The finale stung perhaps more than any loss in recent memory.
A first Big East title was there for the taking. In 11 seasons at the helm at Rutgers, that is the one thing coach Greg Schiano had never accomplished. And here was his best opportunity. All the Scarlet Knights had to do was beat UConn, a team Rutgers had beaten in three straight seasons. A Huskies team that went into the game at 4-6, struggling with shaky quarterback play and some big questions on defense.
It was a game on paper that Rutgers should have won.
Instead, the Scarlet Knights played their worst game of the season, turning the ball over six times and losing 40-22. That same UConn team went into the game averaging 20 points per league contest. Does it make any sense that the Huskies put up a season-high 40 points on what is the best defense in the Big East?
Not much made sense about that game. Now Rutgers is left to sit and think about what happened, an ending so bitter that it might take a while to forget.
“As a competitor, I’m not really looking back at the whole season and the 8-4 record and going to another bowl game,” coach Greg Schiano said. “I’m very proud of Rutgers going to its sixth bowl game in seven years, but right now I’m just disappointed in the opportunity we had and that we didn't perform the way we're capable. Usually now we’re well into game planning. That's always the best medicine after a loss. Without a game on the horizon at least in the forseeable future, it's recruiting and it's planning the bowl agenda. It doesn't quite take the sting away like getting back at it and getting football going. It's a tough one to shake off."
The question now is whether such a bad loss mars what Rutgers has accomplished this season. When the year began, Rutgers opened as the preseason pick to finish last in the league after going 4-8 a year ago. Nobody knew how the offensive line would fare. Nobody knew how Chas Dodd would do with a new offense. Nobody knew how all the changes Schiano made on defense would look.
There were even some critics who wondered about whether it was time for Schiano to move on, despite all he had accomplished at Rutgers. They pointed to his failure to win a Big East championship, at an inability to move the program that one extra step into becoming league contenders every season.
Given all the uncertainty and question marks, what Rutgers did this season should be applauded. The Scarlet Knights won four more games than they did last season, with an opportunity for one more. They made it back to a bowl game, where they have had extraordinary success. They also had incredible performances from Mohamed Sanu, who set the Big East single-season record with 109 receptions, and Khaseem Greene, one of the main contenders for Defensive Player of the Year.
The defense, led by Schiano again, still ranks No. 1 in the Big East in total defense, interceptions, opponent first downs, red zone defense and pass defense.
There certainly have been hiccups. The quarterback position remains in flux, with Dodd and true freshman Gary Nova splitting time this season. There was no consistency in the running game, and no consistency at receiver beyond Sanu. The offensive line was better, but shuffled starting lineups seemingly every week. The run defense was a problem at times as well.
It all adds up to a good team that just missed out on an opportunity to call itself a champion. How you perceive this season for Rutgers probably depends on your perspective. Seeing Rutgers perform so poorly to close out the season stings. But there must also be an appreciation for how far this team has come.