within 4 points at halftime by kicking a field goal of their own. Give that TD to USF and the whole character of this game does a 180.
Next Up: The Rutgers players are already talking about West Virginia, which comes to town next Saturday for another Big East duel. Next up for USF is a trip to Hartford to take on UConn, a team you can be sure the Bulls will not be overlooking.
Just how far will the Bulls fall after this loss? Only Sunday's next batch of BCS rankings well tell.