Saturday, October 29, 2011 Updated: October 30, 10:10 AM ET
Turnovers doom Rutgers on special day
By Kieran Darcy ESPNNewYork.com
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- What is more surprising -- an October snowstorm in New Jersey, or a Rutgers football victory over West Virginia?
On second thought, don't bother. The weather delivered on Saturday, but the Scarlet Knights did not.
On a day when the Northeast got socked with a rare blast of pre-Halloween snow, Rutgers failed in its bid to beat the Mountaineers for the first time since 1994, blowing a 10-point halftime lead and ultimately falling 41-31.
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"It is inexcusable," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who was even more despondent than he normally is after a loss.
Rutgers did not lack for inspiration Saturday, that's for sure. Just prior to kickoff, Eric LeGrand -- the Scarlet Knights defensive tackle who suffered a spinal cord injury during a game against Army last Oct. 16 -- led his former teammates out of the tunnel.
It was LeGrand's first time on the field since a violent collision while covering a kickoff left him paralyzed from the neck down, and the sight of him on his motorized wheelchair brought the few thousand fans who braved the elements to their feet, chanting "52!" -- LeGrand's uniform number.
"That was great to have him out there, and I think he enjoyed that," said defensive tackle Scott Vallone, one of LeGrand's former roommates, who was at LeGrand's right-hand side when entering the stadium. "But if you talk to him now, I'm sure he looks just like me -- low tone of voice and all that. I mean, he's still a part of this team."
LeGrand watched helplessly from the press box as the Scarlet Knights turned the ball over three times in the second half -- all three turnovers the responsibility of freshman quarterback Gary Nova.
Nova threw a pair of touchdown passes in the first half, which, coupled with two TD runs by Jawan Jamison, helped stake Rutgers to a 31-21 halftime lead. But after intermission, Nova threw two interceptions.
Rutgers had trouble holding on to the ball all afternoon.
And his most critical mistake was his fumble with the Scarlet Knights trailing 34-31 and 6:05 remaining in the fourth quarter. Three players later, West Virginia salted the game away with a 20-yard touchdown connection from Geno Smith to Tavon Austin.
Nova was not hit on the play that he fumbled. He simply coughed up the ball.
"I saw him moving around -- you better have two hands on the football when you are in the pocket," said Schiano. "That can't be, it is inexcusable. We drill that."
"The ball slipped out of my hands," Nova said. "I've gotta have two hands on that ball. It slipped out. Simple as that."
On Rutgers' previous offensive possession, still leading 31-28, the Scarlet Knights lined up for a 28-yard field goal with just over 11 minutes remaining. Schiano called a fake, and the play looked promising at the start. But the pass by holder Patrick Kivlehan was broken up in the end zone.
The Mountaineers subsequently marched 89 yards for what proved to be the game-winning score.
"I thought we were going to hit it," said Schiano. "We hit it in practice all week. I thought we were going to hit it."
Rutgers (5-3, 2-2 Big East) has suffered two devastating defeats in a row. Last week, it played very poorly and lost a nail-biter, 16-14, at Louisville. On Saturday the team performed better, but blew a golden opportunity to break a string of 16 defeats in a row versus West Virginia.
And this could be the schools' last meeting, at least for a while, with West Virginia's impending move to the Big 12.
The Scarlet Knights, after a 2-0 start in the Big East for only the second time in school history, are suddenly reeling heading into another home game versus South Florida next Saturday.
With Nova having thrown seven interceptions in the past three games, and Schiano's penchant for making quarterback changes, you have to wonder if sophomore Chas Dodd -- the starter at the beginning of the year, who was demoted four weeks ago -- might get another crack.
"Gotta make those plays," said Nova. "I don't use that excuse that I'm a freshman.
"My confidence isn't gonna drop. But it just kills the momentum."
Vallone was more worried about the bigger picture. "There comes a point where we gotta start learning how to win these games and we gotta start learning how to grow up as a program and start winning," Vallone said. "Because it stinks to be in this position -- to be up 10 at halftime and blow it like that."
"Credit goes to West Virginia," said Schiano. "They found a way to get it done. We didn't. We will eventually -- it has been a long road. We will get it. There are good people downstairs in that room -- hurting people, good people. We will go back to work. We will get better.
"We're 2-2 in this league right now. Anything can happen."
Very true. But the best thing that happened to Rutgers on this day occurred before the opening kickoff.