Shades of 2006 at Rutgers

September, 24, 2012
9/24/12
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The comparisons to the best team in school history already have begun, and we are not yet done with the first month of the season.

Just take a quick look at Rutgers in 2012, and Rutgers back in 2006. Both teams feature starting sophomore quarterbacks who attended the same high school. Both teams feature strong ground games led by diminutive 5-foot-8 runners. Both teams feature strong play along the offensive line. Great defense for both teams as well.

You see why the comparisons are so hard to resist.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Chuck Cook/US PresswireRutgers coach Kyle Flood, an assistant on the successful Scarlet Knights team of 2006, isn't looking to the past.
But if anything, Rutgers has to ignore its past in order to truly move forward. This is a team that has been on the precipice of winning a Big East title several times, only to come up short in games it had no business losing.

In 2006, a 9-0 start shot Rutgers right up the polls to No. 7 -- its first ever Top 10 ranking -- following a stunning victory over No. 3 Louisville. But the Scarlet Knights followed up that huge victory with a shocking loss, falling to underdog Cincinnati -- a team that was 5-5 going into the game. Rutgers killed itself, with four turnovers and played its worst game of the season. That victory still stands as one of the biggest upsets in Cincinnati school history, and helped propel then-coach Mark Dantonio on to Michigan State.

Then last season, Rutgers also had a shot at the share of the Big East title, and went on the road in the regular-season finale against a 4-6 UConn team that had shown very little signs of offense. Rutgers was favored, and clearly the more talented team. But once again -- with championship aspirations on the line -- Rutgers played its worst game of the season. The Scarlet Knights had six turnovers and trailed 21-3 midway through the second quarter. Its 40-22 loss was its biggest rout of the season.

Another big game, another big letdown. That history will trail this team should it continue winning into November.

This is to take nothing away from the triumph that was the 2006 season for a program that found itself stuck in mud for a large swath of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Rutgers finished a program-best 11-2, and that team stands as the one all other Rutgers teams have been compared to in the years since.

It also stands as the Rutgers team that began to change the image of this program. Its win in Arkansas last weekend was only the latest in the steps made since that breakthrough season.

"I do remember in the late 1970s Rutgers had a win over Tennessee. I think I was 8 years old," coach Kyle Flood said with a laugh on the Big East coaches call Monday.

"I think our program is at a different place now. "I think we have probably more players in our program know that we’ve ever had that during the recruiting process could’ve gone anywhere in the country and decided Rutgers football program is going to be the right program for them.

"I think we look at it as when we line up on Saturday, we’re going to have a group of 18- to 22-year-olds and we’re going to be able to compete with any other group of 18- to 22-year -olds on the other sideline. And if we execute well enough, we’re going to have an opportunity to win the game."

A quick glance at the schedule shows Rutgers will be favored to start the season 9-0 once again. Following a bye week, Rutgers gets its revenge game against UConn at home. The only team with a winning record on its schedule through Nov. 10 is Kent State (2-1). The last three weeks are absolutely brutal, with games at Cincinnati and Pitt, then the finale against Louisville on five days' rest.

Flood prefers not to look ahead. He can take great pride in knowing his team is the only one in the nation with three road victories in the first four weeks of the season. That it is slowly making strides toward reaching its ultimate goal, and that it is now nationally ranked for the first time since 2009.

But in order to truly get people to buy into Rutgers, these Scarlet Knights are going to have to prove they are different from the 2006 flag bearers in a major way. They must win every single game they are favored to win. No more playing down to the level of competition. No more losing games they absolutely should not lose.

This has the makings of a special season in Piscataway. But predicting games on paper is a dangerous sport, particularly when you are dealing with a team that has not been able to win the games with championship hopes on the line.

"The challenge for us is to take the success we've had and build on it. Not take the success we've had and remain the same," Flood said.

Spoken like a coach who has lived through the Rutgers heartbreak.

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