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PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- For 3½ quarters Saturday night, Rutgers appeared headed for disaster.
Then a pair of sophomores came to the rescue.
Backup running back Jeremy Deering returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, backup quarterback Chas Dodd engineered an 85-yard touchdown drive, and Rutgers rallied from a 17-3 deficit for an improbable 20-17 overtime win over South Florida.
|Will Chad Dodd start next weekend? Rutgers will enjoy win No. 6 before making a decision.|
"I'm really proud of our coaches and our players and our football program," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "The way they stuck with it down 17-3 -- I don't know how many teams trust each other and believe in each other, have that kind of mental toughness to keep going.
"We certainly need to get a lot better, but when you have fighters like we do here that have kept us close in every game -- won some, lost some -- to come back tonight and win this one was very important for our program."
Rutgers, seven minutes and change from its third straight excruciating defeat, instead finds itself 6-3 on the season, 3-2 in the Big East and officially bowl-eligible for the sixth time in seven years.
"I forgot about that," Schiano said. "The kids reminded me. I was just so happy to win the game."
For most of the night, it looked as though Rutgers had no shot of winning. The Scarlet Knights trailed 10-0 at the half and heard boos from the crowd of 36,911 as they headed to the locker room. Rutgers collected just 87 yards of offense in the first two quarters combined despite having possession for almost 17 minutes.
Rutgers finally got on the board in the third quarter -- but no thanks to its offense. A muffed punt by South Florida set up a 33-yard field goal.
At the start of the fourth quarter, trailing 10-3, Schiano finally made the quarterback switch, removing freshman Gary Nova (11-for-24, 110 yards) and giving Dodd a chance. Rutgers failed to score on Dodd's first drive, then South Florida made it 17-3 with a 13-play, 89-yard drive.
But then Deering -- a converted wide receiver -- turned the game on its heels by taking it to the house to make the score 17-10. "We definitely needed that," Deering said. "It came at the right time."
With 3:23 left in the fourth, Rutgers got the ball back at its own 15-yard line. That's when Dodd took over, completing 9 of 10 passes for 85 yards, including a 34-yard, tying touchdown toss to wideout Brandon Coleman with just more than a minute left.
Dodd, the starter at the beginning of the season before losing his job to Nova, hadn't played in five weeks.
"I'm still studying film, still doing the things that I need to do as if I was a starter," an elated Dodd said afterward. "Tonight I was able to go in there and make use of all the preparation."
And those two weren't the only heroes. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu had 11 catches for 113 yards, including a fantastic fourth-down catch during that fourth-quarter drive. Safety Duron Harmon reeled in an interception on South Florida's offensive possession in overtime. And kicker San San Te drilled the winning 37-yard field goal in OT.
(And don't forget South Florida kicker Maikon Bonani, who shanked a 27-yard potential game winner on the final play of regulation.)
"This thing turns on a dime, and we win it," Schiano said. "Very easily could have been on the other side. That's the way the cookie goes. It's fun to be on this end."
If you go by the stat sheet, Rutgers had no business winning this game. South Florida outgained Rutgers on the evening, 381 yards to 228. The Scarlet Knights had minus-7 rushing yards -- yes, you read that correctly -- on 28 carries and were 3-for-16 on third-down conversions.
Yet the Jersey boys came out on top.
Rutgers has plenty of issues to address heading into a game against Army at Yankee Stadium next weekend. The Scarlet Knights still have one of the worst running games in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision. And Schiano has to decide on a starting quarterback. "You've got to give me just a couple hours to enjoy this," the coach said, smiling, when asked about the QB situation.
He's entitled to that, after the magic trick his team pulled Saturday night. And now he can look forward to coaching in another bowl game in a few weeks' time.
"Six times in seven years -- I think 10 years ago Rutgers people might have signed up for that," Schiano said. "I understand my expectations are higher, but I'm happy we're going back to a bowl game. Wherever it is, I'm happy."